By Andrea Kutsenkow, AFS Archives Consultant
In 2020, what is AFS’ responsibility to address the carbon impact of the travel of its student exchange programs? The logistics behind finding sustainable and scalable solutions may prove to be challenging for an organization with operations in 60 countries and exchange programs active in 99 countries. Yet, with our volunteers and staff being very environmentally conscious, the organization is aware that climate change is widely acknowledged as the single most pressing issue of modern times — and is one it must act on.
Can we adjust the travel of study abroad participants in order to be more eco-conscious? Swedish student and climate activist Greta Thunberg believes we can. At just 16-years-old, Thunberg made headlines when she travelled in a carbon neutral sailboat from Europe to the United States for the 2019 UN Climate Summit in New York City. Some may view her methods of raising global awareness of the risks posed by climate change as extreme, but she is certainly making an impact at a young age.
Photographs, brochures, itineraries, luggage tags, other documents within the AFS Archives help capture a time of AFS’ history when ship travel was common. AFS operated boat trips between the United States and Europe for 22 years, from the first student exchange program in 1947 until the summer of 1969. These boats traveled to and from the U.S. and Northern Europe; upon reaching the U.S., students would be greeted at the piers by AFS volunteers and would reach their final destinations by train or bus. By 1969, with the exception of some travel between the U.S. and Canada, AFS participants were traveling exclusively by plane. David Danby, who has worked in the travel industry most of his life and was involved with the AFS’ Travel Department for many years, recalls this change vividly.
Growing up, Danby’s parents frequently helped out with AFS’ bus trips and regularly attended local AFS meetings. Danby volunteered at the AFS office in New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio. Between 1969 and 1979, he held a number of part-time and full-time positions with AFS’ Travel Department, even acting as the department’s manager towards the end of the decade.
When Danby first joined AFS’ Travel Department, when AFS’ ship travel gave way to charter flights, tickets, especially one-way fares, were often extremely expensive since, at that time, the airline industry within the U.S. was highly regulated by the federal government. However, that all changed in 1978 with a law which introduced a free market in the commercial airline industry, leading to a sizable increase in the number of flights and the number of passengers and miles flown. The impact these unprecedented number of flights would have had on the environment wouldn’t have gone unnoticed even then. With events like the establishment of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, people had become aware of the links between environmental issues and public health. Americans felt an increasing need to become more politically active in order to protect the natural beauty of their country. As a chaperon on many of AFS’ flights and bus trips, Danby said back then, students traveling to West Coast cities, like San Francisco, had an opportunity to experience a great deal of the U.S.’ breath-taking landscape, including the Rocky Mountains and Nevada desert, well before reaching their host families for the year.
AFS’ lengthy bus trips allowed participants from all over the world time to interact with each other as they shared meals together and explored diverse regions of the U.S. International students even had the opportunity to reunite with their orientation groups and meet major U.S. leaders, including presidents, when AFS established their “Midway” meetings in 1954 in Washington, D.C. and New York. Later, this event became known as “Departure Day” or “D-Day.” Danby remembers many of these highly emotional events, when more than seventy buses would unload between 8 and 10 in the morning, and students would share their experiences in America with others before returning to their home countries as global citizens.
Danby witnessed firsthand numerous changes within the AFS Travel Department, especially during the 1970s when AFS was experiencing tremendous growth and becoming less U.S.-centric with the establishment of its Multinational Program, which allowed students to travel to and from countries other than the U.S. He saw countless intercultural friendships unfold as he remained involved with AFS’ Travel Program through the mid-1980s. He fondly remembers a time when whole communities were heavily involved with AFS, when high schools had AFS Clubs and local chapters actively selected volunteers and raised money to send students from their area abroad.
Today, he believes the topic of sustainability is an important one and wonders if reverting back to slower methods of transportation (like the AFS boat trip) could even help re-establish the more community-oriented AFS he once knew by once again extending the AFS experience beyond the immediate host family experience. Some of today’s AFSers are already opting to take the “long” way: In France and Switzerland, for example, AFS students can opt to take trains rather than fly for their programs — even from Zurich to Oslo which is a 25-hour train ride away! — so Danby’s “retro” ideas may just be what’s in order.
In the meantime, AFS has already taken a big step forward: beginning in 2021, it will offset travel emissions of its flagship high school exchange programs as standard practice. AFS is believed to be the first global-scale international education organisation to make such a commitment. This is the first part of a One AFS Sustainability Initiative that will be announced this year to define meaningful and achievable sustainability initiatives that AFS can implement to help fulfill its climate responsibilities.
Help AFS become more environmentally friendly by supporting the One AFS Sustainability Initiative at afs.org/donate.
I want to thank Dave Danby for his kind interview on August 24, 2019. I look forward to helping him source information from the AFS Archives in order to create a presentation for The Museum of Bus Transportation in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The goal of this presentation will be to highlight the unique niche AFS’ bus trips occupy in the larger evolution of the travel industry within the U.S.