Buzzell: Hosting a foreign student is an enriching experience

May 28, 2014 

Warner Robins was tagged by the Chamber of Commerce as Georgia’s International City back in 1968 when the Houston County Board of Education noted that a large number of enrolled students at the time were born outside the United States in more than 50 countries. Today, Middle Georgia is on the map for students from around the world to come here for a school year under the Ayusa global high school exchange program. In many cases, hosting an Ayusa student establishes a wide-reaching connection that affects not only the student and local host family, but the school, community and, ultimately, the world.

“I started hosting in 2001 with Ayusa and began working with the program in 2005,” Senior Regional Director Mary Morton said. “The students are eager to improve their English and experience the American lifestyle ... they change so much from insecure dependent youth to independent young people ready to go home, finish high school and have a successful future,” she said.

One exchange student this year found the program so successful and Georgia such a great place to live that she has decided to continue her studies locally. Tugen Bang grew up in the Czech Republic after her family relocated from Vietnam. She spent this past academic year at Jones County High School as a senior. She excelled in her studies and extracurricular activities and has been awarded a scholarship to Mercer University in the fall.

“I want to be a Bear!” said Tugen, who volunteered this past year in the Be a Neighbor project and as a teen volunteer with The Medical Center of Central Georgia. She also was in the Cherry Blossom Parade and Fashion Show, and sang in the Jones County High School Choir. Her college goal is to pursue a biology/pre-med curriculum and eventually work in Africa.

“Tugen has been such a good influence on my two daughters,” host mother Geneva West said. “She taught my girls how to study.” West’s daughters are 10 and 8 years old and say they enjoyed having a “big sister” experience. West also describes how well the family related to their 18-year-old high school senior from abroad. “When I heard her call out to me as ‘Mom,’ it was a real bonding moment,” West said.

West was an exchange student in Ghana during her college years at Fort Valley State University and Kennesaw State University, studying African history and music.

Terry Minter, host mom to Maria Marciani from Berlin, sums up her experience during the past 9½ months with equal enthusiasm. “It has been the most enjoyable experience hosting an exchange student,” she said, “and we even picked our student and got to know her before she arrived.” Describing how Marciani has become a part of the family, Minter was quick to explain that hosting a student is all about how much better her family is for having spent the time with an exchange student. “As the Christmas holidays approached I asked what some of her traditions are at home since we have shared her culture and traditions with us and we have with her as well,” she said. “But she wanted to experience as we celebrate and not as she has done at home. It’s all about the experience.”

“In the future, I would love to see more families and schools see the value of hosting a young person from another country,” Morton said. “This experience opens the world for our young people, so they are never quite the same -- they may have a ‘brother’ in Germany or a ‘sister’ in Finland, so how cool is that?” she said.

Host families are asked simply to treat their students as one of their own, providing food, a bed (not necessarily in a private room) and a loving family environment. The students arrive equipped with medical insurance, spending money, a command of the English language and a strong commitment to becoming a member of the local community. Ayusa conducts its program in full compliance with State Department regulations to ensure that students have a safe and successful program.

Asked what people need to do to learn more about Ayusa and open their homes to a student for the upcoming school year, Martin is very enthusiastic. “Really there are students from Europe to Asia to South America who are just waiting to hear, now, that they have a host family in America for next year,” she said. Go to and apply to host. There you will learn about how the program works, current families and local resources. Mary Morton is also available to answer questions directly at 478-320-2976.

Marsha Priest Buzzell is executive director of the Warner Robins Convention & Visitors Bureau. Contact her at 478-922-5100 or

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