Where the Border Stands: From War Ambulances to Intercultural Exchanges

This post comes to us from Intercultura’s (AFS Italy) Andrea Franzoi who went on an intercultural exchange program to Germany with AFS program in 1996/97. Since his return he has been an active volunteer for Intercultura. He participated in activities at local, national and international level and he was a member of the national Board. He studied Politics in Bologna, Italy and Munich, Germany and he was professionally active in the field of journalism and human resources. Since 2009 he works for Intercultura as Organisational Development and Training Coordinator. He is a member of the Board of the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL)  and since April 2014 and he is the ICL responsible for Intercultura.

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Since last November, AFS partner organizations all over the world have been celebrating 100 years since the organization was founded. AFS began as the American Ambulance Field Service (later to be known as the “American Field Service” or “AFS”), a voluntary ambulance and truck organization, which was founded in April 1915 by Abraham Piatt Andrew, a former assistant professor of economics at Harvard, director of the U.S. Mint, and assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. The AFS Centennial commemorates the courage, spirit and vision of our founders—the World War I and II ambulance drivers of the American Field Service. With these Centennial celebrations in mind, it comes natural to wonder: what the ambulance drivers from 1915 have got to do with the AFS today and with intercultural learning?

The answer may not be obvious, but it is simple for those who know the story of our origins. The answer lies in the fact that during World War I, the ambulance drivers and founders of AFS understood the importance of people from different cultures to get to know other to be able to overcome differences and pursue peace. Abraham Piatt Andrew at the end of the war delivered a famous speech that opened the doors to the immediate future of AFS:

This effort must not end with the war. The four of five thousand of us who volunteered for France during the war can rededicate ourselves to the same idea in the years to come. (…) In many such ways we can make the Old Field Service an active and important factor in promoting the same ends for which we have given ourselves in France, a factor which will continue to count in the world long after all of us are gone.

After 100 years the AFS continues, incredibly, to pursue the objectives of the origins through international school exchanges. Intercultural learning represents the way through which we try to help the volunteers, exchange students, host families, teachers and all the people and institutions who get in touch with us to be aware and to deepen these topics.

If you wish to explore this topic further, we highly recommend a book written by Roberto Ruffino, the Secretary General of Intercultura Italy and the Fondazione Intercultura, and honorary chair of EFIL; with Stefania Chinzari, a journalist, writer and educator, published by Hoepli in 2014: Where the Border Stands.

At home among strangers and a stranger among my own

This article was contributed by our fellow AFSer, Esther Teh. Esther went on an exchange to Osaka, Japan in 2000/01 with AFS and has since volunteered in different capacities with AFS Malaysia. Esther attended the 6th Summer Academy on Intercultural Experience (20 to 31 July 2015) organised by InterCultur gGmbH (subsidiary of AFS Germany) and Karlshochschule International University. Esther attended the Intercultural Competence track on ‘Acquisition of Intercultural Competence’ in Week 1 and AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program’s International Qualified Trainer Workshop in Week 2. The two-week stint in Karlsruhe, Germany was made possible by Yayasan AFS Antarabudaya Malaysia.  Apart from her love of culture, Esther has a passion for sustainability. In her professional capacity as a sustainability consultant, Esther works with companies on running a socially responsible business.

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In order to develop intercultural competency, one must have the ability to talk to the others and to make the invisible visible, claims Roman Lietz, my lecturer at the Summer Academy on Intercultural Experience. Within an inspiring university space and with 57 participants from 21 countries, I was finally able to make sense of why I felt at home among strangers and became a stranger among my own.


The danger of a single story

I still remember vividly 15 years ago, I was corrected by a 15 year old school mate about who I was. ‘Esther, you are a Malaysian. You are a Malaysian of Chinese ethnicity. You are not Chinese (from China).’ You see, living in multi-racial Malaysia, I had always described my ethnicity ‘I am Chinese’ to my fellow Malaysians. I then realised that ‘labels’ to describe who I am may not always determine who I actually am.

