Step out of your bubble – A call for trying different tables

This blog post was contributed by our intern at AFS International, Lisa Hischer from Germany, who is working on education and school relations. After finishing her BA in Cultural Studies and Educational Sciences, Lisa went to Ecuador for doing voluntary work in the jungle. In summer 2014 she interned at InterCultur (a subsidiary of AFS Germany), where she prepared and took part in intercultural Summer Academies in Istanbul and Karlsruhe.

Excited about learning more about intercultural education, I arrived to my new home in New York City – a women’s residence in the heart of Manhattan for about 380 girls from all over the world. After a couple of days I developed my own routine and I found myself waiting in line to get my ticket for dinner. Girls in pajamas, business dresses, flip-flops or sportswear were eating everything from a small healthy salad to a pile of French fries. The room was filled with the buzzing sound of different languages: Dutch, Spanish, German, was that Turkish?, French and of course English with many different dialects and accents. So far, so good. But when I looked closer, I noticed that most of the Germans, English, French, etc. all seemed to sit together – mixed tables were rather few. What was that about?

I researched this a little bit on the internet and quickly discovered that I was not the only one wondering about this phenomenon of people from one country, ethnicity or community sticking together. I found this post of a college girl:

“Why do people only hang out within their ethnic groups? Ok, first this is just an observation. I am not a racist, and I am not trying to stir things up. But I was at my freshmen orientation for college […] and then everyone went to lunch and what I noticed first is that it looked segregated! Asians sitting all with Asians, African Americans sitting all with African Americans, whites sitting with whites. I mean literally, they were all sitting within their own ethnic groups and I didn’t see any MIXTURE OF people and I sat down also to eat, and I was just looking around and amazed. And its not just here, I’ve noticed that other places too, like school, classes, library, etc.”

Another girl from Penn State University posted this video:

Apparently there were more people out there who notice and question this behavior of groups. But why do people act like that?

Coming back to my situation in the dining room: Most of the girls haven’t been living in NYC for a long time, they moved to a foreign country and work or study in a new environment – isn’t it comprehensible to seek for something familiar in these new and maybe a little overwhelming living conditions? Speaking in a foreign language all day, being influenced by new experiences and being introduced to new people can be an exhausting part of staying abroad. It takes some self-confidence to seek out new relationships that cross cultural borders – it’s much easier to stay in the comfortable bubble of people with your own beliefs, values and interests. To me these arguments can definitely explain the situation described; on the other hand they also sound a lot like lame excuses.

And am I behaving any differently? Most of my friends in the residence are Germans as well, even if I am a person who is keen to get to know new people, who loves to travel and discover different cultures around the world.

When we leave my example of the dining room and look at the situation from a broader perspective, we find this gathering and sticking together also in such a big and multicultural city like New York – known as the melting pot, where different cultures live more or less peacefully next to each other. You definitely can’t overlook the great variety of ethnicities, it is striking as soon as you step out of your door. But does this necessarily mean that the people interact? I mean more than just standing in a tight crowd, waiting to cross the street? After living here for just a few weeks, I don’t feel capable of answering this question. Still, New York consists of different neighborhoods that are predominated by certain ethnic groups. So a diverse city does not necessarily has to be a non-segregated city. A researcher found out that when we look at the process of immigration, often in the second generation the social networks of immigrants are still largely homogenous.

Do we have to feel guilty now for looking for comfort in people with a similar cultural or social background? That’s hard to say and rather a question that everyone has to answer for themselves. No matter which conclusion we might come to, it is important to take a step back from time to time, to ask ourselves if we should maybe be a little less comfortable and a little more brave and curious when thinking of our social network. We should try not to be intimidated by diversity but rather get out there and discover what lies behind the differences that we perceive.

Say no to conformity and try out something new – there are learning opportunities everywhere, we just have to take them! AFS offers the opportunity to step out of your comfort zone, to actively engage with difference in order to learn and grow – even if it might be painful and challenging sometimes. Thousands of our exchange students and host families discover this every year though the AFS’s intercultural exchange programs, while our volunteers and staff are challenged on a daily basis to be the best providers of intercultural education. We could continue living together in a multicultural society, co-existing in the same environment – OR we could take a step forward to an intercultural society, where we actually interact and discover each others backgrounds.

