After almost two decades at AFS leading cornerstone strategic initiatives to strengthen AFS as a future-ready education organization and, most recently, serving as the Executive Director of the AFS Center for Intercultural Learning and Global Competence Education, Melissa Liles has decided to take on new opportunities beyond AFS

We are sad to see her leave, but appreciate Melissa’s relentless efforts to ensure that we are true to our word as educators and changemakers driven by the singular goal of helping people learn to live together as Active Global Citizens. 

Among Melissa’s many accomplishments are:

  • developing and adopting educational goals, learning journeys and assessments for AFS participants and families to strengthen program content and improve the educational outcomes of AFS programs; 
  • developing a state-of-the-art internal learning and training program to ensure that the 50,000 AFS Network staff and volunteers deliver on our educational objectives; 
  • modernizing AFS’s programming to provide relevant, accessible digital and virtual education offers to teen and adult learners;
  • working with educators, policymakers and researchers worldwide to expand AFS’s impact and reach; 
  • co-leading the Future AFS initiative resulting in the 2018-22 AFS Network Strategy;
  • advancing the visibility of AFS through thought leadership and partnerships with the OECD, UN, UNESCO, Teach for All, CISV, and others; and
  • reestablishing AFS operations in India, after a 40 year absence, as acting National Director in 2004-05. 

We count on staying in close touch with Melissa and know she will continue to have a transformational impact as she helps tackle the great challenges facing the world today. We are grateful for her vibrant legacy that will continue to impact AFS long into the future. 

by Daniel Obst, President & CEO of AFS Intercultural Programs

A Love Letter to AFS

by Melissa Liles

It’s February, and in the US, that means that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, giving me the perfect opening to share a very special love letter. This is dedicated to AFS, AFSers and friends of AFS worldwide, past, present and future, who have indelibly shaped my life for close to 20 years. I hope you’ll indulge me by letting me share a few personal reflections —plus some favorite pics from my trusty AFS photo album— about how the work we’ve done together has changed me immeasurably. I am sincerely grateful for this and invite you to stay in touch with me at [email protected] or LinkedIn.

Melissa Liles surrounded by some of her favorite AFSers —schoolteachers— at Garuda Wisnu Kencana Park dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, warrior against injustice and protector of humankind, in Bali in 2012.

After almost two incredible, truly rewarding decades serving the AFS mission leading the organization’s education efforts and more, the close of this past tumultuous (to say the least!) year has given me a chance to reflect on how I can continue to grow personally and professionally and on what next professional adventures await.

This is a time of tremendous change worldwide, and with great changes come great opportunities. If you are anything like me, you see that the need for deeper global understanding is greater than ever before. And so it is that I feel called to find new ways to help individuals and organizations connect across their differences, building upon my wonderful AFS experience. It is with a heart swelling with gratitude and appreciation that I am moving on from AFS to seize new opportunities ahead.

My own AFS journey began, aptly enough, in February all those years ago as it does for so many: As a volunteer. Little did I know how dramatically and profoundly my life would change from that point forward. 

My task at the time? To use my then professional background in market research to understand the global environment relevant for AFS and identify the key “trends and influences” that the organization would need to either navigate or exploit for ongoing success. 

Which is to say that my initial involvement was at a strategic level, very much removed from daily operations that make up the normal workload for an AFS volunteer. [AFS volunteers are of course the 50,000 strong backbone of the organization who do the daily hands-on fieldwork of preparing and supporting AFS students, families and teachers in over 60 countries. You can well imagine how the pandemic has complicated and made even more urgent their important work.]

For me, this “behind the scenes” leadership role was actually quite appealing: I already knew from having been an exchange student myself—one who traveled from a middle class US suburbia to the rain-soaked pastures of northern France and into a warm and welcoming family of robinetterie factory workers—how personally transformative a year abroad was. As a result, I was keen to help others have such an experience. But, remembering equally how I had been at age 15-16, the thought of working directly with teens was, in a word, terrifying. 

And so, when invited, I gladly joined the AFS global HQ in a “backstage,” so to speak, staff capacity with my next assignment lined up: To help with the reboot of AFS India following 40 years of it having been dormant. In keeping with my then-preferred style, my focus was mainly to be on the nuts and bolts of building the infrastructure needed to run AFS operations—setting up banking and legal arrangements, reconnecting with alumni, identifying new (adult) volunteers, etc. It was exciting, heady work to be a part of something so important and with such huge potential from the ground up. But imagine my very great surprise when my senior colleague who was spearheading the effort along with me shared that she was pregnant and no longer able to travel…which meant I’d be continuing the set-up, including working directly with students and families, on my own (although with her supporting me remotely every step of the way, of course). 

