AFS alumni are making an impact across industries, in the private and public sectors and at the forefront of important international issues and social causes. For some, helping others is their life’s work. For many, volunteerism and social action are central to their personal values.
In over 70+ years of AFS study abroad programs, our alumni have gone on to achieve some impressive accomplishments in their careers. Here is a (by no means extensive) list of some of AFS alumni are:
- Austrian researcher and economist Gudrun Biffl (Austria to USA, 1966), was awarded the Gabriele Possanner Appreciation Award 2017 in recognition of her scientific lifetime achievement in the field of economics and gender studies.
- Social entrepreneur Vandré Luis Meneses Brilhante (Brazil to USA, 1987) founded the Centro Integrado de Estudo e Programas de Desenvolvimento Sustentável (Integrated Center for Sustainable Development Studies and Programs), which partners with public and private institutions throughout Brazil. Over the past 20 years, the Center has delivered more than 400 social impact projects serving 500,000+ Brazilians.
- Tech innovator Regina Agyare Honu (Ghana to Norway, 2000), Ghanaian changemaker and founder of Soronko Academy and Tech for Girls, was named one of the BBC 100 Women for empowering women and girls with technology skills.
- Motivated by the desire to empower young people with intercultural understanding, respect for differences and foreign language skills, Jenny K. Messner (USA to Brazil, 1970) and her husband, Michael Messner, established the Speedwell Foundation Study Abroad Scholarship Program. The Foundation also supports inner-city education, college scholarships, and the restoration and expansion of urban parks and green spaces. “My exchange to Brazil in 1970 so profoundly changed my life that when I was able to give back, I knew exactly what I would do […] The program we created with AFS is one of the best returns on investment that we have experienced.”
- Social entrepreneur Jason Grullón (Dominican Republic to Germany, 2008) co-founded the ethical fashion company, Virtù, which promotes fair prices and empowers the people and communities (in the Dominican Republic and around the world) that produce his quality clothes. The CEO credits his AFS experiences with his motivation to help others. “My AFS experience is so ingrained in the way I approach both personal and business decisions that I consider it one of the main drivers of my ventures.”
- After spending 16 years helping build Amazon into a groundbreaking global empire, Diego Piacentini (Italy to USA, 1977) made a major mid-career pivot to put his international business experience to work for his home country. The former vice president of Amazon’s international consumer business provided pro bono services to the Italian government. While on leave from Amazon, he acted as the Government Commissioner for the Digital Agenda leading Italy’s digital transformation by simplifying the relationship between the public administration, citizens and businesses. Like technology, Diego claims that his “[study abroad] experience was a real game changer.”
- “The fundamental richness of human beings is in understanding the other,” says Susana Malcorra (Argentina to USA, 1971), the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina. An engineer by training, these words have served the former Head of the Executive Office at the United Nations well in her impressive career in public service. Over the years the Argentine alumna has advocated for intercultural dialogue as a tool for resolving global challenges such as the current refugee crisis and fostering peace in the world. Having served as Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme, Susana also knows first hand what it takes to provide humanitarian aid in more than 80 countries.
- Anies Rasyid Baswedan, Ph. D., Governor of Jakarta, Indonesia (Indonesia to USA, 1987) founded the “Gerakan Indonesia Mengajar” (Teaching Indonesia Movement), which enables young educators to volunteer at elementary schools and donate books to schools and children in rural areas. Recognized for his groundbreaking accomplishments, Anies was the moderator of the historic and first presidential debate in the country, the youngest president of a university and the spokesperson for a national anti-corruption group.
- The work of Ulrike Lunacek, former Vice-President of the European Parliament (Austria to USA, 1973), in foreign affairs positions her as an ideal advocate for civil liberties and human rights—including the rights of women, ethnic and sexual minorities. Ulrike also promotes fair trade and corporate social responsibility to protect the environment. This global citizen was the first openly lesbian politician in her home country, Austria, and the first openly lesbian woman to hold a senior position in a European Union institution. In 2014, Ulrike handed Pope Francis a rainbow scarf (as a symbol for peace, indigenous peoples and the LGBTQ community) on his visit to the European Parliament.
- Morten Kjærum, Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (Denmark to USA, 1974) is a longtime human rights activist with an impressive track record. Morten created and led the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) from 1991 to 2008 and then became the first director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. Today, he is the Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, which promotes universal respect for human rights and humanitarian law, in affiliation with Lund University. For six years Morten was a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and today he is the chair of ECRE—the biggest non-governmental network of humanitarian organizations assisting refugees in Europe.
- Jakub Walenda, Chair of Gemeinsam TECHO e.V. (Germany to Chile, 2011) and Maddalena Andolfato, Volunteer for TECHO (Italy to Costa Rica, 2014): These two outstanding AFS alumni from different countries volunteer for TECHO, a youth-led non-profit organization. TECHO collaborates with local families in 19 Latin American countries and the Caribbean to eradicate extreme poverty. Jakub Walenda was the first chair of the TECHO volunteer organization in Germany after returning from his AFS program in Chile. Under his leadership, TECHO Germany has raised money, recruited hundreds of young volunteers and enabled dozens of young people to become changemakers. As a Europe Coordinator, Jakub helped establish volunteer teams in Belgium, France, UK, Switzerland and Germany, raising approximately USD 150,000 for social projects in Latin America. During her AFS program in Costa Rica, Maddalena Andolfato was deeply impacted by her volunteering experiences for TECHO. In a powerful gesture of support, Maddalena celebrated her 18th birthday with a crowdfunding campaign that raised over 7,000 EUR—enough for two houses in Costa Rica, and the campaign is still open.