As a ‘Malaysian of Chinese ethnicity’, I did not seem to fit the mould of the typical Malaysian Chinese. For when I speak, think and even act, it was different from the masses of the ‘typical’ Malaysian Chinese. Perhaps it was due to the stereotype of not being able to speak in Mandarin, or that I am taller and physically bigger than the average Malaysian Chinese girl, or was more individualistic than a collectivist.

The problem was that when the term ‘culture’ is mentioned, many of us would associate it to national cultures i.e. Malaysians, Germans etc. I learnt that even within every national culture, there may be a dominant culture as well as sub-cultures. These sub-cultures may have values, attitudes and behaviours that are not necessarily the same to the dominant culture. What a relief (for me!) to finally understand that there can be differences within a single cultural group e.g. being individualistic in a dominantly collectivist society.

As Chimamanda Adichie had warned in her TED talk, if we hear only a single story about a person or country over and over again, that is what they become. So beware of the danger of a single story, as it shows people as one thing and one thing only. This may not always be the case, at least not for me!


At home among strangers

I had an amazing learning experience in the company of participants from different countries: Brazil, Bolivia, China, France, Germany, Jordan, Libya, Kenya, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen. We all got along well and immersed ourselves in intense exchanges and discussions.

I had high respect for the other participants as they were mature beyond their ages, intelligent, genuine, did not take things for granted and were ever so willing to learn from each other. Like I said at the beginning, intercultural competency is about communicating with others while making an effort to ensure minimal distortion i.e. that the message is understood as intended whether expressed verbally or non-verbally. This is the ability to meta-communicate, which means not only understanding what was being said, but what was being conveyed.

All the participants came together in the same classroom to acquire intercultural competency. Yet, in my view they were already living examples of interculturally competent people. They were willing and open to learning, tolerant to ambiguity, had eloquent communication skills, they were sensitive to and respectful of each other’s differences and similarities without being judgmental.

I learnt that it is important for us not to make assumptions and that whenever in doubt, we should always ask. It is okay to be curious but it is important to be sensitive and respectful. I remember an instance when a male European participant had wanted to greet a female Muslim participant by shaking hands. The immediate response from the female participant was to reject the handshake, but very quickly explained that ‘her culture and religion did not allow this gesture’. This was a clear example of how an understanding and awareness of other cultures (and religions) can lead to better respect for each other.


When the third culture emerges

Despite coming from different cultural backgrounds, all the participants in my track connected very well. We developed a very special bond and an extremely tight-knit relationship. Unconsciously, we had seamlessly integrated and while we were all busy attempting to adapt to everyone else, we had established a robust ‘third culture’. A culture created by all the participants in the classroom and not just a hybrid of the different cultures put together.

Clearly, this third culture is a construction of a mutually beneficial interactive environment. All of us were able to establish and maintain our relationships, communicate with minimal distortion and collaborate to accomplish something of mutual interest.

I did not notice the emergence of the third culture until myself and a few others broke away from the original group to attend a separate training in week 2. Immediately, the effects of the missing members (like myself) in the original group were felt both by me and the participants in the original group. Somehow, the classroom ‘did not feel the same anymore’.

Interestingly, I was adamant about imposing this ‘third culture’ on my newly formed group of the separate training such as our established hand gestures to indicate our ‘agreement’ or ‘disagreement’. I had wanted to protect and preserve this culture I had created with the original group. At the same time, diplomatically trying to welcome new aspects from the new group of new trainers and participants. Perhaps, a creation of a ‘fourth’ culture?

All in all, the two weeks at the Summer Academy were a praiseworthy platform that allowed me to put into practice the theories learnt. I was challenged with the different learning methodologies such as experiential learning and real-life case studies, which I had not been accustomed to but ended up enjoying thoroughly. The lecturer and trainers really provided a positive and safe environment, which encouraged me to leave my comfort zone. Though tears welled up in our eyes as we went our separate ways, I light up thinking of the German saying ‘you always meet twice’.

