AFS Intercultural Programs USA: Crossing Classrooms, Crossing Cultures

By Angela Lindsay

Learning doesn’t always happen in a single classroom. In fact, some of the most important lessons are learned in different and unexpected environments. AFS Intercultural Programs USA (formerly the American Field Service) gives students the opportunity to not only expand their academic knowledge; it also provides intercultural learning experiences that bring global cultures together by helping students connect, transforming the lives of thousands of students, families and individuals every year.

AFS, a 501(c)3 organization, is the nation’s oldest and largest student exchange program. With affiliates in 40 countries around the world and more than 4,000 volunteers in the United States and 40,000 volunteers worldwide, the program welcomes approximately 2,500 foreign students from 60 countries to the United States and sends more than 1,000 American students abroad each year.

“A study-abroad experience helps students to become globally competent,” says Marlene Cox, a retired human resources professional and a volunteer with the AFS Charlotte chapter. “A full immersion experience leads to language fluency and toward full cultural fluency—living with another family that becomes your own (parents and siblings); experiencing their traditions, attending school, and developing lifelong friendships. It helps them to expand their worldview. They come home forever changed.” The experience certainly changed 17-year-old Julia Maria Mata.

The Olympic High School student of Dominican/Costa Rican descent always loved learning languages and, at the age of 13, began teaching herself Japanese by buying books, watching YouTube videos, listening to Japanese music and watching TV. She soon fell in love with the culture and was eventually accepted to travel to Japan after completing one year of high school, an AFS Japan requirement.

“I wanted to participate, because I wanted the opportunity to be able to live in Japan for a year almost if I was natively born there (and) going to school. I also continued to participate in my local AFS chapter because it allowed me to meet many people from all around the world, almost like travelling without leaving home,” she says.

Mata was placed in a home in Miyanosawa with a host family of three—a dad, mom and sister. She remained there for only a month during the summer, but nearly a year later, she is still in touch with her Japanese family. Favorite memories, she recalls, were eating dinner with the family together every day and the host family helping her with homework. The next time, she hopes to stay for a year during college.

“The most important thing that I have learned is how big this world really is . . . ” says Mata. “It isn’t until we step out of (our) small lives and realize how big this world really is (that) we get to see how we are connected to seven billion lives on earth . . . By seeing how big the world is, then we see all the possibilities there are and how to cherish every moment more as we remember it is once in a lifetime. As Japan says, ‘one time, one meeting’.”

AFS offers a variety of experiences for students to consider, and there are scholarship opportunities available, as well. Options include two-, four- or six-week summer programs and semester or full school year programs for high school students; the Gap Year program for college students; and Faces of America, which provides high-achieving high school students from low-income families a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study abroad.

“Because we are a global society, just imagine the impact on a college student’s resume that says they have studied abroad in France, or Spain, or Thailand,” Cox says.

By partnering with community-based organizations in underrepresented communities, Faces of America has awarded scholarships to more than 1,100 teenagers. Another initiative, AFS NEXT, offers volunteer internships and college credit programs abroad for students ages 18 and up, and there are also programs for educators, as well as cultural immersion trips for student and adult groups.

In Charlotte, the local AFS chapter has enjoyed a “solid relationship” with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for more than 25 years. During the 2015-16 school year, 26 foreign students were hosted by families in the Charlotte region—13 in CMS schools; one student at N.C. School for the Deaf; four students in Union Country, four students in Concord, two students in Cabarrus County, one student in Fort Mill, S.C.; and two students in Clover, S.C. Last school year, 13 CMS students went abroad, and 11 CMS students so far are scheduled to go abroad next school year.

The AFS mission is driven in principle and in practice by a commitment to diversity and inclusivity among participants, staff, host families and volunteers. Cox says the organization attempts to diversify the student and host family’s experience as much as possible. For example, a Malaysian student is currently being hosted by a Latino family and an African-American single mom is hosting a student from Germany. There is also a totally deaf student being hosted in a hearing family.

 This past year, Cox served on an AFS national committee, the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group and its Facing Our Biases project, which is dedicated to furthering the organization’s diversity and inclusions efforts. She hopes to be able to add more African-American and Latino students and families to AFS Charlotte and the AFS Intercultural Experience. The possibilities can open them up to whole new worlds of cultures, exciting memories and lifelong relationships.

Says Cox, “You come away learning something more about their culture and how they choose to live in this world, and it expands your knowledge and appreciation of this whole human experience.”