- Margaret Marshall J.D., Senior Counsel, Choate, Hall & Stewart LLP, Boston, USA (South Africa to USA, 1962) began her lifelong journey as a human rights advocate leading the National Union of South African Students’ fight against apartheid while attending college in Johannesburg. Over the years, many milestones have marked her distinguished legal career. She was the first woman to hold positions such as Vice President and General Counsel of Harvard University and Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. As Chief Justice, Marshall wrote the landmark 2003 decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health to allow same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. The ruling helped spark the marriage equality debate worldwide. Chief Justice Marshall is the recipient of many honorary degrees and other professional awards, including an honorary degree from her undergraduate alma mater in South Africa, and one from her law school alma mater, Yale University. In 2014, Marshall’s contributions to civil rights and civil liberties were recognized by the American Bar Association with the prestigious Thurgood Marshall Award, named for the late Justice Marshall who was the first African American to sit on the United States Supreme Court.
- From negotiating conflict resolutions to providing critical humanitarian aid, Jan Eliasson, former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations (Sweden to USA, 1957), has devoted his life to the service of others. Today, the former Swedish Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the U.S. serves as the Deputy Secretary General and second-in-command of the United Nations. In keeping with his roots as a key UN mediator and human relief director, Eliasson helped launch the Human Rights Up Front initiative, which represents an important step forward for human rights at the UN. Rights Up Front ensures that the UN System (which includes specialized agencies and affiliated organizations) takes early and effective action to prevent or respond to large-scale violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.
- So, does AFS provide an adventure of a lifetime—or the promise of a lifetime of adventure? For Samantha Cristoforetti, European Space Agency Astronaut on the International Space Station (Italy to USA, 1994), both are true. Italian Air Force Captain Cristoforetti started her “out of this world” journey with a visit to the U.S. Space Camp during her AFS exchange. Today, she is the first Italian woman in space. On November 23, 2014, Cristoforetti and two other astronauts successfully docked at the International Space Station. Her mission included a variety of scientific experiments. A true inspiration to the next generation of space travelers, the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Famer enjoys communicating with space enthusiasts on Twitter as @AstroSamantha. She also serves as the spokesperson for Mission X: Train Like an Astronaut, which engages children ages 8 to 12 in science, fitness and nutrition activities.
- Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (France to USA, 1973) was ranked the fifth most powerful woman in the world in 2014 by Forbes magazine. Since taking the helm of the 188-member-country organization, the former French Finance Minister has urged policymakers to reform fiscal policies, invest in infrastructure and create jobs. The noted antitrust and labor lawyer and longtime advocate for women’s equality has also renewed the IMF’s efforts to strengthen the role of women in the world economy.
- Matthew Naylor, Ph.D., President and CEO, The National World War I Museum and Memorial, USA (Australia to USA, 1980), joined the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City (USA) just in time to oversee the highly anticipated 100th centennial commemoration of the Great War, which he describes as “the most dramatic period of social change in human history.” Ranked one of the top 25 museums in the United States and top 10 museums devoted to military history, the museum holds the most diverse collection of WWI objects and documents in the world, including objects of the American Field Service. It is also known for its dynamic public programs, often hosting scholars from around the world.
- Renat Heuberger, CEO of South Pole Carbon (Switzerland, 1993): Who says you can’t do good and build a successful business? Social entrepreneur Renat Heuberger has turned his passion for sustainability into a thriving international enterprise headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, with 12 offices worldwide and operations in 25 countries. South Pole Group helps companies reach their sustainability targets through innovative, award-winning products and solutions that address climate change and promote renewable energy. Partnering with over 1,000 leading global companies, South Pole Group has enabled around 300 projects worldwide in the field of renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste handling, agriculture and forestry. These projects reduced 50 million tons of CO2, saved over 20,000 hectares of forests (approximately 77 square miles or 200 square kilometers) and created more than 20,000 jobs.
- Isais Salas Herrera, M.D., Ph.D., Director of National Center for Pain Control and Palliative Care, Costa Rica (Costa Rica to USA, 1971) has dedicated his impressive career to improving the quality of life of patients suffering from acute and chronic pain. His research and clinical work in pain management and palliative care helps patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and other debilitating illnesses. Palliative care takes a holistic approach to relieving physical, psychological, social and spiritual pain, and to compassionate end-of-life care. An internationally recognized pioneer in this field, Herrera founded the National Center for Pain Control and Palliative Care. This network of 45 centers serve between 60,000 to 70,000 patients and their families annually, offering low-cost and free medical care and assistance to those in need.