In October 2017, Deniz Kaarayan, a former AFS international exchange student from Turkey, flew to Chapel Hill on her way to Boston to deliver a presentation on her medical research at the Harvard School of Public Health. The purpose of her stop in Chapel Hill was to reunite with Gene and Margaret Johnson, her former AFS Host Parents with whom she lived during her exchange year.

When Deniz first came to the United States in 2011-12 as an AFS Exchange Student, she attended East Chapel Hill High School. Deniz received a full, merit-based scholarship to study in the U.S. through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Upon her arrival, neither Deniz nor her host parents could have predicted the impact of their year together and how it would create a lifelong bond between them.

Deniz and Margaret

Looking back, it’s easy to see how Margaret’s positive influence helped shape Deniz’s educational and professional path. At East Chapel Hill High School, Deniz enrolled in AP Biology due to her interest in science. After a year of dinner conversations with Margaret, who is a pathologist, she was inspired to take this interest further and study medicine when she returned to Turkey.

In addition to her career as a pathologist, Margaret is also a dedicated AFS Volunteer in her North Carolina community. Deniz followed in Margaret’s footsteps by becoming an AFS Volunteer in Turkey, and is now the vice chairperson of the YES Alumni Association Turkey. She enjoys helping to organize orientation camps for the newest groups of exchange students.

Deniz at Harvard

Deniz’s exchange experience also helped her sharpen her public speaking skills, and she thinks it may have played a part in her having the opportunity to share her research at Harvard. “Apparently, they really liked the way I presented it,” Deniz said. “Doing so many presentations during my exchange year, and then more during YES orientations in Turkey, must have helped with my skills.” (Her research presentation was titled, “The Monitoring of Effect of Parkin Expression on Neuron-Like Differentiation of SH-SY5Y Cells.”)

While in Boston, Deniz made professional contacts at Harvard and MIT. But it was the quality time in her host community of Chapel Hill that she treasured most, made complete by her host father Gene’s delicious home cooking!

Deniz and her host parents

In addition to Deniz, the Johnsons have hosted 13 other AFS Exchange Students. Margaret says that each experience has been unique and that she hopes more families decide to embrace intercultural exchange though hosting. You can find out more about hosting your own AFS Exchange Student here.