The AFS Effect: Daring to Create Change

Since its beginning, AFS has been a vehicle for committed individuals who dare to make a difference. Courage, volunteerism and learning have been constants throughout our history. A century ago they resulted in thousands of lives saved. Then, in inventing the intercultural exchange programs that still transform lives today.

Creating change is what AFSers do, and we call it the AFS Effect.

AFS has impacted many lives throughout our history and with the #AFSeffect campaign we hope to learn about the impact AFS has had on individuals—what the #AFSeffect means to them and what intercultural learning in action looks like to them. Everyone who would like to contribute can share a post about their own experience on their social media platforms using the hashtag #AFSeffect.

Until the AFS Centennial celebrations in Paris, we will post several questions online with and ask everyone to react and contribute to the campaign using #AFSeffect to tag their posts. The first question was already shared as a part of the 100 days, 100 stories campaign on the official AFS Intercultural Programs Facebook page and others will follow soon.

Many AFSers are already participating in the campaign and you can easily follow contributions on the campaign microsite effect.afs.org.

Curiosity, Difficulty and Reflection

Experiential learning is at the core of AFS’s programs and activities: Whether you participate in one of the exchange programs, volunteer trainings or activities, you will learn most by doing and reflecting on your experiences.

Years of research and anecdotal evidence have shown that personal crises have a special value for such learning. For example, during their time abroad, exchange students are continuously compelled to act and react in the absence of familiar cues. When they remain manageable, such crises become productive bases for intercultural learning because they force the participant to challenge old assumptions, to think creatively, and to acquire new knowledge, attitudes and skills. Because of the emotional security provided by the host family and the local community, and because of the network of support available from AFS volunteers and staff these crises are valuable learning experiences.

Another view on this issue is offered by brain researchers. Brain is often compared to a muscle: That the more you use it, the more it grows. Studies have found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and embracing challenges – such as a year of intercultural student exchange – can produce much more of personal development than avoiding struggle and failure.

Reinforcing tenacity and perseverance is especially valuable in adolescence: This period of multiple opportunities and vulnerabilities is also a time during which the brain is highly influenced by experiences.This is when much is learned, especially about the social world, and it is the best time to turning stressful events into learning opportunities. As we leave adolescence, the brain becomes less adaptable and sensitive to experiential influences. Many studies find a decline in novelty-seeking as we move through our 20s, which may suggest that deliberate exposure to challenging experiences will keep our brains “younger” for longer.

There is no fixed formula for successful learning with no bumps on the road. Yet, encouraging curiosity, embracing difficulties and fostering reflection are a good setting for personal development.

Are you ready for intercultural dialogue?

Multicultural education, intercultural education, nonracial education, antiracist education, culturally responsive pedagogy, ethnic studies, peace studies, global education, social justice education, bilingual education, mother tongue education, integration – these and more are the terms used to describe different aspects of diversity education around the world. Although it may go by different names and speak to stunningly different conditions in a variety of sociopolitical contexts, diversity education attempts to address such issues as racial and social class segregation, the disproportionate achievement of students of various backgrounds, and the structural inequality in both schools and society.
(Quote from Diversity Education: Lessons For A Just World by Sonia Nieto)

Diversity education is the topic of this year’s Intercultural Dialogue Day (IDD), a grassroots initiative organized by volunteers in AFS local chapters all over Europe since 2008. On 25 September 2014 these AFS volunteers will be exploring new ideas and perspectives for the events organized at a local level related to diversity education.

In preparation for this special date, you can check out the Intercultural Dialogue Day Facebook page and its 100 days challenge. During the countdown to IDD, IDDA (the project’s mascot) asks you different questions, offers resources and food for thought related to diversity education every day. For example, IDDA has already helped us discover a database of intercultural films, educational resources on cultural diversity and made us reflect on gender roles. Even outside of Europe, you can also download the promotional materials developed for this year’s IDD or the IDD Toolkits where different formats of local events from previous years are described.

The Intercultural Dialogue Day project was initiated in 2008, the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, by the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL), the AFS European umbrella organization. Today, IDD takes place each year on the last Thursday of September. The main IDD idea is to raise awareness and visibility of intercultural dialogue in local communities. IDD events are originated by AFS volunteers and supported by AFS offices. Some AFSers outside of Europe are already marking IDD with their own events initiatives this year and AFS is exploring pursuing IDD globally.

