Updated: Jun 24
| This is the 482nd story of Our Life Logs |
“I always tell people that education is the only thing that no one can ever take away from you. It provides access to freedom. It provides access to resources. It provides opportunities in life.” -Dr. Gifty Chung
The country of my mother tongue, my family, a great deal of my childhood, and my culture actually isn’t where I was born. In fact, my story begins in St. Thomas, located in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I was the fourth of six children, and the last to be born outside the United States. Right after my birth, though, I was whisked away to my home country of Ghana.
I hold fond memories of Ghana. I was academically smart and I enjoyed school a great deal. Not only did I have the love of my family at home, but also the love of the entire community, too. In fact, in my community, the motto “it takes a village to raise a child” was taken pretty seriously! My aunt, whom for a time I thought was my mother, brought me up. Later on, though, I was told that my real mother actually lived in the United States. After winning the “Diversity Lottery,” she saved for three and a half years to be able to fly to America to complete her education. She, just like the rest of my family, was a firm believer in the value of education. It was a belief I too shared, and one that would later take me down an incredible path.
When my mother finished university and found a job as a nurse anesthetist, she surprised my sister and me with a life-changing request: to join her in America and further our education. In what seemed like a twinkle of an eye, I was waving goodbye to my community, my home…and my life as I knew it.
I arrived in the United States when I was near middle-school age. This time, I was old enough to remember the US Virgin Islands. However, I came to St. Croix, not the St. Thomas of my birth. Arriving was a culture shock in many ways. There were differences in the people, the culture, and even the food and clothing. Most notably, though, there was a great difference in the language―the people of St. Croix, the Crucians, spoke dialectic English known as patois, while I spoke only the language of my home, Twi. The warm familiarity of Twi and reminders of my home, such as Ghanaian clothing, were still happily embraced by my family and me, at least in the safety of our house. These cultural comforts became my safe haven in this frightening new place.
Soon, it was time for me to begin school. This introduced me to yet another change: the American education system. Back in Ghana, I attended school under the British education system, which made it hard for the educators at my new school in the US to place me. Eventually, I was placed under a special education class, with the focus of ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages). This particular program’s purpose was to help students in acquiring the English language. Despite the program’s helpful intentions and the attempts of educators to place me where I would succeed, my life spun out of control.
All of what I had built up academically in the past seemed to be struck down in my new school. Where I had once thrived was making me feel lower than ever before. It felt like I was being babysat in school because they did not know where to place me. This was especially due to the language barrier I faced, which prevented me from moving forward easily. In the program that was meant to help me with this new language, I made almost no progress. While it taught me basic vocabulary with visuals, I had no form of understanding of the structure nor the grammar involved.
To expedite my learning, my school decided I should no longer speak Twi, even if only at home. So, my mother was told to only speak and respond to me in English. The safe haven I needed so badly in this new environment was invaded―yet, their hurry to push me into English was not aided by their very own system of education.
I had always believed in my family’s philosophy, wherein they say education is instrumental for freedom. Nevertheless, in my new home that did not really feel like “home,” all it did was make me feel like a caged bird. I knew I could fly. My wings, though pinned, were still strong and willing. The question that remained was, would I ever be able to take to the skies?
To console myself, I tried to find solace in my schoolmates. Yet, even though our skins were clothed in the same race, I was not welcomed with open arms. For them, I was a topic of entertainment. Why? It was simply because I was different than them―I spoke no English, I was from Africa, and I had a heavy accent. I was not “friend” or “peer.” To them, I was simply “tar baby.”
I could not understand why they hated me until the day I saw a commercial on television. A naked, malnourished baby appeared on the screen, along with a message pleading for viewers to donate money so that the poor child could eat. I watched it with my mother and asked her if there was any way we could help him, especially since he was in America, as I thought. She told me that, no, this boy was in Africa. This was strange to me. Since in my time in Africa, I had never seen nor heard of such a situation as this child was in. While I did not deny the existence of such plights, I understood well, even at that young age, that this did not illustrate the story of every African.
My mother’s response shed light on my social situation at school…and stung me at the same time. My peers, in actuality, did not hate me; they teased me because of what was taught to them, however indirectly, about people of my ethnicity. Such a revelation made me feel more alone in this country than ever.