The Professional Image and Ethos of Teachers

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.

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The Pestalozzi Programme – Teacher Manifesto for the 21st Century

“In a world of increasing complexity in which radical changes are taking place at all levels of life, where the environmental, economic and societal sustainability of our global society is at stake, we also need to rethink education.” – Council of Europe

The “Teacher Manifesto for the 21st Century” is an interesting document that deals with challenges and necessary changes in our educational world and promotes a different approach to education in our fast developing societies. It points to a need to redefine roles and competences of teachers as well as to work on improving the sometimes negative image of this profession in order to create an awareness of shared responsibilities regarding the current educational challenges. The authors see a necessity for a fundamental change in mind-sets and beliefs about education since it is impossible to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s ideas and tools.

How can all of this be achieved? Promoting a democratic education, the manifesto claims that all kinds of educators (e.g. parents, teachers, learners, trainers, policy-makers…) need to be included in a modified and rethought model of education. It is invaluable to scrutinize what, why and how we do things regarding education. In contrast to a lot of school curricula which focus on providing students with knowledge preparing them for the labor market, we need to educate the students as active global citizens by also including support in personal development enabling them to act in democratic societies. In short, we need to help young people to create innovations, think critically and work in diverse teams.

As the main challenges for our educational world the authors identified our economic, digital, diverse and finite environment:

  • Regarding the economic environment, the manifest sees a mismatch between what educational institutions provide and what the labor market is actually looking for. Adjustments need to be made to overcome this gap and to educate people who possess problem-solving skills and international and intercultural competences that are necessary in our global labor environment.
  • The mega-trend of a digitalization of our societies can be seen as a big chance for individual and group participation (in education) but the potential of this chance is not being fully used as for now.
  • The authors also see a need in promoting and fostering solidarity, understanding, mutual respect and trust by supporting the development of necessary skills, knowledge and attitudes in our diverse world.
  • When we focus on how to change behaviors in order to develop more sustainable lifestyles, it is important to make use of experiential learning activities which give the students the possibility to observe, analyze, reflect and experiment. Though we attach a lot of importance to these types of learning within our work at AFS, more traditional and formal learning contexts include experiential learning methods less frequently. Oftentimes they rather resort to more frontal approaches, where the educator, not the learner, is at the center of the learning setting.

This manifest prepared by the Community of Practice of the Pestalozzi Programme & the Education and Culture Committee of the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organizations of the Council of Europe shows a lot of similarities in its aims to the AFS Educational Goals. Both aim at equipping people with skills that are necessary to participate and contribute to our diverse and global world in order to face international challenges. Becoming a global citizen, gaining personal, interpersonal, intercultural and global skills by applying experiential learning methods builds the core of what we do at AFS.

Let’s continue to contribute to facing the challenges of today’s world by fostering global citizenship and spreading the AFS experience’s impact.

The Melting Iceberg – Swimming in the Sea of Diversity and Ambiguity

This blog post was contributed by Gábor Csikós, who works as an Organizational Development Coordinator at AFS Hungary. Gábor has a university degree in Management and Leadership, and became an AFS volunteer in 2011. Since then he has been a deputy-chapter president and trainer, joined EFIL’s trainer team in 2013 and became a international qualified ICL trainer in 2014. Besides working for AFS, Gábor also teaches international students in Belgium and Hungary, giving courses on Intercultural Learning and Human Resources in a Multicultural Environment.

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Now, after most of the AFS exchange students have finally arrived to Hungary, both the school year and the NFL season have started, I strongly believe that many of us who deal with intercultural learning have come to the conclusion: the best way to spend some of our freetime is not watching TV nor running, but re-reading the mission statement of AFS Intercultural Programs which says:

„AFS Intercultural Programs is an international, voluntary, non-governmental, non-profit organization that provides intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to create a more just and peaceful world.”

Its is important to address AFS’s core activity according to its mission — providing intercultural learning opportunities. While it is definitely good to know some theories on intercultural learning, it is even better to question those from time to time and see how they fare in the 21st century. In other words: What to do when the old iceberg melting and how do we learn to swim in the sea of diversity and ambiguity?