AFS believes in dialogue and cooperation across languages, cultures and organizations. This is also one of the focus points of Intercultural Dialogue Day. Collaboration with different audiences in the local community does not only raise the visibility of the message we try to promote through IDD, but it also strengthens the AFS volunteer networks, giving volunteers a sense of ownership and responsibility while encouraging innovation.

Learning Styles for AFS & Friends

We are very happy to share with you the latest edition of the educational series ICL for AFS & Friends. This document focuses on Learning Styles as defined by David Kolb, and their relevance for AFS. As facilitators of learning, it is helpful for AFS volunteers and staff to understand the unique characteristics of each learning style, which will ensure a more integrated approach to workshop design to support learners’ preferences. This document ensues from the previous edition of ICL for AFSers and Friends, which focused on David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.


The ICL for AFS & Friends is a concise, approachable series of documents on intercultural topics that are directly related to the AFS experience, written by and for the AFS community, educators and all others who either are or would like to become involved with the AFS mission.

Unity in Diversity: Celebrating Diversity for Common and Shared Values

We would like to thank Guillermo Bril of AFS Argentina & Uruguay for contributing the following text to our blog:

Bali – Indonesia, 28-30 August 2014

Under the overarching theme “Unity in Diversity: Celebrating Diversity for Common and Shared Values”, the Sixth Global Forum of the UNAOC brought together over 1,500 participants, including political leaders, representatives of international and regional organizations, the private sector, civil society, academia, youth, arts and the media, as well as donor agencies and foundations, to explore new ways of promoting cross-cultural dialogue and understanding and to spark new partnerships and commitments.

Out of more than 3,000 applicants worldwide, only 100 participants from 43 countries qualified to convene for the Youth Event in August 2014 with the objective of supporting the mainstreaming of young people’s voices into the Forum’s main themes.

The AFS network was represented in Bali by Guille Bril, of AFS Argentina & Uruguay, who met with another 99 youth representatives from diverse cultural and religions backgrounds, with outstanding track record in intercultural dialogue and youth work.

In line with the mission of AFS, the UNAOC aspires to the ideal of a culture of peace and dialogue among all civilizations on the assumption that “differences within and between societies should be neither feared nor repressed, but cherished as a precious asset of humanity”.

The Youth Event looked at the main topic through four themes: education, media, migration, and entrepreneurship/employment, which resulted in the creation of Youth Recommendations. They represent what we, young people, need from world leaders in order to fully leverage their unique contribution to fostering Unity in Diversity. Youth Recommendations for education push for more inclusive national education and foster meaningful and diverse youth participation in education policy-making. They also insist on integrating global citizenship into the curriculum at all levels of education with a specific focus on cross cultural understanding, problem solving, conflict resolution and peace building. All of these are a part of the AFS Educational Goals and will be addressed at our upcoming Centennial Celebrations, and the Learning to Live Together – AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium.

This event was a great opportunity for AFS to share its expertise in the field of youth work and global education, and we were happy to collaborate with other youth representatives from around the world. We are glad to continue our relationship with the UNAOC, which started with our representatives attending the UNAOC Global Forums since 2008, as well as the establishment of the AFS Intercultural Prize at the Plural+ Youth Video Contest.

AFS India and AFS Philippines Strengthen Foundations of Intercultural Learning

From 24-27 August, three key volunteers from AFS India and two key volunteers from AFS Philippines took part in a National Qualified Trainers (NQT) workshop for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program in Gurgaon, Haryana, India.

This marks the fourth NQT workshop done this year throughout the AFS network. Previous workshops were done in Egypt, Brazil, and Costa Rica. Like the other workshops, the candidates dove deep into training techniques and the Learning Program Curriculum. Once they complete all three steps of certification, they can implement the program locally according to the National Strategies of their AFS organizations.

“My favorite part of the training was when the candidates realized that they had to change their approach and start thinking as trainers instead of volunteers,” said Sujatha Shyamsundar, International Qualified Trainer of the Learning Program and one the workshop trainers. She continued, “I also enjoyed connecting activities and theory to practical knowledge that participants will carry back with them.”

One candidate said, “It [the workshop] went beyond my expectations. I just thought it will just be a simple training but it wasn’t. It demanded full attention and time (…) everything was very essential and I learned a lot.”

We congratulate the five NQT candidates and wish them luck with the rest of their certification!

 

Is culture like an onion, an iceberg, or some kind of computer software?