In my case this means: I will try a different table tonight and leave my comfy German zone – I might discover more new amazing friends!

AFS in Consultative Partnership with UNESCO

“There is a clear relevance of AFS’ work to the current programs and activities of UNESCO, particularly in the fields of education, youth, and intercultural dialogue. Indeed, cooperation between UNESCO and AFS has a solid foundation based on many areas of common interest, synergies and previous collaborations, as witnessed by the organization at UNESCO Headquarters in November 2014, under UNESCO’s patronage, of the AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium.” — Irina Bokova, Director General, UNESCO

Since this April, AFS world-wide network of organizations is in official partnership with UNESCO (consultative status). This important recognition is a validation of our work and an excellent opportunity to take many budding AFS initiatives to the next level by pursuing project-specific alliances with UNESCO, both internationally and at the national level.

The official partnership is a great privilege for us as providers of intercultural education opportunities globally. It is also a responsibility, inspiring us to continue to act responsibly as a committed member of the global citizenship education movement and contribute to other UNESCO initiatives relevant to our mission. Finally, this partnership is an opportunity to strengthen our positioning as an educational organization and to create more impact as we continue playing our role in educating global citizens through intercultural learning and volunteering.

This partnership deepens the existing collaboration between our two organizations. Last November, the AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium – Learning to Live Together: From Ideas to Action was held in celebration of AFS’s Centennial and under the patronage of UNESCO in Paris. While UNESCO representatives attended the AFS-AAI-SIETAR Regional Conference in Bali, Indonesia this April, the Regional Education Forum: Intercultural Learning in Latin America: Fostering Global Citizenship through Intercultural Dialogue that will take place in Costa Rica in June has been granted UNESCO patronage. On the other hand, representatives of AFS have attended many relevant UNESCO events, most recently the Second Forum on Global Citizenship Education.

We invite you to see the latest issue of the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine to find out more about AFS’s efforts to advance global citizenship education, or to read the interview with Ms Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General who shared her views on this subject.

The First AFS-AAI-SIETAR Intercultural Conference Held

The Learning to Live Together—Intercultural Education: From Ideas to Action international conference took place in Bali, Indonesia between 15 and 17 April 2015 as one of the key regional events marking the occasion of AFS’s 100th anniversary. This was an exciting opportunity to debate the importance of intercultural and global citizenship education—what it is, how it benefits society, and the role of educators, schools and others can take to advance this movement in the Asia Pacific Region. This conference is also a best practice example of leadership in the field of intercultural education and continuation of the discussions which started during the AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium in Paris last November.

AFS Indonesia, Bina Antarbudaya (The Indonesian Foundation for Intercultural Learning) hosted this two-day educational event, which was organized by the AFS Asia Pacific Initiative (AAI), AFS International and Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR) Indonesia. Among other values of this conference is the significance of the event being a collaboration with SIETAR, an organization with a similar mission and complimentary areas of work to AFS. This showcases the importance of the AFS network’s increasing efforts to be open, inclusive and collaborate with the others in the field.

The speakers at the conference included Dr. Irid Agoes (Conference chair and representative of the Advisory Council to the Director General of Higher Education – Indonesia), the keynote Michael H. Prosser (Professor Emeritus of the University of Virginia), one of the founders of the field of intercultural learning, and Melissa Liles (Chief Education Officer, AFS International). This event was also supported by UNESCO, whose representative from Bangkok Ramya Vivekanandan (Quality of Education, Programme Specialist) also participated as a speaker.

This first regional conference on global citizenship education brought together key stakeholders in interculturalism, including researchers, policy makers, experts, practitioners, teachers, university students and administrators. There were 17 concurrent sessions, such as Adaptive Process in Intercultural Education and Why Cultural Training is Imperative for Global Employees. These sessions explored regional perspectives on intercultural education, addressed emerging ideas, defined complex challenges and identified viable solutions to expand global citizenship education throughout the Region. Sessions dealt with topics such as the importance of intercultural competence in the workplace, the role of schools in intercultural education, and was an opportunity to share research, case studies and lessons learned from the intercultural field.

