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Akua Forkuo-Sekyere selected as next Director of the New American Welcome Center

June 24, 2023

Article first published by The News-Gazette on June 24, 2023.


CHAMPAIGN — Akua Forkuo-Sekyere grew up the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, and she’ll be putting her family experience to work as the next director of the New American Welcome Center at the University YMCA.

Forkuo-Sekyere will take over as director July 1 from Gloria Yen, who is leaving the organization after six years.

The 32-year-old Forkuo-Sekyere has worked at the University YMCA as director of student engagement and leadership development and with the Bailey Scholarship Program since 2021. Before that, she served as advocacy and wellness coordinator at the University of Illinois Women’s Resource Center.

As director of the New American Welcome Center, she will be leading an organization devoted to helping immigrants in the local community thrive.

“The University YMCA is a wonderful organization in how it bridges community, so the opportunity to work with the Y was a great one,” she said.

Forkuo-Sekyere grew up in Nashville, the daughter of a father who came to the U.S. from the west African nation of Ghana in the 1970s and a mother who came to the U.S. from Ghana in the 1990s, she said.

Her family background has been a big influence for her, she said.

She recalled watching her parents navigate society and helping fellow immigrants.

Because her name can be hard to pronounce in the U.S., she recalled, each year starting another grade at school, she’d need to pronounce it for everyone.

“That’s a constant reminder of how I might be different from my classmates,” she said.

Still, she said, she found people who provided a network of support and she was able to be a supporter of others, she said.

The New American Welcome Center has been under great leadership, and has a strong staff, Forkuo-Sekyere said.

One challenge ahead as its new director will be a planned relocation of the center outside the Y building, she said. Details about where the center is moving and when will be coming soon, she said.

Behind the moving plans is a desire to make the center more accessible for clients coming by car or bicycle, to help make it more client-centered, Forkuo-Sekyere said.

“Some folks really love the current location because it helps bring folks into campus. But coming onto campus can be a little overwhelming. There’s not always a lot of parking available,” she said.

Forkuo-Sekyere holds a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College in political science and Africana studies and a master’s degree in public health from Washington University.

She and her husband, Kyle Weishaar, have a 1-year-old son.

They first relocated to this area to live closer to his family in Cisco, she said.

Ricardo Diaz, chair of the New American Welcome Center advisory board, served on the hiring committee to replace Yen, and said there were more than 30 applicants for the director’s position.

Not only was Forkuo-Sekyere already familiar with the University YMCA, she also filled a second preference the hiring committee had — to hire someone with an immigrant background as a first-generation or second-generation American.

And she also can provide what the New American Welcome Center needs right now — a calmness and steady hand, able to maintain the center’s relationships, Diaz said.

“Akua has tact. Akua has temperance,” he said.

Forkuo-Sekyere said Yen will remain at the New American Welcome Center until July 28 in an advisory capacity.

What local residents can do to be more welcoming to the immigrants in their midst is to learn more about the New American Welcome Center’s services, share that information with others, and support the other organizations working with immigrants in the community, she said.

“It really makes a difference when we can go from just tolerating immigrants to being truly welcoming,” she said.

A welcome gathering planned for Forkuo-Sekyere is set for 4:30-5:30 p.m. Thursday at the University YMCA, 1001 S. Wright St., C. Diaz said it will also be an opportunity to say goodbye to Yen and Jes DeVries, the center’s director of programs, who is leaving Friday.