by Andrea Kutsenkow, AFS Archivist

Although the collections of the AFS Archives (Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs) document and honor AFS’ founders, the resources of the Archive should also serve as inspiration material for those interested in exploring the world despite the presence of inequality, injustice, and intolerance. The Archives contain numerous letters, scrapbooks, diaries, and photographs that speak of adventure and discovery. Since the very beginning, AFS has provided the necessary tools for individuals willing to step outside of their comfort zones, to be a part of something bigger, and to ultimately become successful, global leaders.

During World War I, sheltered, young men, inspired by AFS’ screenings of the promotional film Our Friend France (and later Our American Boys in the Great War) were recruited from college and university campuses across the United States. They set sail for France (largely at their own expense), although many of them lacked basic driving skills. Their motivation to be close to the front as volunteer ambulance drivers to carry the wounded or volunteer camion (truck) drivers to transport supplies meant letting go of their fears and overcoming such obstacles.

AFS founder A. Piatt Andrew, Henry Sleeper, and SSU 10 in New York before the unit sailed for France, November 11, 1916. Courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives)
Ambulance on a training course at May-en-Multien, France, 1917. Courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and Intercultural Programs.

After the start of the Second World War, AFS was reactivated as a volunteer ambulance corps under the leadership of Director General Stephen Galatti. As the war progressed, young men found the courage to serve alongside French, British, Polish, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, and South African troops in places as remote as the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Burma.

AFS ambulances sit out a monsoon in Dimapur, India. Photograph by J.B. Ferguson. Courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and Intercultural Program (AFS Archives)

Rather than dissolve after the World War II, in 1946, Galatti and drivers from both wars founded a secondary school student exchange program to encourage international friendships and learning experiences during peacetime. The first participants arrived in the United States on a scholarship program in 1947.

A year later, AFS wanted students to see more of the United States before returning home to their countries; this desire served as the impetus for AFS’ bus trips. The first bus trip lasted twenty-four days, from June 28th through July 21, 1948, and allowed thirty-two students from France, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Norway, England, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, and Syria to overcome cultural barriers while visiting nineteen cities between New York and the Rocky Mountains.

The entire project was planned with very little time to spare. It was made possible through the generosity of former drivers, including chaperone Carl Ziegler who encouraged Greyhound Bus Lines to donate a bus and driver. Reflecting on the historic trip, AFS staff member Dorothy “Dot” Field said, “That bus trip did something for me. We were halfway from Washington to New York when suddenly I realized that that was the moment the AFS scholarships were really born.”

Participants during AFS’ first bus trip, June/July 1948. Photograph by Carl Ziegler. Courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).

In 1970, for the first time non-United States citizens were elected to the AFS Board of Trustees. Their goal was ambitious – to allow students to travel to and from countries other than the United States. The AFS Multinational program was launched a year later, and AFS has continued to grow ever since, successfully organizing international and intercultural learning experiences for individuals, families, schools, and communities through a global volunteer partnership.

Here’s to another year of honoring AFS’ legacy and to fulfilling the organization’s mission of promoting peace and understanding across an increasingly complex world.