Changing the world one student, one family at a time - that’s what AFS Intercultural Programs aims to do.
What started out as an American ambulance field service during World War I over a century ago, has now become the world’s largest intercultural learning organisation through its education, youth and volunteer exchange programmes.
AFS is a bold idea. It envisions a world where individuals and institutions are empowered to actively work towards advancing global understanding and positively impacting their respective communities.
How do we build peace through international exchanges? The mission is still so urgent today because we have so many conflicts around the world and within countries
This, according to current president and CEO Daniel Obst, is only possible through embracing differences in an increasingly diverse future.
In this regard, he says the role of AFS has never been more urgent due to the rise of inequality, conflicts and nationalism.
“I think it’s one of the big challenges we face in the world,” says Obst. “Seeing countries throwing up walls of orders, exiting unions or just (having) a more parochial visions of what it is to be in a country - this is a real challenge for us,” he adds.
“I think this is at the heart of the mission of AFS. It was founded during the First World War but the exchange programme started after the Second World War with the notion of peace, essentially.”
“How do we build peace through international exchanges? The mission is still so urgent today because we have so many conflicts around the world and within countries.”
Hope For The Future
AFS works in 94 countries around the world, providing opportunities for around 12,000 young people who take part in the AFS programmes, which are supported by more than 50,000 volunteers and staff, along with some 8,500 host families.
“Intercultural learning is so important as it’s not just for the students but also for the families and communities,” he says, adding that most of the student participants are aged between 16 to 18 years old.
Many don’t have the opportunity to study or travel abroad. So, how else do you want to make sure your family has a window to the world?
“Many don’t have the opportunity to study or travel abroad. So, how else do you want to make sure your family has a window to the world?.”
Obst’s passion in intercultural learning is also partly driven by his own upbringing. The German-American, who is in his second year as AFS president, experienced first hand the positive impacts of ‘opening up one’s home’ to diversity.
“I grew up in this bi-national, bi-cultural household,” says Obst. “I grew up in Germany with an American father and a German mother but I wanted to experience the American side of me. So, I did a high school exchange programme,” reminisce Obst.
“When I was six years old, my parents adopted a 12-year-old refugee boy from Cambodia. Then a few years later, I got a sister from India and another brother from Colombia.”
“So, to me this was always something like ‘How do you actually practice inclusion? How do you live and communicate with people from different cultures who may have gone through trauma?’ This was always something that I wanted to be part of,” says Obst, who joked that he thought he would end up as a diplomat instead, given his academic background in International Relations.
“One of the most important things we can do is to do education diplomacy, to exchange people and ideas around the world,” he adds.
Part of AFS’ core mission is also to ensure that more people from diverse and underserved communities participate and benefit from its initiatives.
“To me, it’s really important that international education and intercultural exchanges are not an elite thing,” says Obst. “We really have to make sure that we reach into public schools and into rural areas.”
Diversity is one thing, inclusion is the hard piece
“Diversity is one thing, inclusion is the hard piece,” he says. In Malaysia, AFS formed a partnership with Teach for Malaysia to enable its programmes to reach underserved schools.
“For all those who don’t have the opportunity to go abroad, this is how we make it possible for everybody to have a window into the world,” says Obst.
In Malaysia, AFS has partnered Sunway University and secondary schools - SMK Dato' Panglima Perang Kiri in Tapah and SMK Pasir Gudang 3 in Johor, to establish AFS clubs to reach out to those who are interested in intercultural learning.
“I was impressed to experience such a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.” says Obst. “I think there’s a lot to learn from Malaysia. It’s a great opportunity for students to come here and experience it.”
Global Competence and Intercultural Learning
At the end of it all, AFS should not be seen as a programme solely for student exchange, says Obst.
Through AFS, participants learn invaluable traits such as respect for others, openness to different ideas and the ability to effectively collaborate and communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds.
Young people are asking for this. They want to have a window into the world, they want to be able to live alongside others. They are looking for purpose
These global competency traits, says Obst, are increasingly considered as important workplace skills.
As such, AFS came up with a self-assessment tool called the AFS Global Competence Readiness Index for Schools, aimed at helping teachers to equip students with necessary skills thrive in a interconnected world and make global competence development a core part of schools.
“Global competence comprises of a couple of elements. One, the awareness and understanding of issues that affect the world. Second, openness to other cultures and diverse points of view. Third is to take action for sustainable development in the world. To me, education is not just about knowledge and skills, it’s also about attitude and values.”
The framework, jointly developed by AFS and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) arm of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) began testing in September 2018 worldwide.
“Young people are asking for this, actually. They want to have a window into the world, they want to be able to live alongside others. They are looking for purpose.”
“I think schools will start having to really work on that. But that, it means we need more tools for teachers, more tools for principals and more resources for schools. That’s what AFS is really working on,” says Obst.