International endeavors

Posted: July 22nd, 2016 | Features, Top Stories | No Comments

By Margie M. Palmer

Exchange program links foreign students to local families with similar interests

Becoming an exchange student is something that many students abroad dream of. Experiencing a new culture, playing sports, attending school dances and learning English can be life-changing.

Fifteen-year-old Korea native Keon Baek has been attending Liberty Charter High School since the beginning of the year. He considers himself lucky to be experiencing life in America.

“It’s been fun and it’s been interesting. Schools in Korea are really strict. The American school is kind of free, it’s not strict,” he said. “I like it here better than Korea. I like U.S. people; they are really kind. I’ve met a lot of great friends.”

Baek arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 19 and he was placed with Gizelle and Carl Ayres, who own Alliance Tae Kwon Do Center in La Mesa.

Keon Baek and Gizelle Ayreswebtop

(l to r) Keon Baek and Gizelle Ayres

Since Baek is a black belt in his home country, both the Ayres family and the International Student Exchange (ISE), the agency that helped place him, felt he’d be a good fit for their household.

Gizelle said this is the first time she and her husband have hosted a student.

“It’s been great having him and he’s enjoyed being with us,” she said. “[At Alliance] he’s been able to learn how to spar and then he started competing. He’s been doing really good with that. When he goes back to Korea, maybe he and his parents will look for another school that will offer him what he’s learned here.”

International Student Exchange (ISE) Regional Manager Karen Toledo said Keon has done very well during his first semester and is looking forward to going back to school in the fall.

In addition to helping place Keon, Toledo also assisted in placing 49 other international students throughout California and New Mexico in the past year.

Part of the reason she’s so good at what she does may link to her unique perspective of the student/host family dynamic. She herself has hosted close to 100 students in the past 20 years.

“I’m still in contact with about 75 percent of them. I have friends around the world and I am a mom to many,” Toledo said. “I love learning other cultures and the kids are funny. These kids are my heroes. I would have never left my family, friends, culture or my life at 16 years old for the unknown.”

ISE is currently in search of 23 more host families in California and New Mexico for the fall semester. Toledo said interested families should reach out to her office to schedule a phone interview.

(l to r) Keon Baek and Gizelle Ayres

As a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, Baek was a perfect fit for the Ayres family which owns Alliance Tae Kwon Do in La Mesa. (Photos by Jeff Clemetson)

All host families are thoroughly vetted and screened to ensure that students are placed into the homes of loving, outgoing and responsible families. Host families do not receive compensation, she said.

“During the interview, I find out a little about their interests and then I’ll show them three students that I believe would fit their family dynamics. The families provide a loving home and food for either a five-month program, which allows the student to attend one school semester, or a 10-month program, which will last the school year,” she said. “The student has their own health insurance and spending money for entertainment, travel, school supplies, events and personal needs. These kids are waiting for a loving family that will give them the dream of being an American high school kid and having an American family. They are great kids with a variety of interests and have extremely appreciative parents.”

Hosting, she said, is a wonderful experience.

“I still have contact with the students [I’ve hosted] as well as their families; we all consider each other as family.”

—Margie M. Palmer is a San Diego-based freelance writer who has been racking up bylines for over a decade. Reacher her at

Leave a Comment