by Daniel Obst, President & CEO, AFS Intercultural Programs

Too frequently these days I am reminded on social media of how divided and polarized our world has become. However, my everyday encounters with people in countries around the world reinforce that we have much more in common than our differences may suggest. Still, fear, distrust and just plain lack of knowledge about other cultures, religions and nationalities is a growing concern everywhere. But if we want to be serious about changing this, then we have an obligation and a responsibility to engage with people who think differently.

That’s why I was pleased to read Azira Ahimsa’s excellent advice in a recent  article on the Charged Affairs site (targeting young professionals in foreign policy):

“Intercultural competence should be taught to children of every socioeconomic class and every nationality. […] Through these intercultural exchange programs, multiculturalism becomes the norm and identities are no longer threatened, thus mitigating populism.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Fostering open-mindedness and respect for others can start inside your own home. Growing up in Germany, my parents created an incredibly open and welcoming environment. As a result, I am proud to have adopted siblings from Cambodia, India and Colombia. I also benefited from the generosity and openness of other families who hosted me in the USA and France for exchange experiences. And now my husband Matthew and I host our nieces and nephews (or the children of our cousins) from Berlin and Seattle for a few weeks in the summer for an exchange experience or an internship. Opening our home means keeping our minds and hearts open to new ideas and perspectives.

So, here is my appeal: Become a host family for an international exchange student!  

“The hosting experience has changed our family, in the good sense of the word. Welcoming Violetta in our home has made us more open to the world and to differences. And we also discovered that all children are alike! It’s a great experience to have, and we encourage families to discover it too,” says the Cros family from France who hosted an Austrian student.

Hosting an international student is a great way to learn about a new culture and share one’s own culture and values. By hosting a foreign exchange student, families start to:

  • Better understand how culture impacts perception, behavior, values and attitudes
  • Consider and respect different perspectives when approaching problems and everyday situations
  • Appreciate diversity and to engage, display respect for and accept people with diverse backgrounds, attitudes, opinions, lifestyles and values
  • Become interested in and concerned about global affairs and aware of the impact our choices have on other people
  • Make positive change in local, national and/or global communities.

Another experience from a host family, the Rilleras from the Philippines, testifies to this: “When the students we hosted first arrived into our family, we felt a bit awkward with each other but Volkan and Carol knew how to mingle and adjust. We had a good relationship and I felt that I am a nannay (mother) to them. I learned a lot about their cultures. Also, my fear of hosting them turned into gratefulness and happiness for having them in the family and I consider them as my children. When they went back to their countries I felt so sad that I won’t be able to see them anymore, hoping they won’t forget me and our family.”

More than 100 years ago, AFS started as a humanitarian organization in the battlefields of war— and was transformed into a secondary school exchange program in 1946. The founders of the American Field Service were inspired by the need for intercultural understanding between diverse groups of people to make the world more just and peaceful. Thanks to their vision, secondary school students from countries that had just been enemies in the war started getting to know each other through this new study abroad program supported by families who opened up their homes.  

AFS Participant Marketta Mattila (FIN-USA, 65-66) with her host family in Huntington Beach, California (USA), 1965. This image cannot be reproduced outside the guidelines of United States Fair Use (17 U.S.C., Section 107) without advance permission from the AFS Archives.
Marga Johnstone standing next to her “AFS MOM” license plate in Pasadena, California in 1979. Courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives.) This photograph cannot be reproduced outside the guidelines of United States Fair Use (17 U.S.C., Section 107) without advance permission from the AFS Archives.

Today, we are pleased to report that each year more than 10,000 families around the world host an AFS student. And these families come in all shapes and sizes, building on the key AFS principles of diversity and inclusion.

Photo curtesy of AFS-USA.

We know that many families need support before, during and after the hosting experience, and our staff and volunteers provide practical advice on how to:

  • Help hosted students integrate into a new culture, make the best of their intercultural education experience, and achieve their global and personal ambitions while abroad
  • Share their culture and learn about new cultures from their hosted students
  • Ensure family members experience personal growth—and growth as a family
  • Join an organization dedicated to creating a more just and peaceful world.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an event organized by AFS Switzerland to recognize three host families. These three families hosted 50 AFS students from 24 countries. What incredible generosity. But when they describe the experience, their kindness never comes into the conversation. All three families focus on how much hosting has enriched their families, opening their hearts and minds to other cultures, ideas and ways of thinking.

So there’s a way out of our echo-chambers of social media: Open your home to an exchange student. They will be forever grateful. And your family and community will be immeasurably enriched from this cultural exchange experience. If you want to find out how to host a student, contact your local AFS office.