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“I didn’t really like eating American salad when I came to Salisbury. I thought it was kind of weird,” eighteen-year Theo Quartey admits. Theo, an international student at the Salisbury School, has had to adjust to many aspects of life in the Northeast, from the bitter cold winters of Connecticut, where the campus is located, to the choices for school meals.

It is no accident that Theo, born and raised in Ghana, has found himself in this unique educational exchange. In Ghana, Theo was chosen to attend the Right to Dream Academy, a prestigious program located in the Volta Region, which awards 100% paid scholarships to boys and girls of seven African nations with exceptional character, academic promise, and soccer skills. The school started modestly in 1999 and now boasts over 160 graduates. Students at Right to Dream eventually transfer to a network of elite high schools throughout the US, all known for their academic rigor. So as one can see, it is not by luck that Theo has found himself amongst some of the best students in the Northeast.

Theo has quickly made friends at Salisbury and enjoyed sharing details about his country with other students. After watching him interact daily with his peers in the classroom setting, and also on the soccer field, two of his educators, Elliot Grover and Kirk Hall, suddenly had a lightning bolt of an idea.

What if his Salisbury students could spend a week in Ghana learning about Theo’s culture first-hand?

The idea of a two-way cultural exchange was so appealing that Elliot reached out to Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) to begin planning a custom trip to Ghana for his high school students, which would include a visit to Right to Dream academy, so that Theo could introduce his new friends to the ones he left behind.

In June, 14 students and faculty boarded a plane headed for Ghana with the plans of volunteering in an under-resourced school in the Volta Region with CCS. Theo was, of course, most thrilled of all to share his culture with his peers.

“I had learned a lot from Americans and American culture and now it was time for my friends to learn a lot from both Ghana and from me. It was so exciting that they were open to learn and share,” says Theo.

Lessons that could not be taught in a classroom were enthusiastically delivered over 12 days with CCS in Ghana. Salisbury students helped lead lessons at a the local school, while engaging in meaningful cultural activities in the afternoon, such as lessons on local issues, a market tour, and the occasional pick-up soccer game with the neighborhood kids. The students had local drumming lessons and even got to hike to the highest waterfall in West Africa. In an effort to give back, the group also painted a mural in the local school to bring some color and excitement to the students, and show that they were willing to put in hard work to better the lives of the kids that they met.

“Most of the students on the trip had never traveled to Africa or a country with such economic challenges. Having the opportunity to experience the culture through service allowed our guys to get a new perspective on a people about whom they had only heard through our Ghanaian students. Their worlds were expanded and their appreciation for the challenges faced by much of the world was deepened. To watch these students see, engage and even process what they were experiencing allowed us, as teachers, to consider ways to offer more opportunities for this powerful level of education, if not transformation. Traveling there with a Ghanaian allowed us to get a deeper glimpse of someone we have known for a long time. Experiencing, first hand, a little bit of his culture and life before he came to the U.S. gave us all a richer appreciation for him and for the cultural shift that he must feel when we remain comfortable in our own “world,” says Trip Leader, Kirk.

After several days of volunteering at the local school, the group finally reached the crescendo of the trip, a visit to Right to Dream Academy, the very institution that had brought Theo to their Connecticut doorstep.

Kirk has the following to say about the big moment.

“Guided by the wonderful CCS In-Country staff, we were able to tailor the trip to connect to Right to Dream, an organization with whom we have had a relationship through students who come from Ghana to Salisbury.

When we all went (with our exposure to the Ghanaian elementary schools) to Right to Dream, a few things happened. First, the Salisbury students began to see the challenges of the youth in Ghana and the gift that was Right to Dream. They saw a Right to Dream student population that was excited to be in school, ready to learn and hungry for the opportunities that this path provided. The typical U.S. attitude toward school was very different than this.

Second, Theo was on cloud nine, showing us the campus, introducing us to his friends and touring the place that he (so far from the United States) called home. We were now the “outsiders” and he was now the host. With that reversal and power shift, the students from Salisbury got a glimpse of not only what it felt like to be the “Other” but of a world held deep inside someone they loved. They were amazed by the idea that Theo had grown up in the small elementary school like the one they experienced and made it through such a selective program, earning accolades and awards. This friend that they had on their terms became a person on his own terms, in his own world. This changes how we see ourselves and those who come from different worlds to be a part of Salisbury. It was impressive to see and a gift to be a part of.”

Upon his return Theo said he also saw a big change in the way his classmates viewed other countries that may have similar economic disadvantages.

“I watched them want to become more responsible and involved people in their lives. The way they approached the whole thing was great. I’m happy the guys got to go to Ghana because they put a lot of smiles on the faces of lots of kids in my community and that put a smile on my face the entire time,” says Theo.

Theo has big plans of playing professional soccer, coupled with becoming a mechanical engineer, so that he can return to Ghana and give back to his community.

And although Theo had to come around to American food tastes, it turns out that all of the Salisbury students enjoyed the local food of Ghana, and without this gigantic journey, we may never have known that Fufu, upon first taste, is actually more palatable than those leafy greens, amongst so many other things.