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Bright future: Churches rally to help African girl get education

Bright Nfor will be graduating from Hawley High School and will continue her education at Concordia College. Nfor is an exchange student from Cameroon, and her father is a friend of a local pastor who met the family while doing missionary work in Africa. David Samson / The Forum

Hawley, Minn. - Hawley High School senior Bright Nfor already has an ambitious agenda for when she becomes president of Cameroon, in west Africa.

She'll crack down on corruption and make sure more girls go to school.

The teen has some powerful momentum. This month, Bright, the eldest of nine siblings, will become the first in her family to graduate from high school.

But the local community, which chipped in to bring her over, decided it would not be quite enough to send her back home with a high school diploma. They wanted her to go to college, too, which, Bright concedes, will come in handy in her future presidential bid.

Come fall, she will tackle her studies at Concordia College on a most peculiar financial aid package.

"It's been so wonderful to see how the community has embraced Bright," said Tom Olson, a pastor in rural Hawley. "People see it as a concrete way they can help Africa help itself."

Olson befriended Bright's family during his 15 years as a missionary in Africa. Her father, a baker, and mom, a seamstress, pass on their trades to people living in poverty to help them become self-sufficient. They are also active in HIV education and prevention.

A couple of years ago, Bright's father, Silas, visited Olson in Hawley. He let it slip to Mike Martin, the high school principal, that he'd always wanted to see his eldest daughter go to school in America.

"Wouldn't it be kind of neat if we gave him his wish?" Martin thought.

So Martin tracked down an exchange student program and, along with his wife, Kate, offered to host Bright. Folks in town threw a hog roast and collected pledges to run the Fargo Marathon, raising more than $8,000 for Bright's travel expenses.

So last August, Bright arrived in town, "all by myself, just little me." She noticed she walked a little more slowly and dressed a little more warmly than her new classmates. She had to explain occasionally she doesn't live in a jungle and doesn't have a pet lion.

But, "It was not hard fitting in at all," says Bright, strikingly poised and unfailingly upbeat. "I got accepted from the first day I walked into the school."

Bright was eager to try everything: She rode a combine, walked on a frozen lake, made a video of a blizzard and drove a snowmobile, crashing into a small tree. She ran cross country and made the third-quarter honor roll.

She befriended Karla Mickelson, a pastor in Borup and Felton, who invited her to speak about Cameroon at church. Cameroon, one of Africa's most stable countries, is still plagued by poverty and corruption.

Bright wants to do something about that. Her plan is to become a lawyer, like most movers-and-shakers in her homeland.

"The ladies fell in love with her and thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we sent her home with a college degree, as well?' " Mickelson says.

The community rallied around Bright once more. She was accepted at Concordia, Mickelson's alma mater, and landed a scholarship. But, friends estimated, she'd still need $20,000 a year to attend.

Churches in Borup, Felton and Hawley joined forces in feverish fundraising. A handful of families pledged $1,000 a year for four years. Others chipped in as well, and Borup's Winchester Lutheran Church dedicated proceeds from its annual fish fry to Bright's college fund.

The fundraisers are close to hitting their goal in gifts and pledges, Mickelson says. Bright's mom, Mary, who flew in for her daughter's graduation, is overwhelmed: "To see Bright have the opportunity to go to college is a big blessing for our family."

Bright used to feel a bit overwhelmed by the idea of college. In her culture, young people look to their elders for guidance. But her elders are far away, and they never attended college. Still, Mickelson reminded her, she can always turn to her new elders, in the Hawley area.

And besides, says Bright, "If I go to college, I have a better chance to do what I want to do with my life."