Wednesday Journal features Metro Family

Wednesday Journal: Becoming 'Somebody' from the U.S. to Africa

by Ashley Lisenby
August 12, 2014

Fenwick high school student a budding leader

Presley Owusu-Bonsu, her mother Priscilla Tutu and her three younger siblings now live in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Until about a week ago, though, Presley and her family lived in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, about 14 miles away from her school, Fenwick High School in Oak Park.

In a vehicle the trip from the North Side neighborhood to Fenwick would take about 45 minutes in light traffic. But because of finances the 16-year-old student couldn't afford the school's transportation service and, therefore, woke up at 5 a.m., even in last winter's harsh conditions, to catch the CTA el train.

"[The school] has transportation that comes to our area," said Tutu, "but it's very expensive."

The cost of the school's busing service for the 2014-15 academic school year, for students commuting from the city is $725 round trip for the year, $470 one-way.

When Presley was accepted into the prestigious Oak Park school, one of the first things she was concerned about was cost. 

"She said, 'Mommy what about the tuition and the acceptance fees?'" said Tutu. "She was emotional, because she knows that I'm struggling to do my best to provide for them. I'm always pushing her because she can do better."

Tutu's desire to see her children become well-rounded and successful is what prompted her to send her children back to her home country, Ghana.

"I wanted them to learn more about their culture," she said. "Even before they left, we were speaking Twi (an Akan language spoken mainly in Ghana and the Ivory Coast) at home. I thought it would benefit them to see another side. Not just American culture."

At the age of 22 Tutu, the oldest of seven siblings, came to live in the United States. Her daughter Presley was 10-years-old, also the oldest of her siblings, when she went to live in Ghana.

"I wasn't prepared," the teen said followed by a laugh, "for the schooling or the food. I kept thinking, 'Why am I here?'"

Over time, Presley said she met new friends and learned to write and speak the native language as well as French. 

But a formal education is not all she received.

Presley began to see poverty in a different way. The lack she saw in Ghana made her more appreciative, she said. Even for the seemingly simple things like having three meals a day.

When Presley returned from Africa in the summer of 2012 at the age of 14, it was time for her and her mother to start looking for high schools. 

She started her freshman year at St. Gregory the Great High School, closer to her Uptown home. At the end of her first year, the private Catholic school closed.

It was a substitute teacher at St. Gregory that suggested Presley apply to Fenwick and even wrote a recommendation for her application.

"It was like 'whoa', going to a big school like [Fenwick], with 1,200 students," said the teen. Her former school only had about 90 students in her grade level, Presley said.

Soon, the Friars track and field athlete said, she noticed that the students were welcoming and teachers comforting.

But Presley also had another group of supportive people: the Chicago-based Metro Achievement Center for Girls.

Enrolling her three daughters was an investment for Tutu, calling the $250 it took to pay for the program one of the best decisions she ever made.

Through the center Presley said she receives help with homework and learns virtues that help her, as well as the other girls in the program, to become future leaders. 

Tutu's investment in her daughter's education coupled with Presley's desire to work hard and the resources of Metro Achievement Center for Girls has helped the Fenwick student explore more of the world.

With the help of Metro, the Crystal Foundation and AFS Intercultural Programs USA, Presley spent three weeks in July studying in France and visiting cities such as Nice and Monaco.

"I met people from all over the world," said Presley. 

One of those people was a girl from Russia. It was through that friendship, Presley said, that she realized people could create peace by learning from each other's culture.

In the summer of 2013 the teen was nominated by Metro to attend a camp for a month in Colorado on a full scholarship. There, Presley ditched the electronics and did activities like hiking for the first time. 

"They taught us to survive in nature," she said, laughing.

But Presley is no stranger to overcoming adversities. She named her parents' separation in 2011 and the disappointments she has experienced over time because of financial troubles as a few of the challenges she has faced so far in her life. 

Yet, her outlook on life shines with perseverance. 

"Don't let any troubles or difficulties get you down," said Presley. 

Her advice to young people: "Be true to yourself. Learn where you're really from. Accept who you really are and learn more about it. Be positive, always. Believe you can make it. Believe you're going to be somebody one day and be grateful for what you have."

For now, the "somebody" that Presley wants to be is a pediatrician in order to meet the medical needs of underprivileged children around the world.

To view the article originally posted on the Wednesday Journal, click here.