A seminar organized and hosted by AFS Hungary in March 2015, involving twenty trainers and youth workers – from AFS and other organizations – from five European Countries tackled these issues. The event that was funded by the ERASMUS+ programme of the European Union aimed at nothing less than to critically reflect about intercultural learning and to encourage participants to start discovering different approaches to diversity.

The five-day event focused on participants’ self-reflection and their way of understanding the world around them. Three hallmark activities from the seminar particularly stand out, and whether you are familiar with them or not, read on to see how they deal with labeling.



Participants were initially invited to work with their own identity; they were asked to label themselves. Everyone was instructed to list ten items (characteristics, interests etc.) that define their identity the most, to list ten things that form the basis of their identity. Once the list was completed, the participants were asked to review it several times and remove items from it until only one remained uncrossed on the paper.

When completing the task, participants were asked to reflect on their feelings: not only on which items were the hardest to eliminate, but also on why they felt this way. The aim of the task was to help participants to discover the complexity and uniqueness of their own personality by demonstrating that there were very few common items on the full lists, even though several participants had a similar cultural background.



Participants also had the chance to work on how we treat others by creating a box of lables and noting down their thoughts. Every time they caught themselves using a label for someone (it could be anything such as „boring”, „talker”, „latecomer”, „annoying”), they wrote it on a post-it along with the name of the person, and put it onto their own personal label box. Each day participants were encouraged to re-read and review the labels they created in the past, and consider whether that label was still valid after a day or two. The result was: a lot of expired labels.

By this time, participants realized that if they are not thinking critically enough, intercultural theories sometimes helped them put people in boxes. For example, sometimes after the first encounters with Thai people, lables such as „high-power distance”, „emotionally restrained”, „collectivistic” or „feminin” would be used. However, participants realized that this should never be more than a starting point in a continuous review process, unless we want static theories to misshape our evolving personal impressions.



Finally, the seminar also worked with the labels in our minds. Make no mistake, we all have them and all use them. Here are the most known ones of the collection:

Participants of the seminar examined these by walking on the hills around Budapest while taking on different personal challenges, such as:

  • doing something that they normally would consider dangerous to see what happens
  • writing down a feeling or thought that they are struggling to let go, then burning the paper
  • rewriting their first reactions in certain situations and trying to react in a way that normally they never would

Participants returned from their walks with a lot of enthusiasm and eye-opening experiences. They were more eager to explore roads less taken without their old safety nets.


As a conclusion of the whole seminar, trainers and youth workers understood: although it is impossible not to connect real-life intercultural methods and practices to certain theories, we all must be very careful not to let these theories block the way towards an interesting discovery process that requires an open-mind and an empty paper without any labels or pre-thoughts on it.

Global Citizenship Education – Topics & Learning Objectives

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.

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“Education gives us a profound understanding that we are tied together as citizens of the global community, and that our challenges are interconnected.”
Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

Similarly to the AFS Educational Goals, UNESCO promotes Global Citizenship Education (GCE) as a means to support learners in developing values, attitudes, skills and knowledge that enable them to contribute to the world community. AFS and UNESCO both share the interest to advocate for a more just and peaceful world by regarding education as the key to success. Since April 2015 AFS is in consultative partnership with UNESCO which emphasizes their common goals and the position of AFS as an educational organization.

In beginning of 2015 the UNESCO published “Global Citizenship Education: Topics and Learning Objectives” which is addressed to teachers or other educational stakeholders in non-formal and informal settings in order to give them guidelines on how to include GCE in education systems. The document is modular, practical and includes many concrete examples from around the world. With the intention to foster critical thinking, socially connected, ethical and engaged global citizens, the document provides concrete suggestions for integrating global citizenship education concepts into different local educational realities.

