AFS alumni are making an impact across industries, at the forefront of important international issues and social causes, and Anders Adlercreutz from Finland is a proud member of this global community. Mr Adlercreutz is the Minister for European Affairs and Ownership Steering in the Government of Finland, responsible for matters related to the European Union like representing Finland in the EU General Affairs Council. He studied abroad with AFS in 1987, going from Finland to Portugal, and has also served as a host family with AFS Finland several times.
Mr Adlercreutz shared more about how his AFS experiences have impacted his life and career in the following interview.
What motivated you to study abroad with AFS?
Finland wasn’t a very international place at the end of the 80s, but in my family the idea of an exchange year was present in many ways. Both of my parents had studied abroad, we often had international guests and my sister had done an exchange year in West Germany a few years earlier. For me, the idea of going abroad for a year was in that sense a very natural decision. I wanted to see the world and especially, to see something different from my ordinary life. That’s also why I chose to go to Portugal and not to the US, the typical decisions at that time.
How did your intercultural experience with AFS impact your life after the program?
My year as an exchange student changed really everything for me. It did, among other things, lead to my meeting my wife, Ia, who was abroad through the AFS the same year. We met at an AFS meeting shortly after returning from our exchange years.
But it also taught me a lot about myself. It built my confidence, it showed me that I can adapt, overcome obstacles, wander outside my comfort zone. It was instrumental in helping me make the decision to start studying architecture. And on a more practical level, it gave me not only a new language but also the keys to Latin culture as a whole. I learnt Portuguese, which helped me learn Spanish and Italian after that.
So I think it is in no way an exaggeration to say that my life probably would have developed in a totally different direction—also considering the work I do now—had I not been an exchange student.
What do you wish more people knew about international exchanges, like the AFS program?
Being an exchange student isn’t the same as being on a holiday. It is an adventure, but not in the way a holiday trip is. It is about learning about oneself, testing the borders of one’s mind, about adapting to the everyday life of another family, in another culture.
The place is less important than the change of setting and the learning experience as a whole.
What did you learn from being a host family?
The great thing about an exchange is that you can be at both ends of the equation. Upon returning from Portugal my own family had a Brazilian exchange student in our house. She now lives in Finland and is, as I say, my half sister.
Our present family—my wife, our five kids and myself—have had several exchange students. At present we have an Indonesian girl living with us.
This experience is just as rewarding, but in a different way. When somebody from the outside comes to live with you, it forces you to evaluate and rethink many of the things you have around you. You get a new perspective on things you might not have even noticed for a while. In that sense it is also a learning experience.
Lastly you get a new family member. We are in close contact with every student we have had. All of them have visited Finland after their stay and all of them are very dear to us.
How do you use your experiences as an exchange student and host family in your professional and daily life?
In my work you really have to have an open mind. It is a great advantage to know about other cultures and also through that, understand how differently we might view things. In my role as Minister of European Affairs my international experience has been a great benefit.
We often think that language is just communication. Why can’t everybody just speak our lingua franca, English? I have a different view. When you speak the language of your counterpart you express humility and a will to understand his or her point of view. In politics this is really helpful.