This valuable gathering will continue with the next edition planned to take place in Australia in April 2016.

Change Now and Shape the Future

The founding fathers and mothers of the AFS philosophy volunteered to ease the pain of the people who were affected negatively by wars. At times of need for peace, they worked passionately towards establishing dialogue between cultures of the world. AFS Volunteers Association (AFSGD), the volunteer body of AFS in Turkey is indeed very proud to be the successors of such brave people and their great accomplishments and they fully understand the responsibility passed on to them by this valuable legacy. Bearing in mind the recommendations of the 100 Years Young! Youth Workshop and Symposium in Paris in November 2014, the discussions from the Youth Forum in Buenos Aires in April 2015 along with continuing discussions and meetings in Turkey, new board of the volunteer association of AFS Turkey decided to really ‘think outside the box’.

Volunteers have decided to put emphasis on “local level diversity, change making, collaborations with other NGOs and visibility and promotion of AFS mission through civil society projects along with AFS operations”

Marshall R. Singer, a specialist in international political analysis and intercultural communication, believed that every interpersonal communication is intercultural communication and therefore we cannot limit intercultural communication to national borders only. Turkish AFS volunteers also believe that intercultural learning and communication among individuals are beyond national borders. Today as the volunteers of Turkey, we believe that we need more cross cultural exchanges and dialogue establishments within the country to understand, respect and live with inner diversity. Therefore we have recently launched two new projects, one aiming to create an intra-national exchange between İzmir, west coast of Turkey and the Hakkâri province at the very south-east corner of our country, bordering Iraq and Iran. The second one has a more regional tone and as the first step of it, we are sending a busload of volunteers to Armenia this summer to promote friendship and understanding between the youth of the two nations. Our goal is not to recall the past and try to prove political theories but we hope to take first steps together towards a common future through cross cultural exchanges.

The third project is to be launched soon. It focuses on the cultural needs, adaptation and integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Turkey currently has around 3 million Syrian refugees and many of the refugees lack basic access to health, shelter, food and education. Unfortunately, there is also exclusion towards the refugees across the nation and we find this extremely dangerous. As supporters of peace, we aim to provide support for those in need.

These ambitious projects are only made possible through professionalism, passion towards peace and thinking outside the box that have been supported with series of rigorous trainings and seminars. What we strive for in our volunteer lives, is what most might see as the principles of work life. And what we achieve in our volunteer lives, later on does indeed reflects on what we do to earn our living. To us, volunteerism is not a hobby; it is how we define our lives.

Volunteers Association of AFS Turkey is keen on continuing to foster the discussions and collaborations on local, national and international level. The world has probably never changed this fast, and it is very likely that it will change even faster. As the global citizens of this fast changing world, we believe that it is very important to have the capability to adapt to everything that is new, to break the clichés and be the ones shaping the world rather than being shaped by it.

This blog post was contributed by our fellow AFSer, Omer Ongun. Omer went on an exchange to USA in 2003 with AFS and since then has been a volunteer, volunteer trainer and project coordinator in AFS Turkey. After finishing college in business administration, with a great inspiration from AFS, he chose the intercultural learning field and intercultural competence as his area of profession. He has completed his graduate studies at Galatasaray University, doing a research in understanding mobility programs in developing a better mutual understanding of diverse groups in Turkey. Omer is also a folk/contemporary dancer of various cultures in Anatolia. He practices body music and dance too, trying to experience body music in different folk cultures throughout the world.

Don’t miss the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC)!

From 13-24 July in Portland, Oregon, hundreds of professionals and educators in the intercultural communication space will gather to attend the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC).

