Amanda Agana is a track runner at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. She was born in Bolgatanga (Bolga), Ghana, and has used track to assimilate herself into American culture, something that hasn't been easy.
"I don't really fit into most social groups," she said. "I mean, my [adoptive] mom is Caucasian, blonde hair, blue eyes from Arkansas. My dad is super dark, has a tribal scar on his face, and here I am in the mix. I am neither Caucasian nor African-American. I am African in America and that is a hard place to fit in. So what I want to leave behind is that no matter who you are, no matter the circumstances you came from, you can rise above what you have been placed into."
Agana was almost 13 years old when she came to the U.S., but she didn't lose contact with her African relatives. She makes regular visits to Bolga with her mother, and she keeps in contact with them through social media.
"My African family keeps me grounded," said Agana. "It's easy to forget where you come from when you go from a life of poverty and suffering, and a life of pain and hurt to a borderline luxurious life like the one I'm living here in the U.S. I'm grateful that my African family reminds me every day that there are people less fortunate than me."
She used to be one of those less fortunate people herself. Agana's biological mother died when she was seven and her dad, as the head of the extended Agana family, had many responsibilities. The family is approximately 100 people, and it's his job to provide for everyone else's children as well as his own.
"I felt as though I was a burden to his own responsibilities," said Agana. "I had family outside of the Agana family that could take care of me, and I wanted to give him a break so I asked for permission to go and live with my aunt."
For the first few months, Agana was considered family in her aunt's house. They would laugh together, and she would help with the chores.
"As time went on, I became an instrument to her family," said Agana. "I started not being part of the family; I became per say -- a servant -- I had to earn my keep; I had to work to live."
On top of having to do chores and work, Agana regularly had to endure physical, verbal and emotional abuse as well.
"The chores and the beatings were not the hardest part for me," said Agana. "[My aunt] believed that I took my mother away from her. The hardest part was that it was the first time I truly experienced hate -- to have somebody hate you."
She spent three years not only cooking and cleaning for her aunt's family every day, but also working in her store. It felt like the rest of her life would be spent in servitude.
"I thought there was no end to it," said Agana. "I had to wake up every day and decide that I wanted to live. It's hard to be a 10-year-old and have to verbally say, 'I want to live today.'"
During this time, Agana's father was trying to improve education in Bolga by building a library. In fact, after he met Agana's soon-to-be adoptive mother, she started transporting books to Bolga.
"My dad flew here to thank her for it and they ended up falling in love," said Agana.
The first time Agana met her adoptive mother was at her aunt's house. She brought some t-shirts and a couple of white dresses as a gift.
"I didn't want to accept them because in my mind I asked 'What am I going to have to give in return to get these?' because nobody's going to give you anything for free," said Agana. "But she just gave me a hug and said 'It's nice to meet you,' and then they left. I ended up not keeping any of the clothes she gave me because my aunt said I was too dirty to wear white clothes."
One summer, Agana's aunt dressed her up for a visit with her parents, and her dad noticed she had cuts and bruises on her body. When he asked what happened, her aunt's family said that she had been fighting with neighborhood kids.
"When we left the house, he asked me what happened, and at first I was reluctant to tell him about my mistreatment at the house," Agana recalled. "He was angry I didn't tell him about all of it before, and he ended up cutting ties with the family."
This was the second time Agana met her new mother. She rescued her from a life of servitude and abuse.
"I absolutely did not like [my mom]," said Agana. "She was curious about everything. She wanted to know 'What do you do? What do you like?' and I didn't even know what I liked because I had spent the majority of my life serving others."
As the years passed by, Agana began to realize the blessing it was to have been taken out of her aunt's house and have a mother who truly cares about her.
"I realized that what God takes away, he replaces tenfold," said Agana. "For me, my reward for suffering throughout those three years at my aunt's house was her. She was God's gift to me."
Agana has always been able to run long distances at an impressive speed. During a childhood visit to Bolga, she had to run to run two miles to the market to get tomatoes, and she returned quickly.
"When we came to the U.S., I was having trouble fitting in, learning the language and was a bit antisocial. So [Mom] shoved me on the track team and said, 'Here, run and make friends,' and my first reaction was, 'People run in circles for fun?' I ended up falling in love with it. I learned not just the language, but the culture as well."
While Agana was in high school, she planned to run for the University of Arkansas and eventually qualify for the Ghanaian national track team. That changed after a conversation with her mom about what she really wanted to do with her life.
"My mom sat me down and asked, 'What do you want to do? Who do you want to be as a person?'" Agana recalled. "My instant reply was 'I want to help; I want to give back.' I wanted to give back to the country that gave me such a loving mother."
After their conversation, her mother encouraged her to look into the Naval Academy. Agana, now in her second year there, says she has found her purpose in life: to help those in need and to give back to the country that has given her so much. Meanwhile, she also gets to run.
"Running is amazing," said Agana. "But here, I can change someone's life by just being in the military. I can change somebody's life by walking through this path as a midshipman."
Agana is studying political science and plans to become an intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. After the military, she wants to build a school in Bolga someday and help children achieve higher educations.
"I know I have come far, but I think I have further to go," said Agana. "I would tell my aunt and all the people who beat me down and tried to take away my spirit that I'm not done. I'm not even close to being done."