UNESCO describes GCE as a lifelong learning experience in the field of formal and informal education and along all age levels which combines topics like human rights education, international understanding and peace education. GCE is structured into three domains of learning:

  • The cognitive domain aims to develop knowledge and thinking skills in order to understand the complexity of the world’s challenges.
  • The social-emotional domain intends to provide learners with values, attitudes and social skills to enable them to live together in peace.
  • The behavioral domain represents the practical component of GCE, including the application of knowledge and engagement of learners.

Learning outcomes (skills, knowledge, values and attitudes) and learner attributes that should be developed according to the three domains of learning are also defined.

The graphic below summarizes the components of GCE according to UNESCO:

In addition, the document provides factors for a successful integration and delivery of GCE in the education systems, case studies on different approaches, tips on how to deliver GCE in the classroom, concrete teaching and learning practices and ideas for assessing learning outcomes. Annexed are online material for GCE in the classroom and a list of organizations and initiatives which could be potential partners to work with for schools, for other educational organizations or even for AFS itself.

With its practical and modular approach the document can be a useful starting point to create teacher and educator seminars on what Global Citizenship Education is and how it can be put into action. Giving a structured overview on what Global Citizenship Education means and how it can be delivered in different contexts and local realities, the UNESCO publication makes a complex topic tangible and easier to illustrate to AFS staff, volunteers and participants.

A wonderful week at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication

This blog post was contributed by fellow AFSer, Fran Baxter. Fran’s involvement with AFS started when she sent both her daughters on AFS exchanges and since than she has hosted many AFS students at her home in Australia. Over the years Fran has taken part in many AFS activities in various roles and currently she works part time for AFS Australia as the Learning Services Manager and manages the AFS Educational Impact Assessment Pilot as a consultant for AFS International.

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From July 13 to July 24 the 39th annual Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) took place at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. I was fortunate to attend SIIC for the second time, my first time being in 2013.

SIIC is an extremely engaging, motivating, positive and inclusive learning environment. For two weeks, hundreds of people working in education, training, business and consulting, in both international and domestic intercultural contexts, come together to take workshops on different topics within the field of intercultural communication.

The most difficult part of attending SIIC is choosing which courses to take, as all courses are relevant to anyone within the intercultural learning field! The faculty are highly skilled, knowledgeable and approachable and they include renowned intercultural theorists such as Janet Bennett, Executive Director and co-founder of the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI), Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, Mick Vande Berg, Darla Deardorff and Stella Ting Toomey, just to name a few.

In total over 550 participants attended SIIC this summer, representing a diverse national and professional group of learners who are eager to learn and share their expertise. AFS was represented at SIIC this year, with 21 AFS volunteers and staff attending from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Germany, Honduras, India and USA over the course of the two weeks. Of these 21 AFSers, 15 are AFS-SIIC scholars which means that they received scholarships from AFS Intercultural Programs to attend SIIC. They are now back in their home countries completing their scholarship requirements which integrate their SIIC experience with their roles at AFS. I’m personally very excited to apply what I learned at SIIC to the AFS Educational Impact Assessment Pilot and local projects at AFS Australia.

I would recommend SIIC to anyone who wants to expand his or her intercultural competence, and to individuals who recognise that the learning journey continues for life. Come to network with like-minded individuals who recognise the value of shared knowledge. Come to interact with the teachers and students who were happy to share their experience and are open to new learning. Come for the many “a-ha!” moments, and to transfer what you learn to your context within AFS or beyond.

AFS Scholars at SIIC 2015

Each year I attend SIIC, I am left with one thing: the desire to learn more.

See you next July for the 40th year of SIIC!


AFS at the Pestalozzi Programme Summer School 2015

Eva Vitkova of AFS Presenting at Pestalozzi Summer School 2015

When the northern hemisphere school year ends and pupils and students take off for their summer holidays, some teachers don’t take a break yet. Instead, they spend 8 days with 80 other educators in the middle of the Black Forest in Southwestern Germany. Why? To learn, share and recharge their batteries.

