AFS – For a Lifetime

Every year I coordinate the local AFS departure day. For the uninitiated, AFS stands originally stood for “American Field Service” and since about WW II it is the most reputable high school student exchange organization in the world. Here is a link for the local San Diego team.

The students come from many countries all over the world and spend a year in a U.S. high school, usually at the senior level. They arrive in early August and leave on the last Sunday in June. AFS students live with a host family. It’s not a “travel” program, it’s a cultural immersion program. Besides making many friends in high school and gaining a new family – which often becomes a family for a lifetime, the students also become friends with the other AFS students placed in the local community. They get together for weekends and day activities a number of times during the year, and at the end of the stay, they are usually great friends. In San Diego, we usually have between 15 and 22 students every year from perhaps 10 to 15 different countries. This last year we had students from Germany, China, Thailand, Belgium, Turkey, Paraguay, Japan, Austria, France, Chile and Switzerland (I hope I remembered them all).

At the end-of-stay event, the students are together in one room for the last time – ever. AFS students often come back to visit their families and friends in future years, but they never all come back at the same time, of course. When I am with them, coaching them about their imminent departure logistics, I am always in awe about the fact that these kids, who are so close and engaged with each other, will be in airplanes racing away in all different directions within the next 24 hours, and they will all be back in their home countries 48 hours later – spread out all over the world.

Nothing can describe what happens to a young person when they immerse themselves in a different culture, speak and think a different language, make an entirely new group of friends, gain a whole new family and learn a completely new cultural perspective, all over a period of a full year. You grow up not one year, but many years at once, and when you go home, it all seems like an intense, surreal dream.

I still remember the disconnect when I went home after my AFS year 37 years ago. It was much harder readjusting back home than it was adjusting in the U.S. in the first place as an exchange student.

One of my students this year is on my friend list on Facebook. He stayed with a wonderful family and had a great experience during his stay here. After he went back to Japan, he posted on Facebook the next morning.

When I read this, tears welled up, because I remember thinking the very same thing, so clearly, so very long ago:

I just got up. I’m in my room. I think I was sleeping for like an entire year or something. And I had a long dream. In the dream I was in a country called the USA. I went to school there. I made friends with a lot of amazing people. And most importantly, I lived with probably the most wonderful people I know. Well I just got up. And the time is up. I wish the dream went on longer. But even if it’s not real, I sincerely want to thank all the people that were in my great dream. THANK YOU. And the dream is over. That’s reality.

Thanks, Tai, wonderfully put! You are now an AFS returnee!

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