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:

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.