It was already the 3rd time that the Pestalozzi Programme of the Council of Europe organized a Summer School for educators. With this year’s theme Pedagogy Makes the Difference the aim was to look at the core of what being a teacher means: our pedagogy, what we feel and think about education, our relation to knowledge, to school and above all with the learners. The summer school was open to educators from both formal and non-formal sectors and in line with our efforts to establish our organization as an actor in teacher education AFS was also represented. The event was organized in cooperation with and at the venue of the Academy of Bad Wildbad and it gathered people holding various roles within the educational system, including head masters, teacher trainers and teachers from all levels of education.

The program was very intensive, build with the intention to engage not only participant’s minds, but also souls and hearts. That’s why the methods used were very varied, including the more known open space or round table debate or more unusual ones such as “socratic walks” or “soap boxes”. During the Socratic walks, participants spend the morning outside exploring a topic of their choice in groups of four or five having the opportunity to let the conversation flow while walking and enjoying the stimulation of the beautiful natural surroundings. “Soap boxes” were 5 minutes opportunities for participants to address the whole group with a topic they are passionate about during the morning assembly.

Summer school participants and trainers came from Council of Europe countries – ranging from Georgia to Ireland and from Iceland to Malta. The multicultural nature of the group allowed for inspiring exchanges, discussions and learning from the many intercultural encounters we experienced.

The Summer School was not only an opportunity to stop and reflect about our roles as educators, but it was also a chance to develop ourselves as human beings while posing the question: Who am I as a teacher/trainer? An important reminder for all of us who are active in education, including the AFS community which contributes to the professional development of teachers by offering teacher trainings, conferences and other learning opportunities. The learnings from the event will inform our ongoing efforts towards developing a comprehensive educator and school relations strategy across the AFS network.

You can read more about the Pestalozzi Programme and its offerings here and follow it on twitter @pestalozziprog.

Connect: Intercultural Insights for Global Citizens on Interfaith Dialogue

AFS Intercultural Link Magazine now has a new name and a refreshing interactive digital format! Our new name, Connect: Intercultural Insights for Global Citizens, reflects both our long-standing commitment to connect individuals and cultures and our more recent focus to convene an increasingly diverse community of advocates. Going digital also provides the perfect platform to discuss and debate the critical intercultural issues of today and tomorrow.

See the full issue here: https://medium.com/connect-intercultural-insights-for-global-citizens and learn more about how Intercultural Learning needs Interfaith Dialogue.

In this issue:

Learn about what skills are needed for interfaith dialogue and try out our simple but effective activity that simulates an multifaith “meetup.” This activity is designed to be used in the classroom, after school or with adults. Hear from one AFSer about his experience walking in someone else’s shoes as he fasted for a day during the holy Muslim season of Ramadan. Then, zoom back in time to read how World War II AFS ambulance drivers from the UK documented and discussed different faiths during their experiences in Lebanon.

Award-winning journalist and creator of The Civil Conversations Project, Krista Tippett is someone who has brought together people from different faiths for many years. Her in-depth interviews with religious leaders and philosophers such as the 14th Dalai Lama, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Wiesel and Jean Vanier made her an excellent choice for our own expert interview on this topic.

And, as usual, we bring you news from around the AFS global network: Be inspired by declarations from the recent AFS International Youth Volunteer Forum that took place in Argentina and discover how AFS Costa Rica and AFS Italy are working together to provide schools in their countries intercultural learning tools, trainings and more. Meet Heidy Utami, an AFS education specialist from Indonesia and find out how you can get involved with Intercultural Dialogue Day this year.

Enjoy our new interactive format! We invite you to share your comments, post, tweet (remember to tag your social media posts with #AFSeffect) or even send us a good old-fashioned email to let us know what you think.

Photo by ©AFS Vivre Sans Frontière, Guillaume Deperrois / Incorp Agency

Photo by ©AFS Vivre Sans Frontière, Guillaume Deperrois / Incorp Agency

“Welcome to America, Please be on Time!”

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.

