Empowering Young Women & Refugees with Pathways to STEM Education Worldwide

by Sean Reilly, Director of Program Development, AFS Intercultural Programs

AFS Intercultural Programs has received the 2023 PIEoneer of the Year award, in recognition of our Global STEM Accelerators program. This flagship award from The PIE is one of the most important distinctions in the field of global education, recognizing innovations and advancements impacting the field for the better.

The AFS Global STEM Accelerators is a full-scholarship, virtual exchange program focused on empowering young women worldwide to become changemakers. We recognize that systemic barriers hold young women back from accessing quality education globally — especially women of color and refugees — and that the gender gap is especially prominent in STEM. We are determined to change that.


Since launching the program officially in 2022, we’ve welcomed 545 young women** from 90 countries, and we aim to welcome at least another 1,080 scholars over the next 3 years (1,625 minimum in total). **The program is inclusive of trans women and non-binary identities.

The program is breaking ground in four key areas:

  • Breaking down financial barriers – The program is 100% scholarship-driven, and AFS secured funding set to impact  5,000 young people over 5 years through a landmark grant with bp, the Global STEM Changemakers Initiative.
  • Radically diverse recruitment – AFS built a partnership with SPARK, an NGO serving refugees worldwide, to recruit from severely underrepresented populations  in education abroad – including in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq.
    • We allocate 20% of the Global STEM Accelerators spots to refugee and displaced youth, in response to the global refugee crisis and the fact that young women carry the burden of displacement related to war, natural disaster, and climate change.
  • Curriculum Innovation & Adaptation – Developed in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Center for Social Impact Strategy, the hands-on curriculum blends STEM learning, social impact, and global competence, and prepares scholars to develop social impact capstones. The program provides a rare opportunity for underserved young women to receive University-level certification and feedback.
    • Thus far, 85% of participants have earned the Advanced Certificate in Global Citizenship for Social Impact, from AFS and the Center for Social Impact Strategy at the University of Pennsylvania, for completing the program and presenting a social impact capstone project.
    • We’ve compiled a YouTube playlist to spotlight some of the scholars’ capstones.
  • Inclusive Infrastructure & Support – AFS sees infrastructure as an opportunity for inclusion. AFS provides wifi-enabled tablets and technical support to learners who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the internet. The program pairs asynchronous, self-paced modules with synchronous, facilitated global dialogue sessions, designed for the mobile devices to which students have most access. Students’ learning is guided by a diverse team of twelve certified facilitators, working across different time zones to accommodate learners around the world.
    • In the first comparative pre- and post-program quantitative assessment of the program, 100% of scholars demonstrated a noteworthy improvement in awareness of intercultural communication, perspective taking, and adaptability; 95% said that their participation enhanced their communication skills, connections with global peers, and exposure to diverse cultures; 50% shared this was the first time they had ever been encouraged to express their own ideas.
    • Some students even stated that the program was their first or only opportunity to access STEM education – especially the young women joining from Afghanistan – and for others, it was the first time they met peers from outside of their own communities.
    • To extend impact beyond the program, AFS has also created an alumni community where alumni can receive and share ongoing mentorship, skill-building workshops, internship opportunities, and higher-education application resources.

The PIEoneer Awards ceremony took place on September 22 in London, where 560 people from 21 countries gathered to celebrate the sector’s achievements. Sean Reilly, Director of Program Development, and Saskia Kaya, Program Manager of the Global STEM programs, were in attendance to receive the PIEoneer of the Year award on AFS’s behalf. AFS was also a finalist in the categories of Championing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Digital Innovation of the Year – Technology. AFS is grateful for the recognition. Click here to read more about the event.