The following post is contributed by Dunja Zivanovic who works for AFS Serbia, as a program coordinator and trainer. She is a member of the pool of trainers of the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) and Training on Intercultural Learning Advisory Body. She also does research in the field of intercultural learning, mainly focusing on learning outcomes of student mobility. This text originally appeared in the EFILife newsletter.

Metaphors for Culture and Intercultural Learning

When talking about intercultural learning (ICL) in AFS, we often say that culture is like an iceberg, with its small part visible from the surface and a significantly larger part hidden underneath. This implies that if one is not aware of the existence of the hidden part, they are very likely to crash and sink. At the Forum on Intercultural Learning and Exchange held in September 2013 in Italy, Milton Bennett raised the question of appropriateness of metaphors we use to talk about culture, challenging the very commonly used iceberg image and showing that in many respects it can be misleading. Firstly, it implies that culture is something static and has clear boundaries, so a student can “learn about” it, which is not really the case, because the idea of ICL is experience and involvement. Perhaps it would make more sense to envision culture as a river – fluid and dynamic. Another issue is whether the danger implied by the iceberg image is something we want to highlight when we try to explain what culture is. Bennett’s remark is a great opportunty for us in AFS to critcally assess the metaphors we use in our presentations, handbooks, trainng material, and even our posters and advertsments.

If we take a closer look at how we talk about ICL, we very soon realise that we constantly and inevitably rely on conceptual metaphors. Metaphors enable us to use concrete, tangible and familiar phenomena in order to talk about more abstract concepts, in this case culture and intercultural learning, which are less tangible and more difficult to grasp. Moreover, the metaphors we use not only help us talk about ICL, but more importantly, enable us to think about it. Without them, we would not be able to have any images and ideas of ICL and how it works.

Thanks to metaphors we are able to say that intercultural learning is a journey, not a destination, and we often ask our students to reflect on their learning path. Sometimes we visualise this path as linear, but when we want to talk about the experiential aspect of learning and refer to David Kolb’s model, we envision the learning process as circular. On the other hand, we envision culture as an iceberg, onion, or some kind of computer software (or as Hofstede put it “mental programme”). Finally, intercultural encounters are also conceptualised metaphorically an image commonly used in AFS is the image of a fish jumping out of its bowl into another one. All these metaphors enable us to uderstand what ICL is and explain it to others in order to raise their awareness of culture and related concepts.

Nevertheless, as pointed out by Lakoff and Johnson, the authors of conceptual metaphor theory, one of the key properties of metaphors is that they highlight some aspects of concepts, but at the same time hide some others. For example, the ONION metaphor highlights that culture consists of different layers and has a core made of values, while the ICEBERG metaphor highlights that many aspects of culture are not immediately visible. The FISHBOWL metaphor shows that when one leaves their culture they tend to feel like a fish out of water. At the same time these metaphors hide the fact that cultures often have no clear boundaries and are not homogenous, like it is the case with water in a fishbowl. The ICEBERG metaphor warns us against the danger, but does not show how to approach the iceberg and explore the depths. Consequently, this image may make culture seem frightening, as suggested by Bennett. The SOFTWARE metaphor highlights that a person tends to think and behave in certain manner automatically as a member of a culture, but at the same time neglects the interpersonal aspect of the concept of culture, which is essential for people who take part in intercultural exchange.

If we compare these commonly used metaphors, it is obvious that none of them can sucessfully capture everything that we want to tell our students, volunteers and external audiences. We can therefore conclude that there is no one best way to metaphorically express what culture or intercultural learning is. We rather have to be aware that there are different metaphors, highlighting something and hiding something else. If we are aware of this, then we can use metahors more successfully, being careful about when we use which metaphor in order to make our point efficiently and not mislead our audience. Since there is no such thing as a universally applicable metaphor that works in every situation, instead of sticking blindly to one visualisation of culture and ICL, we should explore our options and choose from the variety of metaphors we have at our disposal. Although far from being perfect, they are our very useful and indispensable tool.

What are you smiling for? :)

The following post was written by our fellow AFSer, Suyin Chia. Find out who she is and enjoy her post:

I am the current ICL Responsible and Training Coordinator for AFS Malaysia who is happily tucked away in her mini cubicle dreaming up methods for social change and increased cultural awareness within the AFS network. I have been involved with AFS for 9 years now since my student exchange year to Japan. I am also an Intercultural Link Learning Program International Qualified Trainer candidate. Nothing delights me more than the sight of tail wagging puppies, a good read, the sound of ocean waves and interesting conversations. I believe that we need to learn to cut the cake differently.