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AFS is an organization which provides learning opportunities by connecting people all over the world. But not only the core exchange programs draw on the intercultural spirit of their participants –the AFS staff are also sparkling with their cultural variety!

AFS International recently offered a training on U.S. culture to give new colleagues who recently moved to the U.S. the chance to gain a deeper understanding of their new environment and to share their experiences of living and working in a foreign culture – the U.S. culture!

The training was based on this article written by Max Fischer who took a closer look at guidebooks for tourists who come to the U.S. and what they recommend to keep in mind and to be aware of.

Many guide books highly recommended to always be on time, eat appropriately (always depending on what kind of food you eat: fried potatoes with fingers, boiled potatoes with fork and knife), never drink and drive and one of the most important tips: discussing about politics needs to be handled VERY carefully!

Another relevant topic seems to be personal space since many guidebooks try to explain the rather distanced concept of U.S. Americans when it comes to greeting or conversations. How to tip without insulting the server also appears to be a challenge for newcomers to the U.S. Apart from rather practical tips, the guide books generally give a draft of U.S. history, touching sensitive topics like slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

But what do these tips really tell us? Do the guidebooks depict a realistic picture of what to expect when encountering the U.S. culture or are they rather a collection of stereotypes that push forward a certain perception of what we see?

To reflect upon these tips and assumptions, the participants of the U.S. culture training compared them to their own experiences and to the insider perspective of the training facilitator who is a U.S. citizen.


Lingran Zhou, Intern in Risk Management (came to the U.S. in August 2014 from China):

Did other people give you tips before you came to the U.S.? How was it in reality?

“My friends pointed out that the U.S. is a country focused on laws and that it is important to figure out the different state and federal laws in order not to violate them. It was a useful tip because I feel that in America you have to be careful to stick to the laws, maybe even more than in other countries.

Also I was told that religion plays an important role in some parts of the U.S., so I studied Christianity before I came to the U.S. My background knowledge is helpful to connect people’s behavior to religious values and it gives me a deeper understanding of their motivations. But since the U.S. is such a huge and diverse country, I always have to keep in mind the differences of U.S. citizens.

Are there any tips that are mentioned in the article that you find helpful?

“I think the tips in the article are accurate and precise, they fit to what I experienced in the U.S., for example it is very important to always be on time to not insult people.”

Do you see a danger in the guide-books or are they rather helpful?

“As long as you consider the travel books as guidelines which include basic knowledge about a country and its culture, they can be very helpful for a tourist or a newcomer.”


Guillermo Bril, Intern at Sentio (came to the U.S. in April 2015 from Argentina):

After living in the U.S. for a while, is there something that is still foreign and strange to you?

“The working style and communication in the office is different to what I experienced in my home country. People are more task oriented vs. relationship oriented. It still feels a little unfamiliar to rather schedule a meeting when you want to discuss a topic than to just walk over to my colleagues’ desks and talk to them right away.”

Are there any tips that are mentioned in the article that you find helpful?

“It was helpful to know about the different concept of personal space in the U.S. compared to the one in Argentina when I started my internship. People here tend to prefer more distance and I needed to get used to not kissing people as a greeting ritual.”

Do you see a danger in the guidebooks or are they rather helpful?

“Some guide books need to be careful not to overstep the line between limiting stereotypes and more broad and open generalizations. Generalizations can be helpful to orientate yourself in a foreign country and they still leave space for new and different perceptions and experiences.”


Katharine Sanders, Sentio (U.S. citizen and facilitator of the U.S. culture training):

What is your reaction to the tips in the books? Do you think they depict reality or do you feel stereotyped?

 “I think the article gives an interesting perspective on U.S. American culture. It is always an exciting experience to look at yourself through a different lens. The article mentions some generalizations that never would have occurred to me as notable cultural “rules” that might stress someone out while visiting the U.S.; like our collective and complex conventions for table manners (we eat fried chicken with our hands, but baked chicken with a knife and fork) or hugging/not hugging. I don’t really feel stereotyped by the books since they seem to also depict regionalism and the diversity of U.S. culture. Instead, I take them as an occasion to reflect upon what is perceived as important and different in the U.S. as compared to other cultures. However, reading about your home culture through this lens can also make you a little frustrated, especially the parts that talk about history or safety concerns without being particularly detailed or nuanced. Warnings to travelers, like in “conservative” rural areas or “dangerous” urban areas can come across a little overly simplistic.

