Exchange student 'part of the family' during Hagerstown visit

September 04, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN -- After less than a week in the United States, she had enrolled in high school, been to Busch Gardens in Virginia and begun settling into her new Hagerstown-area home.

Ogulbagt Amannazarova, 16, arrived Aug. 20 from Turkmenistan -- a central Asian country bordered to the south by Iran and Afghanistan. She is to remain in Washington County for 10 months, where she is living with Tavasha and William Johnson, just outside of Hagerstown in the Saint James development.

Ogulbagt is an exchange student participating in the AYUSA Global Youth Exchange program. To be chosen for a host family in the United States, she had to pass several rigorous tests, including English proficiency.

She's enrolled at Washington County Technical High School, where she is taking specialized classes in culinary arts. After only a few days, Ogulbagt said she was already adjusting to differences in school structure and classes.


"It is cool," she said. "It is absolutely different."

This year, AYUSA Global Youth Exchange welcomed 1,500 students to the United States from more than 60 countries.

Three Washington County families are hosting students through the AYUSA program. The others are from France and Korea, said Betsy Dietz, regional director for AYUSA.

Part of the family

Johnson began hosting exchange students six years ago, and Ogulbagt is the 10th foreign student that the Johnsons, including 9-year-old son Tyrell, have welcomed into their home.

She said the students become "part of the family" during their stay. Ogulbagt will go to a family reunion in Florida, and a wedding later this year with the family.

A recent trip to Busch Gardens was one of the most exciting things she has done so far, Ogulbagt said.

Ogulbagt said she'd been on roller coasters before, but not ones that were so "extreme."

"I could only see that on television," she said.

Tavasha Johnson said she got her mother, Nichole Rivera of Hagerstown, and Johnson's neighbor, Amara Charleus, interested in hosting exchange students. Both have students living with them this year who are involved in the AYUSA program.

Johnson has hosted students from 10 countries, including Mexico, Germany and Japan.

She's also hosted a student from Georgia, and when fighting broke out in that country this month, Johnson said she nervously watched the news reports of escalating tension.

"It was like being on eggshells knowing our kid was there," she said. "They become part of your family ... so you worry."


Ogulbagt said there are many differences between her culture in Turkmenistan and what she has seen in the United States.

On one of her first days with the Johnsons, her "host dad" made breakfast for her. That would never happen in Turkmenistan, Ogulbagt said.

"In my country, my father will never cook for me," she said. "In America, gender roles are different. Men and women can do the same thing."

Before coming to the United States, most of what she knew of the country came from television and movies. Now that she is here, Ogulbagt said it is very different from what she has seen.

"You can see other countries and other people when you see pictures," Ogulbagt said. "Being here, I can learn the roots, the people, the culture. I've already learned a lot."

For information about hosting a foreign exchange student through AYUSA Global Youth Exchange or for details about the organization, go to

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