With this unexpected plot twist, I dove headfirst into the world of hands-on AFS program operations. This meant one-on-one meetings with school heads and teachers, holding presentations and Q&A sessions about what an AFS year abroad was, and convincing understandably skeptical parents to entrust me and our yet-unknown-to-them organization with their most precious assets—their children. And as for working directly with 15 to 17 year olds, suddenly I found myself with them 24-7, doing everything from finding buses to move us to and from trips to the airport, to conducting exchange student candidate interviews, to even playing chaperone by sleeping on a rather uncomfortable bench outside the girls and boys wings of our improvised dormitory during the pre-departure orientation. (Mind you, there were plenty of glamourous highlights too, such as a chance meeting with Ramchandra Gandhi, philosopher and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, at the India International Center which temporarily served as AFS India’s HQ, and being hosted at lavish receptions by the US and Norwegian ambassadors.)

It was under this set of unique circumstances and special time that the organization worked its magic on me: I feel deeply, irreversibly in love with AFS. Seeing these 15 and 16 year olds who possessed maturity beyond their years yet who were vulnerable enough to, like me all those years ago, put themselves out there to enter into and become shaped by the unknown was no longer fearful, but inspirational. (Looking at you Poorva Karkare and Zuheir Desai!)  

It made me realize that in AFS and the deep education it provides about oneself, others, and how to connect across the differences between us, I had found my calling. 

From this auspicious start sprang new professional adventures galore: The opportunity to work in China to establish AFS’s volunteer base there; to lead AFS program management services worldwide; to establish and run an internal “business intelligence” and organizational health improvement unit for all 60 AFS national offices; and, dearest to my heart only after my work in India, to lead the effort to bring AFS back to its educational and learning roots. The latter has meant everything from revisiting our educational goals, methodology and tools, to reuniting AFSers with our intercultural learning (or “ICL”) ethos so that they see themselves as incredibly impactful real-life educators, to connecting with other education players around the world to work to advocate for the integration of global competence into education systems alongside numeracy and literacy in order to make it a right for all rather than a privilege for only the few.

And it’s all thanks to that early time, first as a volunteer, and then in India —where I even became the organization’s first National Director— that learning how to live together and the power of educating people to connect across differences has been what has been central to me and motivated me to champion the AFS mission.

Tempting as it is to regale you with even more stories from the long list of many hats I’ve had the pleasure and honor of wearing during my AFS tenure, I won’t bore you with the details

I will, however, say that it’s been a humbling experience and that the learning AFS imparts is not just for the students or the families. Or the teachers and volunteers. I assure you that AFS’s educational impact is for all of us and I have grown immensely thanks to AFS. 

And I am proud that, thanks to the work we’ve done together, today AFS is seen as an important education organization, but I am prouder yet that AFS volunteers and staff see themselves as educators who have the ability and tools to transform lives. Equally, this means that AFS has now not only impacts those we touch directly with our exchange programs and other offers, but also has an important leadership role within the education space.

It’s impossible to articulate the totality of what I’ve learned over all these years, but I walk forward from AFS knowing one thing for certain: In the end, it’s all about the PEOPLE

This is what the founding American Ambulance Field Service drivers discovered on the battlefields of Flanders, in the theatres of North Africa and Southeast Asia, and at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen when they answered the call of all those who needed them, regardless of what side of the conflict they might have been on. It’s what AFS students and host families learn each year when they fall in love with each other and find someone who will, for the rest of their lives, be “My mom in Thailand,” “My son in Italy,” or “My sister in Colombia.” It’s what keeps our volunteers coming back time after time to serve a noble mission. And it’s the chance to connect with other people equally impassioned about making the world better that today, in a time of needs-must, brings thousands of new “digital” AFSers — not only teens but also teachers and adult learners. AFS truly turns places into people and this is one of the surest ways to build real global understanding.

As the news of my departure has come out, I’ve been overwhelmed with the outpouring of well wishes and love from individuals all around the world. These are not mere colleagues, but co-champions and true friends with whom I know I share an enduring bond. 

And I hasten to add that all my contributions to AFS have been on the shoulders of those who came before me. Serving the AFS mission is most decidedly a collective effort. Again, it’s all about the people.

So thank you AFS and AFSers worldwide. I have learned so much from you that I take forward with me. I promise to do you proud in the important work ahead!