Did you meet people who struggled with topics mentioned in the article?

“Some common themes, especially around personal space and touching, seem to always come up. Surprisingly, the two topics I feel I’ve heard most often are not covered in the article. Visitors I’ve interacted with have generally been quite impacted by the high number of homeless people living in the cities. Juxtaposed to that, they’re also usually a little overwhelmed by the abundance in our supermarkets. I feel like these two examples hint at some underlying U.S. cultural values and historical/politically relevant issues that might be helpful to explore more.

Guidebooks don’t really claim to provide intercultural learning but good guidebooks can give some cultural specific background knowledge to help people understand and survive in the short term. Reality will of course be much more individual and complex than how it is described.

What would you think should be recommended before coming to the U.S. for a person coming from a clearly different background?

I really can’t think of any specific recommendation on U.S. culture that would be relevant for all people coming to the U.S. for the first time. It always depends on where they are coming from, what kind of previous knowledge and experiences they have, what their reason it to come to the US, etc. Guidebooks including generalizations can be a great starting point if read with a critical eye. Still, I think it is more important to provide people with tools and strategies on how to take in all the “newness” to really understand and cope with differences.” Guidebooks seem to be a helpful start to encounter a foreign culture and to avoid dropping a brick or being overwhelmed by a surprising situation.

Still, no guidebook can offer what a real intercultural adventure can come up with. So, why should we believe in everything a book is telling us? Let’s get out there, form our own opinion and encounter the differences!


Be my fbf (Friend beyond Faith)?

This blog post was contibuted by our fellow AFSer, Stijn Van den Bergh, who has  been active in AFS for 13 years now. First, he participated in the intercultural exchange programs as a student and a host family, and then as a volunteer and staff in Belgium and AFS International.

This blog post introduces the next issue of the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine, with the main topic of Interfaith Dialogue. Stay tuned for more information!

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AFS is a big and beautiful family, stretching around the globe and encompassing an incredible variety of backgrounds, cultures and religions. I usually am not one to speak out publicly on potentially charged topics, but as the Muslims in the AFS community  have been having a hard time in the world outside our AFS cocoon, I feel that some TLC [tender loving care] is overdue, and Ramadan seems to be the perfect time (for those who want to know more info on Ramadan: there is an excellent blog entry on this in the ICL blog).

On June 28, 2015, I completed Friends beyond Faith’s fasting challenge. Friends beyond Faith is a campaign to propagate the beauty of culture by highlighting positive interfaith friendships among the youth all over the world. The campaign started in the Philippines and was picked up by the national director of AFS Philippines, who then challenged some of her colleagues and friends, including me.

One day of fasting was an interesting intercultural experience for me, and it reconfirmed the notions that I would associate with Ramadan before. To me, as a non-Muslim, Ramadan is about family, about appreciating what you have and about giving back. Family, because it is a unique month in the year that brings you closer together. Appreciativeness, because by abstaining – not just from food and drink but also from being mean or hurtful towards others – you become more thankful for what you would otherwise always take for granted. Giving back, because charity and feeding the poor are key concepts in Ramadan and the concluding Eid al-Fitr.

I would like to ask our Muslim brothers and sisters: what does Ramadan mean to you personally? Please share your personal experience and insights with us below.

At the same time I challenge all non-muslims in our beautiful AFS family and beyond to do one day of fasting too! It is only a day in a lifetime but it is a great experience. Ramadan ends on July 17 in many countries so there is still plenty of time for you to complete the challenge. Do post about this in social media! After all: why keep all this goodness to yourself when you can create more awareness among those around you as well?