Quite truthfully, a single candle’s glow can be just enough to bring light to every candle on a candelabrum, and, by extension, the entire room it illuminates. In other words, sometimes we need even just the littlest smile, the shortest words of encouragement, or the gentlest push to make us remember to keep our head high and soldier on.
My “candles” were my two teachers, Ms. Bess and Mrs. McIntosh. They were patient and helped me adjust to both my school and my new environment. Despite our difficulties in communication, they tried their best. Their kindness and passion was just the spark that was needed to start my fire again. It was then when I knew I wanted to be a teacher—just like them―so I would be able to help students, such as ones in my own situation. I also had the invaluable help of my three best friends, or, as we were known among each other, my team members of our own “Fantastic Four.” Like Ms. Bess and Mrs. McIntosh, they helped me a great deal in understanding the new world around me, both language-wise and culturally. With their help combined, I was able to break the language barrier by my second year of middle school in the seventh grade.
After high school, I continued my education and later completed my bachelor’s degree in 1998. In between, I got married and had my first child. When I reflected on what I went through in my years in school, I pondered on a way to help students in challenging circumstances, like mine and different, too. Whenever I thought of a means to do that, the first thing that came to mind was to open up a school―one where students who didn’t really “fit” into the American education system would be able to feel comfortable, supported, and be able to thrive.
However, of course, opening such an institution is not as simple as purchasing a building and calling it “school!” The idea for an online school came to me as I completed my doctorate in Educational Leadership in 2007. I completed this degree online, as I was now a mother of three (each of them was born as I earned a degree, so my third was born after I received my doctorate). In addition to being a mother, I was also a professional, which made my schedule a bit unorthodox, to say the least! Then, it struck me. An online school, ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade, was the answer. The online format of a K-12 school would be able to help students, no matter what their circumstances are, to obtain a high-quality education.
I started my school, Forest Trail Academy, in 2007, a time where online schooling was, to put it lightly, not popular. I hired teachers, as well as curriculum developers, who designed Forest Trail’s curriculum in accordance with Common Core State Standards. In addition, I worked closely with my staff to develop the LMS―Learning Management System―which acted as a base of the school and contained features such as student login, course material, and the message center.
Though I was trying to fulfill my dream of starting something to help students, my focus admittedly turned to fulfill the unpaid bill left over from developing the intellectual infrastructure! Nevertheless, a year later, when my first student enrolled, and then another, and then another…well, things took care of themselves.
Now, I am proud to say that, for over a decade, my staff and I have been able to give the gift of education to students, no matter who they are or what they go through. While before the LMS and our courses were developed through the work and suggestions of my staff and me, our students and their families now are a part of the improvement process of both by informing us of their experiences and offering suggestions. Through the joined efforts of every member of Forest Trail―teachers, staff, students, and families alike―we were able to make Forest Trail not only a school, but a family.
Looking back, I realize this path was paved by not only my perseverance but also the hardship that propelled it. I have always believed that struggles are a way to create opportunities. We take our messes, and turn them into messages. We take our tests, and turn them into testimonies. The tests I had gone through and the mess I felt my life had become, though it was hard to see at first, was a passageway, welcoming me through. I just needed that ever-so-vital push to be able to finally walk down it.
This is the story of Dr. Gifty Chung
Originally from Ghana, West Africa, Dr. Gifty Chung joined her mother in the US at a young age. This was for the purpose of furthering her education, but she immediately faced some challenges in her new home that made this goal difficult―not speaking any English and being ridiculed by her peers, to name a few. With the encouragement and support from two teachers, a passion was ignited in Dr. Chung; she wanted to help students just as those teachers had helped her. With that goal in mind, Dr. Chung later earned her Certificate of Principalship, and established the online K-12 school, Forest Trail Academy, which is based in the state of Florida.
In addition to launching her virtual academy, Dr. Chung also wrote a book entitled Effect on ESOL Programs’ in High School Graduation and College Plans, wherein she studied the effect the ESOL program has on graduation rates, as well as college plans later on. Through her book, Dr. Chung aimed to help improve the ESOL program so that other students who have to go through it as she did would have a more effective, enriching experience.
Dr. Chung hopes to continue to work with her staff to help students all over the world excel, both academically and in life, and “pay it forward” as lifelong learners. In her free time, Dr. Chung enjoys reading and widening her horizons through worldwide travel.
This story first touched our hearts on January 10, 2020.
| Writer: Safiyya Bintali | Editor: Colleen Walker |