Turkish exchange student Yigit Sunnetcioglu's first impression of Arizona was that it was too hot.

While that opinion endures - and is only being solidified day by day, as the thermometer creeps up before he returns to Turkey June 1 - the 15-year-old has added some more favorable impressions.

• Hamburgers are fantastic.

• The rugby competition is solid.

• The people are friendly, once you get to know them.

Yigit has learned much more as he's attended Marana High School and lived with Marana English and journalism teacher Angela Wagner-Gabbard and her family through the exchange program called My American Year. He's also taught them plenty.

Wagner-Gabbard has picked up some conversational Turkish phrases, including greetings and the all-important directions to the bathroom. She's also learned how to make Turkish coffee - a high-caffeine concoction that includes finely ground coffee beans and cocoa - as well as how to say a couple of Turkish swear words.

Her 15-year-old son, Tyler Pedone, said he was stunned to learn that Muslims pray five times a day and do not eat pork. He bonded with Yigit over rugby, board games and video games.

The Tyler-Yigit bond is not the only friendship that has blossomed from the exchange. Wagner-Gabbard and her husband, Barry Gabbard, have formed a bond with Yigit's parents, who visited for a week in January. Wagner-Gabbard, Barry, Tyler and the couple's two smaller children, Allie, 6, and Wyatt, 4, will visit Turkey this summer.

"We get quite a bit out of it," Wagner-Gabbard said. "We get to learn about a different culture, a different language and different religion."

Wagner-Gabbard said the experience has been priceless for her family, which has previously hosted exchange students over the years from Slovakia, Germany and Thailand. She has kept in touch with all of them, and sends some packets of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, because they can't buy them in their countries.

"It's really important," she said. We live in such a global society now. People need to be able to work side by side with people from other cultures.

The blending of cultures and ideas is the goal of My American Year, which sends foreign high school students to American families for a school year. Host families receive a monthly stipend to cover the student's room and board. Angela's family received $400 a month.

Nancy Thorpe, a Marana High School French and English teacher, coordinates the program locally. During this school year, the program's first in Southern Arizona, four Turkish students stayed with Marana High School families. Next year, Thorpe said, eight families from Marana and Mountain View High School have applied to host students. The program has not yet spread to other local school districts and is staying exclusive to Marana Unified School District as it becomes established, Thorpe said.

Thorpe screens families, making sure they have adequate space for an exchange student, and that there are no awkward placements, such as a host family with a teenager hosting a student of the opposite sex.

"I'm very interested in bringing students together from various cultures," Thorpe said. "I think the advantages to the student are, obviously, that they improve their English and really learn about American culture and family. And, hopefully, they bring back some fond memories."

Exchange students and their families go through a security screening, and students must demonstrate English proficiency. Students agree not to make any life-changing decisions, such as getting married or getting piercings.

"The families treat them like one of their own," Thorpe said.

Wagner-Gabbard's family has done just that, taking Yigit on family trips to the Grand Canyon and Six Flags Magic Mountain.

There have been occasional awkward moments, such as when Wagner-Gabbard fed Yigit and the other children pigs in blankets, forgetting that he does not eat pork.

"When I realized what I had done I said, 'Oh my gosh; I am so sorry. I've made a big mistake,' " Wagner-Gabbard said. "He was really cool about it. He said it was an accident and that he didn't know what he was eating."

Yigit says he's battled homesickness, but it's helped to be able to see his identical twin brother, Emir, who is staying with another Marana family this year.

Yigit says he plans to return to the U.S. to get a master's in computer engineering. He said he has many friends now, despite some early struggles, when he felt lost and nervous.

"It's going really good," he said.

Find out more

For more information: Visit myamericanyear.org online.

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or pvillarreal@azstarnet.com