With over 40 workshops to choose from, SIIC offers an inclusive and supportive environment for participants from around the world to learn from each other. “Whether you are leading a global team, designing a new diversity initiative, preparing a course for fall term, or directly a study abroad program, you can anticipate a lively week or two of intense engagement with intercultural issues and resources–networking, listening, asking and indulging in the company of diverse and similarly dedicated professionals,” states ICI, the Intercultural Communication Institute.

SIIC’s renowned faculty will teach workshops such as, Turning Intercultural Theory into Practice, Navigating Intercultural and Intergroup Conflict Communication, Training Design for Intercultural Learning, and Cultural Agility: Countering Bias with Self-Awareness, Curiosity and Empathy, among many others.

AFS Intercultural Programs is committed to providing scholarship opportunities to AFS volunteers and staff so that they can attend SIIC. AFS-SIIC Scholar Gudrun Eythorsdottir from AFS Iceland had this to say about her 2014 SIIC experience:

“SIIC was certainly an intercultural inspiration and the learning process and experience at SIIC was the beginning of a life long journey. What is important for me is to forward the knowledge gained at SIIC to my AFS organization as well as to my society, my nation. The experience was on a personal level, but it is my duty to give back to my society the knowledge, the perspective and encouragement for empathy that is lacking within a nation that does not have borders to other countries and has a recent history of immigration. Therefore I write and talk about things I have learned at SIIC whenever I get chance to do soLast fall, shortly after SIIC, I was appointed to be a vice Chairman for the Equal and Human Rights committee in my hometown. My first task was to deliver a new equal and human rights strategy plan for the town council from 2014-2018. My SIIC learning and experience deeply influenced the strategic planning, the content and wording in this official strategy that will be officially launched at a forum on May 6th. I could so easily apply my knowledge to the plan, in relation to cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity issues, gender issues and layers of diversity that is growing in my society.”

Whether you are an AFSer or not, we encourage all of our blog readers to see for themselves what SIIC is about. Register today by visiting the SIIC website:

For the sixth consecutive year, we are pleased to be able to offer special scholarship opportunities just for AFS volunteers and staff. If you are interested in this possibility, hurry up – the application deadline for scholarships is 30 April! Contact for more information.




Call for submissions: Plural+ 2015 – Youth voices on migration, diversity and social inclusion

PLURAL+ Youth Video Contest is organized by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and it invites the world’s youth to submit original and creative videos focusing on PLURAL+ themes: migration, diversity and social inclusion.

Now is the time to get involved!
AFS volunteers, alumni, participants around the world and all youth are invited to submit their videos reflecting their views on the PLURAL+ topics.

>Authors need to be young people aged 25 or less
>The videos should last up to 5 minutes
>Topics covered are in the areas of migration, diversity and social inclusion
>Submission deadline is 15 June 2015
>Send all videos directly to UNAOC (AFSers: don’t forget to let us know of your submission by e-mailing us!)
>More details about the rules and regulations of the contest can be found here.

And there are awards!
The main prize for the best three videos is USD 1,000 and a trip to New York to the Plural+ 2015 Awards Ceremony. AFS will also be awarding a cash prize of USD 500! Many other partners will present similar awards as well. You can learn more about all awards here.

Sounds familiar?
This is the third year in a row that AFS is supporting the PLURAL+ Youth Video Contest by presenting an award. Last year, the a group of AFSers from around the world had a tough job selecting the best submission that satisfies all our criteria, including educative content, intercultural sensitivity, link to the AFS mission and values, and originality.

Find out more about the contest by visiting the PLURAL+ website and share your video vision!

Want to help someone?

The nature of our work in AFS entails, in a sense and in lots of ways, helping people. We help students who participate in our exchange programs to go through their experience, but we also help the host families in their encounters with a foreign culture. AFS helps its volunteers develop skills necessary to facilitate the exchange programs, and our staff members help each other out in their daily work.

The need to help someone, whether it is one of the above mentioned AFS groups or somebody in your personal life, comes from us understanding that the other is in need, that the other has a problem that we can move along towards a solution. Let’s use the example of AFS again: the founders of the organization saw the need in the world for people of different cultures to meet, and so they decided to set up an exchange program that would enable that. But how can anyone know if what they are doing is actually helping someone? How can we know if we are solving a problem in the right way?