When meeting a new person, often my first instinct is to show them a smile. It comes naturally to me, as I believe myself to be a friendly person, hence I smile to indicate that I am approachable and sincere. It tends to be difficult to hold back at least a meek smile even when I walk past strangers on the street. I obsessively end my text messages with a smiling emoticon to ensure the end receiver knows I am being cordial. During AFS orientations, I smile at my nervous participants to show them that I am not a threat but someone you can look to as a friend imparting survival knowledge from experience.

Coming back recently from the US to Malaysia, and being thoroughly exposed to the cheerful and friendly smiles of Americans with their pleasant “how are you?” for 3 weeks really did a number on me at home.  Firstly, I noticed that for every smile I receive back from passersby on the streets of Kuala Lumpur after myself breaking into one, there are three who remain stiff lipped and nonchalantly ignore me. Some even stare at me to determine If I am crazy! Initially I was really surprised. How did I not notice this “unfriendliness” before? I have lived here all my life! I would brush one or two off as uptight or plain unfriendly, but now I am beginning to understand that while smiling is universal, the intentions or motivations to smile may not be.

So naturally I put on my intercultural curious cap, and researched online smiles in cross cultural communication. Smiling is after all a facial expression, a non-verbal communication – now that I think about it. This is what I found.

While smiling is perceived as a positive emotion most of the time, such as in American culture where a smile is seen as a sign of trust, genuineness and determining expression of happiness, there are many cultures that perceive smiling as a less positive expression and consider it unwelcoming and foolish.

For example in Russia, it is generally considered poor taste to smile without a reason, and to smile at strangers in public is both unusual and suspicious. Meanwhile in Korea there is a saying that goes, “He who smiles a lot is not a real man.” To Koreans smiling is perceived as a frivolous act. Likewise, if I were in the streets of Germany today smiling at a German for no particular reason, people would quietly assume that I must be a little simple minded or have lost my marbles. Not that I mind of course. I still really want to go to Germany :) For many Scandinavians a smile or any facial expression used to convey emotions is atypical as it is generally considered a vulnerability to show emotions. In such cultures, smiling is mostly reserved for close friends and family members.

The degree of facial expressiveness – such as smiling – one exhibits varies among individuals and cultures. The fact that members of one culture do not express their emotions as openly as members of another does not mean that they do not experience emotions. Rather, there are cultural restraints on the amount of nonverbal expressiveness permitted. As a result, some Russians believe that Americans smile in the wrong places, while Americans believe that Russians don’t smile enough, still others think that the Dutch are virtually expressionless. At the same time smiling in official photographs and documentation, such as in driving licenses and passports, is a big no-no in Malaysia.

In other parts of the world such as China, Thailand or Vietnam, smiles may yet indicate other emotions such as feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment. Smiling is akin to a vehicle of ambiguities, as not all smiles are genuine expressions of happiness. People are able to still smile when they are horrified, sad, frightened or in emotional pain. People also smile when they are lying, as famously marveled by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

Furthermore, the degree or frequency of smiling diverges along gender lines. Women on average tend to naturally smile more. One of the main moderators for this seem to be gender norms nurtured from a very young age – boys are encouraged not to smile very much as expressiveness is taken by some cultures to be a sign of femininity. On the other hand, as the more social and softer gender, women are encouraged to always sound and look expressive (with a smile) even when they are not feeling much inclined. Women who are not very expressive are regarded by others with caution, as they may seem to be cold or withholding.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that while our cultural background plays a significant role in influencing our views of culturally acceptable decorum, culture does not always determine the message of non-verbal communication. The individual’s personality, the context, and the relationship also influence its meaning. So now I know that it is crucial to have an awareness of what a smile may mean in different cultures, or simply the fact that smiles may be interpreted differently from our norms. Still I believe the best way to elicit a genuine smile from anybody is to go out and be somebody’s friend. Get to know somebody today, talk to them and be invested in their lives, ask questions, listen to their story – just be real. I promise you will eventually be rewarded with a real smile.

 

How are Intercultural Skills Valued in the Workplace?

