by Daniel Obst, President & CEO, AFS Intercultural Programs


We’re living through some of the biggest challenges of our generation that will likely shape our lives for years to come. The coronavirus is truly testing the limits of our resilience.  

In times of crisis, you look to your own community. And for me, my greatest comfort and hope come from being able to rely on the AFS global community. Over the past few weeks, I have been truly inspired by how AFS volunteers, participants, families, alumni and staff have come together and went above and beyond the call of duty to serve and safeguard a shared mission in this unprecedented situation. 

My three key takeaways are: 


Volunteers are critically important actors in any crisis situation. For weeks now, AFS volunteers and staff around the world have been working day and night to reunite thousands of AFS participants with their families in their home countries. Coordinating with dozens of airlines, through flight cancellations and changes, charters, government organized repatriation, challenges of domestic travel – AFS volunteers, board members and staff worked tirelessly on all this and more. This is what true service means. 

And I’m not surprised, as AFS was founded as the American Field Service in 1915 as a volunteer ambulance service to transport thousands of wounded civilians and soldiers in the two World Wars. While we are a very different organization now, that commitment to service and volunteerism has not changed. Serving our communities is part of our DNA. 


Imagine if, after becoming a part of a host community and real member of your host family, your high school exchange program is abruptly interrupted. Having been an exchange student myself, I can’t even begin to imagine how painful this must have been. But our young participants have shown so much courage, maturity and solidarity, while our host families’ graciousness and strength in adversity leave us all feeling deeply grateful. 

We know nothing can truly replace a full exchange program. But to enable our participants to round up their experiences, we quickly launched a special online intercultural learning program, based on our AFS Global Competence Certificate. So far more than 2,600 participants from 34 countries have enrolled and started engaging with each other. They are reflecting on their shared experience, continuing their intercultural learning and processing uncertainty of the current COVID-19 situation, with support from trained AFS facilitators guiding them through interactive online modules.

photo by @matthewmoo19,


Finally, I’m inspired by the lifelong commitment to service of our alumni. Their commitment to service is ever more visible in this COVID-19 crisis:

Dr. Shigeru Omi is serving as the Japanese government’s top advisor on COVID-19, having previously served as the regional director of the World Health Organization (WHO). Fiorella Deriu is a medical doctor working day and night in Italy to battle this pandemic only 6 years after her AFS exchange. Cansu Kaya in Germany has joined a group at the Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research (Saarland University) to research and find a solution for the COVID-19 infection. Luis Carlos Arce Alvarado works at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and is now fully dedicated to advocacy and to developing plans to preserve the connectivity and development of the world; he is saving millions of jobs in this in-danger industry. Alessandra Passerini has 40 years in conflict resolution, and is putting those skills to work now that COVID-19 is challenging our ability to engage in collaborative dialogue and leverage different ways we can help each other. And the list of amazing AFS alumni actions just goes on…

Seeing people all around the world step up, support each other in their personal lives and professional work, fight for each other’s well being is what gives me tremendous hope. I am deeply grateful to each and every member of our global community. I am confident that it is this shared commitment to service that will get through this crisis together. 

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