JFK Addresses AFS Students at the White House – 1963

Back on July 18, 1963, as the AFS [see below] students who had spent their high school year in the United States, were preparing to go back to their countries, they got to visit the White House. JFK talked to them.

It would be another 11 years before I had the privilege to be chosen as an AFS student. I arrived in the United States two weeks after Nixon’s resignation on August 20, 1974. Our group did not get to visit the White House when we went home in July of 1975.

All my life I have been proud to have been an AFS student and to carry the mission forward of spreading peace in the world, one person at a time.

It’s gotten a little more difficult in recent years.

[AFS stands for American Field Service, today the largest and most famed high school student exchange program in the world]

AFS 40th Reunion in New York City

AFS is one of the world’s oldest and largest foreign exchange student organizations. The mission of AFS is to bring peace to the world, one person at a time. How can you be at war with Iran, if you have friends in Iran (I do). How can bigotry develop about Muslims if you have friendships with Muslims? How can you be against Hispanics when some of the greatest people you know are South Americans?

For the school year of 1974/75, I was one of over 2,000 students selected all over the world to spend a year in a U.S. high school. In those days, only about one out of 30 or more applicants were selected to participate in what turned out to be a life-changing experience for most of us.

We all arrived in August in New York at C.W. Post College (now Long Island University) for the initial orientation, and then we were bused all over the U.S. to spend our year in high school, before we departed on July 10, 1975, from C.W. Post again.

Recently a few dedicated people started organizing a Facebook group for our year. The group now has over 600 members (not bad for 2,000 participants). After organizing and planning for a year, 30 to 40 of us met last weekend in New York City for a four-day reunion. We chartered a bus to C.W. Post to see the hallowed grounds again that first received us over 40 years ago.

Here is Paulo, kissing the ground in front of Queens Hall, one of the dorms where we first stayed a life-time ago:

Kissing the Ground

We did lots of sightseeing, picnicked in Central Park, went on a boat tour around Manhattan, and ate at many good restaurants. We visited the offices of AFS International and AFS USA, both in New York City, and the presidents of both organizations addressed our group and shared in discussions about the future of the program.

Most of us had never met before. But that didn’t stop us from connecting on a deep level immediately. We all knew that we had been at the same place at C.W. Post that day when we were teenagers, we all shared the same experiences and all our lives had been massively affected by AFS. Brand-new AFS experiences and friendships are developing.

Plans for the next reunion in Turkey in 2016 are already underway.

This video sums it up very well:

Visiting AFS International

Of all the 2000 plus AFS foreign exchange students who came from all over the world to the United States for a year in 1974/75, some 40 to 60 of us came to New York for our 40-year-reunion.


Dr. Vincenzo Morlini is the current president of AFS International. AFS hosted our group for our reunion kick-off meeting on Friday morning and gave a heartwarming talk about the mission of AFS – bringing peace to the world – one person at a time. He himself was an AFS student in 1966.

Some notable other AFS alumni are:

  • Catherine Coleman, NASA astronaut
  • Jan Eliason, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations
  • Motohide Yoshikawa, Permanent Representative of Japan, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
  • Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund
  • — and thousands of others, including those in our group this weekend.

Click here to learn more about AFS.


AFS – 40 Years After

[photo credit: Roya]
[photo credit: Roya]
It was exactly 40 years ago, to the day, that I first stepped into an airplane. I was 18, and I left Germany on a Pan Am 747 to embark on a journey to New York, where I would spend a year as a high school foreign exchange student with the AFS program.

I had a window seat in the rear left of the plane. The wing was in front of me. Since it was my first flight, I could not get over the views out the window. Endless covers of clouds as we departed Frankfurt only allowed occasional glimpses of the green summer hills of Germany below. I had headphones on and I remember listening to the soundtrack of the plane, since this was before mobile music devices existed. The two songs I vividly remember is Sunshine on my Shoulders by John Denver and Free Man in Paris by Joni Mitchell. Whenever I hear those songs now I remember sitting in that plane and looking out over the endless white carpet of clouds under a brilliant blue sky. We took off around 5:00pm and heading west to New York, the day just never ended until the sun slowly went down as we descended into Kennedy Airport nine hours later.

I had not left a radius of 200 miles around my home all my life until I took this trip. I had never flown before. I remember thinking of how small Germany was and how quickly we left it behind and pushed forward over the North Sea toward England. “Good bye, little Germany,” I thought.

AFS changed my life in so many ways, I cannot even fathom what it would have been like without this experience. It is now 40 years later, and I am still an AFSer, I still volunteer my time to make similar experiences possible for the young students of today. AFS’s mission is to create peace around the world, one person at a time. And for me, I must say, it has certainly done that. My entire worldview, the essence of who I am, is shaped directly by my AFS experience initially, and by the life choices I have made in the 39 years following it.

Then, a few days ago, I saw this Facebook post by my niece, Roya, who just started her own AFS experience as an exchange student in Colorado Springs. It was her who took the picture at the top of this post. I remember taking pictures out of the window, but I no longer have any of those photographs – they were all lost over the years. When I saw Roya’s photo, I realized that she must have sat at pretty much the same place on the plane, the left rear, as I did 40 years before. The picture reminded me of my own experience.

Then I read her caption: “Good bye, little Germany.”

Thanks for bringing this alive for me, Roya. The AFS experience carries on.


High Heat for AFS

Last Sunday three AFS exchange students, who are in San Diego for the summer to learn English, spent the day with us. We took them on a tough hike up and down Mt. Woodson. Here we are at the entry to the hike, with Trisha and the three boys, from China, Turkey and Italy.

High Heat

After the hike, they cooled off in the pool, then Trisha took them to the mall. Yes, the boys from Europe liked the mall and our low prices, but the boy from China said that things were too expensive. We told him that’s because everything in the mall is from China. They wanted donuts – something Europeans see in the movies and don’t ever get. So a trip to the world-renowned Peterson’s Donuts in Escondido and a full box to take back to the dorm with them took care of that urge. After a BBQ dinner, we ended the day with a board game.

Everyone should spend some time with foreign students – it really spins our perspective.

Mandatory Criminal Background Checks

I am a volunteer for AFS, the leading international student exchange program for high school students. As a volunteer, I occasionally give rides to students to and from events, or from the airport when they arrive. I also participate in orientations for the students and host families, where I may lead discussion circles, or just participate for fun.

To protect our hosted students, who are between 16 and 18 years old when they arrive in the U.S., the United States Department of State requires that all AFS volunteers be registered anew every year. Part of the registration is a criminal background check. I just submitted my own information again to the company that performs that background check. AFS pays for this. The whole process takes about 3 minutes online.

To give rides and instruction to foreign high school students, the State Department requires that I undergo a criminal background check.

Yet, I can go to a gun show and purchase an assault rifle and a 100-round magazine without any background check. The State Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the ATF, they are all fine with this.


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!