The AFS world provides rewarding experiences to almost 13000 program participants every year and has an extensive network of volunteers and staff that forms affective, long-lasting relationships. These experiences also raise the level of interest to seek new intercultural encounters. However, we also believe that participating in AFS’s intercultural exchange programs can have a positive impact on the development of intercultural competences, which are positively valued in the workplace. We looked at some of the recent research about youth employment and also asked ourselves: Even if our assumptions about the value of the AFS experience are corroborated, how does this relate to our organization’s strategies?

To address this topic, the European Youth Forum and its partners conducted a study among young people and employers in European countries. Results of the Study on the Impact of Non-Formal Education in Youth Organizations on Young People’s Employability were published in 2013. More than 1300 young people from more than 245 youth organizations based in more than 40 European countries participated in a survey for the study, while qualitative workshops and interviews were conducted with employers and relevant stakeholders in order to obtain data for the study. The European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) also took part in the survey and invited its members to give their contributions.

The study highlighted a strong positive correlation between the involvement in youth organizations and non-formal education, as well as the employment possibilities for young people. It concluded that five of the six skills most frequently demanded by employers are developed in youth organizations. These skills are:

  • communication skills
  • organizational or planning skills
  • decision-making skills
  • confidence or autonomy
  • teamwork.

Moreover, involvement in non-formal education activities abroad is seen as helpful for young people to develop higher levels of competences related to intercultural communication, foreign languages, and leadership skills. Employers see prior experience and a willingness to participate in non-formal education as good indicators of a person’s motivation level and potential to fit in with a new company, as well as an opportunity to create social capital, networks, and connections.

The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace, published in 2012 by the British Council and its partners, is yet another study that finds that there is real business value in employing staff who have the ability to work effectively with individuals and organizations from cultural backgrounds different than their own. More than 360 employers surveyed in 9 countries (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, South Africa, the UAE, the UK, and the USA) highlighted the following as important intercultural skills:

  • the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints
  • demonstrating respect for others
  • knowledge of a foreign language.

Finally, The QS Global Employer Survey, an annual study conducted since 1991, combined online questionnaires, institution submissions, and databases from partners to get responses from employers around the world. The study asked its respondents whether they actively seek or attribute value to an international study experience when recruiting employees. Most hiring managers replied that this is a formal part of their interview and selection process, where intercultural communication skills and knowledge of foreign languages are evaluated during the recruitment process.

Employers also believe that candidates with international experience generally outperform those without it. While levels of appreciation differ at different levels of management and types of industry, significant value is placed on international education around the world.

It is reassuring to see that such findings from various studies highlight the need for competencies in the workplace that are very similar to the goals AFS aims to develop in the personal, interpersonal, cultural, and global realms.

For example, when it comes to the realm of interpersonal skills, AFS programs focus on enhancing empathy, flexibility, and social skills with a commitment to contributing to the group. These skills directly relate to the employers’ demand for young people who demonstrate respect for others and an ability to work in a team.

When it comes to communication skills, AFS program participants become more effective communicators and are able to express themselves more effectively in multicultural environments, including in a foreign language.

The AFS Long-Term Impact Study found that AFS alumni are 20% more likely to speak and use at least one more foreign language than their peers. Confident in their own abilities, they develop meaningful and long-term friendships across cultures, thus creating much desired social connections. Finally, all this is underscored by an awareness and knowledge of both one’s own culture and other cultures, along with an ability to adapt to various cultural contexts.

With research showing that AFSers have a greater level of intercultural sensitivity and seek careers that involve contact with other cultures, it is reassuring to know that there is a demand for such skills in the 
global workplace.

What are your experiences with entering the job market as an AFS returnee? To what extent do you believe your AFS experience was an appropriate education for the 
global workforce?

 

This article originally appeared in the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine, volume 5, issue 1.

Leaping Over Cultural Walls

Our work in AFS is rooted in cultural diversity. Whether we are volunteers, staff, program participants, host or natural families, teachers, or in other ways connected to AFS, we are often surrounded by people, values and languages from not only one but many different cultures. In our efforts to act and respond appropriately when interacting with people from other cultures, it is necessary that we understand cultural stereotypes and ways to overcome them.

One way to approach cultural differences is to enjoy reading and telling stories about and being immersed in cultures from around the world. While we have dealt with this topic on the blog before, this time we would like to invite you to consider a thought shared by Elif Shafak, a novelist, in her 2010 TED Talk: if we only remain in our enclosed culture groups and share stories with each other, are we creating and reinforcing stereotypes? And what is it that we miss out on if we only remain in the zone of cultural stereotypes, whether they relate to another nation, age group or gender?