Ernesto Sirolli comes from a background in international aid. His TED Talk focuses on an interesting premise for improving the work administrators of such programs do in developing countries. Instead of coming into a community with a predefined solution for a perceived problem, Ernesto suggests arriving to the community with nothing but willingness to listen. His key to successfully helping others is in listening and building on the potential that the one who needs help already has.

While the nature of our work or daily lives may be different from international aid, can we still take some of these ideas and adapt them to our own circumstances? Listen to the talk below, and share your comments!

Global Citizenship Education Matters

“At times of uncertainty, in this period of turbulence, education is our best bet, for human rights and dignity, for more sustainable development, for more lasting peace

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General


In preparation for the upcoming World Education Form scheduled to take place in May in Incheon, Republic of Korea, UNESCO organized an information meeting and seminar on Global Citizenship  Education. These events were attended by many prominent figures in the field, such as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and many representatives of Permanent Missions to the UN. AFS is proud to have been represented at the meeting and seminar too, by our Chief Education Officer, Melissa Liles.

This information meeting was organized in view of the World Education Form in order to prepare the global community to take stock of achievements and shortfalls and agree on a joint position for the post-2015 agenda and how to realize it. “It will be the moment to renew our vision and chart a new course, to put education first, to make sure no one is left behind,” Ms Bokova said. “This is the moment for all of us to shape a new education agenda for the 21st century. A vision of education as a stand-alone goal in the future agenda, essential for the success of all other goals.”

The progress made across the world to improve access o education, advance gender equality and to strengthen education systems was commended, and a new focus on quality, fostering learning throughout life and helping girls all the way through secondary education and beyond were called for. Ms Bokova applauded Ban Ki-moon for being the first UN Secretary-General to officially put education – “the most transformative driver for sustainable development” – on the political agenda of the UN’s member states. The emphasis for the post-2015 will be put on quality of education and Global Citizenship Education specifically. This is crucial to the post-2015 agenda, specifically learning to live together and combating growing violent extremism in all its forms.

Learning to live together entails developing an understanding of others and their history, traditions and spiritual values and, on this basis, recognizing our growing interdependence and preparing to deal with the challenges of the future in an intelligent and peaceful way. Learning to live together was also the topic of the recent AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium held last November in cooperation with UNESCO. The cooperation between AFS and UNESCO, and our commitment to Global Citizenship Education continued through our active participation at the Second Forum on Global Citizenship Education in January.

Globalizing Citizenship Education

The notions of global citizens and their education are often posed in a strongly debated context of disputed definitions, unclear rights and responsibilities, and vague implications for practitioners. Without trying to impose an all-encompassing solution to this debate, we would like to locate these concepts in the context of AFS, its volunteers, staff and program participants.

Global citizenship is a concept that uses and then builds on the classical notion of citizenship, which entails certain rights, responsibilities and allegiance to a sovereign state. The responsibilities of global citizens however, are not tied to one specific state, but rather expand to the global community, leading to what is usually termed as “a sense of connectedness and belonging extended to all of humanity”. A global citizen thus has an increased awareness of the needs of others and acts in a way that contributes to and improves the lives of others with a sense of commitment to social justice at the local, national, and international levels.

From this notion stems the idea of global citizenship education. Global citizenship education is a paradigm which frames the development of knowledge, skills, values and attitudes learners need for securing a world which is more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable.

This concept also recognizes that global citizens cannot appear and thrive on their own, but that there is a need for their education to help them understand various social and cultural issues beyond their local realities. This education does not stop only at the level of acquiring knowledge, but also moves to the realm of building necessary skills, values and attitudes. When properly educated, global citizens are a part of something more than one culture or nationality, contributing to the world in a meaningful and constructive way.

