It’s 2018 and I’m sitting in my grandmother’s sunny Ohio kitchen. We just went to two estate sales and are on our way to a quilting expo. She’s a consummate quilter, and has made all of her grandchildren multiple quilts for our homes and future children. My grandma is a brisk 89, but we have been walking and active all day. As we take a rest and enjoy tea, we begin to reminisce. “I have loved your father from the first moment I saw him,” she says. This may seem a typical statement from a mother––but my grandmother met my father when he was 17 years old when he got off a plane from Ghana, along with an AFS study abroad cohort, in 1973.
Grandma Erna, Dad and me at Oberlin, where my dad met my mom
Ohio in 1973 was an interesting place: not a benign time in American history, nor for my father, as a black student studying in the U.S. for the first time. However, my father has always been secure in the knowledge that his American family loved and supported him unconditionally. My grandmother’s love buffeted my father through a year full of change, from integrating with his American family to playing competitive soccer across Ohio. This journey ultimately inspired him to return to the US for college on a soccer scholarship. A year after working to secure a visa for his return, it was approved! He called my grandparents the day his return visa to the United States was approved, and they picked him up from the airport when he returned. His de facto family at this point, they saw him every vacation.
Dad in 1973, Ohio
Grandma Erna has been my grandmother since 1973, sixteen years before I was born. When I was born, my maternal grandmother was bedridden and my paternal grandmother was in Ghana, so Grandma Erna came to help my mother when I was born. After flying across the country, she held me as an infant and cooked food for my mother. When I was younger, she made me dolls and outfitted them. In my young adulthood, she provided a place to rest when I drove across the country. And now, as an adult, she is an invaluable resource of love, memories about my teenage father, and a delight to visit. She is the person who told me stories about my father as a young person, curious and excited about all the new things he was experiencing and seeing. She shared with me how he grew, how he changed in college, and when he met my mother. In fact, she gave insight into many things nobody else could tell me about my father; something that informed my own decision to study abroad.
With my mom at Lake Erie, 2012
As of 2019, I have visited over 40 countries and lived abroad in three. My understanding that my father’s study abroad experience changed his life grew into a major impetus for my first study abroad experience. Similarly, my first experience living in Morocco in high school shaped the remainder of my educational and professional experience. I have since lived in Turkey, Morocco (again) and Tunisia, and led study abroad trips to Morocco again. Making connections with people and learning new things, as well as eating new foods, is one of my biggest passions and main priorities. Without my father, I wouldn’t have understood the ripple effect that experiences can have across one’s own life.
My father credits AFS with introducing him to the United States, and to cultivating a community full of friends from far-flung places. He is still friends with many of his cohort members today. I credit AFS with helping my father find his second family, because without them I would not be who I am today. I’ll always be grateful for the role that AFS has played in my grandmother and father’s lives, and how that impacted my own.
With Grandma Erna after my sister’s birth in 1992
Rachel is passionate about both travel and education, passions she has turned into a career. Follow her for affordable travel tips at @travelgrunge, and at @r_f_s for her insights on education. Read more about her travels on her website.