Nigerian exchange student to study in U.S. for 1 year

While most kids are enjoying their last scorching hot week before school starts up, students already roamed the hallways of Tri-Cities Prep on Wednesday.

The private Catholic high school in Pasco started a week sooner than its secular counterparts.

Freshmen wandered down corridors with quizzical looks, holding class schedules. Returning students fell into the arms of classmates they hadn't seen since June.

And amidst the organized chaos, one girl likely had the most overwhelming first day of anyone.

Deborah John is an exchange student from Nigeria, who only arrived in the Tri-Cities two weeks ago. She beat out hundreds of other applicants from her home country to spend a year at an American school as part of a U.S. State Department program.

A Nigerian representative of the Youth Exchange and Study -- or YES -- program noticed the 15-year-old during a visit to Deborah's school back home.

After a series of essays and interviews -- first at the local, then at the state level -- Deborah was chosen from more than 400 applicants in her state to come to the U.S., she said. In all of Nigeria, thousands applied and 19 were chosen.

"I was very excited," Deborah told the Herald. "I had dreams of coming to the United States."

Although English is not her first language, she speaks it fluently. Her native language is Hausa.

Deborah went to an all-girls school in Jalingo, her hometown in the eastern grasslands of Nigeria. All of her classes were taught in English, which is the language for government business. In all, more than 250 languages are spoken in Nigeria.

The country is the most populous in Africa, with more than 150 million people in an area twice the size of California, according to the CIA World Book.

Nigeria has oil, but its mortality rate is the fourth-worst in the world.

And although Deborah is Christian, Nigeria is a majority Muslim country, which is why the State Department paid for her to come to Pasco.

The YES program was established in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to bring students from Muslim countries to the U.S. and to place American students there, said Marcella Hansen, the Tri-City coordinator for YES and its nonprofit partner, the Program for Academic Exchange.

Deborah's flight was paid by YES, and she receives a little pocket money while she is here.

It costs about $8,500 a year to attend Tri-Cities Prep. But Deborah's application essays so impressed administrators that they asked the school's scholarship foundation to sponsor her, said Principal Arlene Jones.

School officials decided students could gain from having a classmate from a drastically different culture, Jones said.

Deborah initially didn't expect to land in a Catholic school. She didn't even know there were Catholic schools in America, she said. But she really liked what she saw on her first day.

"I love the school," Deborah said. "It looks nice, and I like the way everything is organized."

And she is happy to be out in the world.

"I like exploring places and learning from others," she said. "I want to interact with people in other places."

Deborah wants to become a writer and a journalist back in her native country. Her ambitions are large.

"I want to give the actual account of everything in life," she said. "I want to write books to motivate people who don't believe in themselves. I want (people) to learn from events."

As she stood in the hallway wondering where her next class would be, two teachers spotted the girl in the colorful African dress.

They eventually showed her to her classroom, but not before passing on an essential lesson of American life.

"Today, you're going to learn about cheesecake," said history teacher Felicity Hampton, holding out a plate.