75 years ago, the first students set off on the new AFS high school exchange programs. Through the vision of our founders, AFS was transformed from a humanitarian ambulance service created in the two World Wars to what it is today—a groundbreaking international exchange, volunteer, and intercultural learning organization, with more than 500,000 alumni and operations reaching nearly 100 countries.

A question posed by Steven Galatti, the first Director General of AFS set things in motion:

What, if any, is the position of the American Field Service in peacetime? I have believed for some time that the AFS can further international friendships, if it can do this through the organized exchange of scholars between this country and those allied countries with whom we have served.” In a reunion in New York City in September 1946, the AFS volunteers from World Wars I and II officially endorsed the creation of a student exchange program, the American Field Service International Scholarships (AFSIS), known today as AFS Intercultural Programs.

On the left: AFS exchange students on a bus trip during their program. from the September 24, 1952 issue of “World Week”. On the right: An AFS exchange student in Paraguay in 2022.

In 1947, 28 secondary students from France, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Norway, England, and Syria went to the United States on an AFS scholarship program. They were joined by 22 college students from France, New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, Greece, England, Estonia, and Hungary. Many generous people were quick to offer their hospitality and acted as host families for foreign students, a concept that remains fundamental to AFS’ network today.

The idea of student exchanges did not first come up after World War II. As early as 1919, The AFS Fellowships for French Universities were established to fund an exchange of students from the U.S. and France. AFS founder A. Piatt Andrew described the purpose of the program as a way to continue peaceful ties between these two countries after World War I. The fellowships came to a halt when AFS was reactivated as a volunteer ambulance corps shortly after the start of World War II under Galatti’s leadership. 

The second World War helped build a better foundation for future AFS student exchanges. AFS increased its numbers and strengthened its ability to organize, send, and communicate with volunteers serving worldwide. Galatti and other former AFS drivers confidently returned to the idea of cross-cultural educational exchanges after the war, but on a much larger scale—and focused on a younger audience, secondary school students. 

Documents within the AFS Archives capture how these brave young AFS participants reached their final destinations: for the first 22 years, until the summer of 1969, they traveled by ship. One of the fondest memories for many AFS alumni are still the bus tours within the U.S., a unique opportunity to get a deep understanding of the United States, and to build life-long friendships along the way. 

Numerous important milestones would go on to mark AFS high school exchanges. In 1950 U.S. Americants first started going abroad, while in 1971 AFS established Multinational Programs, ensuring that young people from around the world would get to meet and exchange with each other. The educational component of the program, was further strengthened in 1984 when the programs’ Educational Goals were defined, offering structure to the experiential, lifelong and non-formal learning of AFS participants.

Over the years, AFS alumni have made an impact across industries and at the forefront of important international issues and social causes further confirms this. Our alumni include presidents like Gabriel Boric in Chile, Jan Eliasson, who served as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Christine Lagarde leading the International Monetary Fun, and Samantha Cristoforetti, the first woman to command the International Space Station.

On the left: Director General Stephen Galatti with participants at a farewell party in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S. in 1959. On the right: Daniel Obst, current President and CEO of AFS Intercultural Programs with exchange students and volunteers in 2022 in Athens.

The American Field Service believes in youth—in its ability to see clearly, to see through the fog of propaganda, to see with the eyes of the heart. This is so of the youth of all nations…and it is to this proposition that the entire AFS is now devoted.”—Steven Galatti’s words ring true even today.

Today, AFS runs international exchange programs, education initiatives, volunteerism and advocacy, to empower young people from all backgrounds with essential global skills—and the passion for making a difference. We deliver mission-driven impact three ways, as our network of 55 organizations across five continents works to:

  • Develop active global citizens to take action
  • Globalize schools and institutions
  • Expand access to intercultural education with scholarships and outreach.

We’re proud of our 75-year-long experience in creating a more just and peaceful world through intercultural exchange. Prioritizing an open exchange of people and ideas continues to be essential for the world—and for AFS—today. That’s why AFS will continue the legacy of our founders, and empower more young people to engage with others to spark curiosity, build friendships and take action to make the world a better place,” concluded Daniel Obst, President and CEO of AFS intercultural Programs, at the Network Meeting in Athens, Greece in May 2022 which gathered 200 leaders of our global network. 

Download the 2022 AFS Janus