AFS mission which tasks our volunteers and staff to provide intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to create a more just and peaceful world emphasizes our ongoing dedication to putting global citizenship education in practice through different opportunities AFS provides.  Global citizenship education is also part of our Educational Goals aiming to develop the participants’ cultural and global awareness by providing immersive learning experiences in new environments combined with regular reflection and coaching. On the one hand, participants of AFS programs build their global competences through structured and guided experiential learning while exploring a foreign culture. On the other hand, AFS volunteers and staff work of their own education and competency development, including through convening with other civil society and youth representatives to discuss globally relevant topics, as is the case during the AFS Centennial Celebrations.

Global citizenship education includes overlapping areas of human rights education, peace education, education for sustainable development and education for international understanding. It allows different approaches in different geographic areas and it fosters:

  • an understanding of multiple levels and layers of identity
  • a knowledge of global issues and values such as justice, equality, dignity and respect
  • cognitive skills such as critical thinking and the ability to shift perspectives
  • non-cognitive skills including empathy and effective communication across cultures
  • collaborative and responsible approach to solving global challenges, while striving for the collective good.

Intercultural competence which enables effective functioning across cultures is composed of specific knowledge, skills and attitudes and is also essential for global citizenship.

The development of intercultural competence overlaps with the universal values of the global citizens, committed to helping build a more peaceful, just, and equitable world. However, an interculturally competent person who doesn’t act for the benefit of others is not essentially a global citizen.

This is where the work of educators and AFS becomes vital: preparing learners not only for personal development or successful careers but also for awareness, care and effective participation in the global community.

The critical role of educators and educational organizations like AFS plays in developing global citizens is also underscored by Milton Bennett, a leading expert in intercultural matters: “Intercultural sensitivity is not natural. It is not part of our primate past, nor has it characterized most of human history. Cross-cultural contact usually has been accompanied by bloodshed, oppression or genocide. The continuation of this pattern in today’s world of unimagined interdependence is not just immoral or unprofitable – it is self-destructive… Education and training in intercultural communication is an approach to changing ‘natural’ behavior.”


  • Ashwill, M.A, Du’o’ng, T.H.O. (2009). Developing Globally Competent Citizens: The Contrasting Cases of the United States and Vietnam. In SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (pp. 141 – 157). Thousand Oaks, California, USA: SAGE Publications.
  • Bennett, M. (1993). Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. In Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, Maine, USA: Intercultural Press.
  • Delors, J. (1996). Learning: The Treasure Within. Paris, France: UNESCO.
  • UNESCO. (2014). Global Citizenship Education: Preparing learners for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Paris, France: UNESCO.

This text originally appeared in volume 5, issue 3 of the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine. If you want to find out more about this, you can read and download the news magazine here.


Putting Ideas to Action: the First Asia Pacific Regional Intercultural Conference

The first Asia Pacific Regional Intercultural Conference, Learning to Live Together – Intercultural Education: From Ideas to Action will take place on 15-17 April 2015 in Bali, Indonesia. Register now by clicking here.

This event has been inspired by two milestones for the organizations behind it. Last November, AFS held its Centennial Celebrations in Paris, France, and one of the highly appreciated events organized on that occasion was our Learning to Live Together—from Ideas to Action: AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium. It was organized under the patronage of UNESCO and it  addressed the critical challenges, concerns, opportunities and debates surrounding global citizenship education. The Symposium made a bold statement about the importance of global citizenship education and the role AFS and other like-minded organizations can do to promote this issue. On the other hand, in November 1997, SIETAR Indonesia gathered Asia Pacific interculturalists in Bali for a preparatory meeting to support the last Global Network Congress in Tokyo.

With this in mind, the April 2015 conference will bring together key stakeholders working on interculturalism: researchers, policy makers, experts, practitioners, teachers, university students and administrators from the Asia Pacific region to address regional perspectives on intercultural education.

Up to 100 participants are expected to take part in this event organized by AFS Itercultural Programs, the AFS Asia Pacific Initiative (AAI) and Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research (SIETAR) Indonesia and hosted by Bina Antarbudaya, The Indonesian Foundation for Intercultural Learning (AFS Indonesia).

For more information, visit the AFS Indonesia website or send an e-mail to