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Since 1994, Columbus residents Don and Gayleen Hingst have cared for all foreign exchange students who have stayed with them like family.

“We never had children of our own and we just thought another person in the house ... would be good,” Gayleen said.

Throughout the years, the Hingsts have provided a home for high school students from Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, China, Turkey, Indonesia, Thailand, Germany, Iceland and Sweden, among many others. These students were brought into the country through foreign student exchange programs, which provided them the opportunity to experience American culture by attending one school year at area high schools.

“Sometimes we host two (students) at one time,” Gayleen said.

To date, the Hingsts have housed 25 students, 24 of whom attended Columbus High School and another who went to Scotus Central Catholic High School.

“I like different cultures,” said Don, who is an avid reader of history. “I am interested in them.”

Don said he enjoyed sitting down with the students, talking about their culture, backgrounds and country history.

The Hingsts have gotten involved with various student exchange programs over the years, such as Academic Year in America in Lincoln. Each host family gets to pick which student they want to host each year based on their profiles that illustrate their expectations, goals and personalities.

Don said students oftentimes felt discouraged when they couldn’t find a suitable host family, or when they were turned away by some. He remembered the time when he and his wife took in a student from Germany who was turned away by another family because she was vegetarian.

“She was really down. I feel sorry for these kids because they think that there is something wrong with them and there isn’t,” he said. “There are just not enough host families.”

Once the students are placed, the host families will help enroll them in high schools in their areas.

Don said the program can be costly for some families because they are responsible for the students’ flight, tuition (if applicable) and insurance expenses, on top of program fees.

Walking through the Hingsts' home, it's apparent how seriously they take their roles as hosts. One of the walls inside their home is dedicated to portraits of each student, with the year they arrive and birthdays written on the back. The two can easily tell visitors where each student came from and what they're doing today. Thanks to the advancement of technology, the Hingsts strive to maintain relationships with the majority of the students through social media. They said some have landed jobs in various countries while some returned to the U.S. to pursue their higher educations.

Throughout the duration of the students’ stay, the Hingsts said they would show them around the community, as well as travel to nearby cities like Lincoln and Omaha.

At the end of every school year, they said they never failed to take their guests on a trip based on their places of interest. They’ve traveled to cities like San Diego and Seattle in the past.

The Hingsts will be reuniting with one of their students soon, as they are traveling to Kazakhstan this afternoon to attend her wedding along with another student from Germany, who also resided with the Columbus couple in the past.

“The same time we had the girl from Kazakhstan, we also had a girl from Germany,” Gayleen said. “So she’s also going to go over to Kazakhstan and the four of us will be together again.”

Although The Hingsts have hosted students for 24 years, they said it has always been a learning experience.

“We are lucky everything has worked out well,” Gayleen said.

After so many years of serving students, the Hingsts thought of taking a break due to their ages. But, they decided to try and host at least one more student this upcoming school year.

“I am glad we’ve done it,” Don said. “I want to do it again.”

Natasya Ong is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at natasya.ong@lee.net.

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