Celebrating Intercultural Journeys: International Education Week 2015

Participating in an exchange program, like those organized by AFS, or studying abroad is known to have many benefits. From increasing your intercultural competence and the way you see and understand the world, to improving your image with prospective employers. From giving you better language skills to improving your creativity and critical thinking. Finally, it’s known to be a boost in confidence and a source of life-long friendships across the globe.Whether you yourself are a current or former exchange student, a volunteer or staff member of AFS or similar organizations and institutions that provide opportunities for internationalizing education, this week is an opportunity to take a step back, reflect on your intercultural journey and celebrate its benefits. Why is that?

The week of 16 November is when International Education Week in 2015 takes place. It is created as a celebration of the benefits of international education and exchange around the world, an opportunity to celebrate world cultures, people, and language while affirming the critical role that intercultural exchanges and education play in fostering mutual understanding.

International Education Week started as a joint initiative of the US Departments of State and Education, and is now celebrated in more than 100 countries worldwide. This one week of activities is aimed to result in a knowledge exchange that enriches communities around the world.

What can you do?

  • Join in the celebrations by sharing your input on this year’s topic, “My Intercultural Journey”. Share your photos, experiences and thoughts with your friends, on social media or as a comment to this blog post! Get inspired here.
  • Find out more about global goals (SDGs) in education that the world is working together to reach by 2030. All matters related to this topic can be found here.
  • Learn more about International Education Week and events scheduled for the week by visiting the official website. Is there an event you know of that is not on the list? Share this info on the site!

See how AFS exchange students describe the benefits of their educational experience abroad:


AFS Volunteers Trailblazing in Turkey

This blog post has been taken from AFS Volunteer Voices, a site where AFS volunteers from all over the world share their stories and experiences. It is an amazing story of intercultural learning in action – the story of how one person can set a big change in motion, leading AFS volunteers to fulfill their mission of global citizenship. We thank María Omodeo for sharing the story.

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Student Assessment in Hakkari

The following experience from Turkey is by far not the usual volunteer work. Yet we believe it is a great example of what AFS can be if we work hard and are courageous.

It’s another AFS weekend and this one starts at 4 a.m. on a Friday. Our flights are at 6.30, one of us leaving from Istanbul, the other from Izmir. Get up, get dressed, get ready and hit the road. We have a brief chat on the phone around 5 o’clock.

- Are you ready?

- I’m already in the taxi. You?

- Cool, I’m leaving home right now. Nervous?

- A bit. My friends think that I’m crazy and I couldn’t tell my mom that I was going. She would go nuts.

- Same here, but hey, it’ll be alright.

- I know. See you in Ankara.

Two separate flights takes us both to Ankara. First leg of the trip is now completed. At 7.30 we hug each other. We are excited and to be honest, yes, a bit nervous. Another two hour flight and we find ourselves in a tiny airport in the eastern city of Van. We call our contact teacher. She tells us that a vehicle will pick us up soon, just wait outside the airport. Sure enough, a small commercial vehicle soon stops by. Two gentlemen greet us and take our bags. On the way to Van city centre, we chat a bit about how tense the atmosphere is after a very long summer during which, hundreds of lives have been lost to bombings and clashes. “All we want is peace” the driver says, “we want them all to leave us be.”

We are then transported to a small bus and our 4 hour journey starts. The road is long and winding through mountains and canyons. We’ve seen this view before, many times, in France, Italy, Austria; it is just like the Alps – but with a twist. There are watch towers and security check points all along the way. We are going to Hakkari, or Colemerg as the locals call it in Kurdish; a small city locked in between mountains, stuck between Iraq and Iran. A city associated with unrest, exploding bombs and endless fights between the Turkish Army and the Kurdish rebel groups. When the bus driver learns that we are coming from the west, he starts explaining us the area: the ancient castle up there, the beautiful valley down below, and constantly repeats the same theme as our previous driver – we want peace!

It’s now 3 o’clock in the afternoon and we enter the city. We quickly leave our bags to the hotel and head to the high school we are being waited for, passing by military vehicles such that we have only seen on TV before. We go through the gates of the school and there’s a festive air awaiting us. The teachers, the students, everyone hugs us, kisses us, greets us as if we are celebrities. “I can’t believe that you are here” one student says with a huge smile on her face. “We have been promised so much before, but all have been forgotten. We never actually thought you would come” another adds. We are a bit confused – we are here only to do the first stage of the AFS student assessment for the 2016-2017 year program.

The story actually started eight months ago. In a volunteer training in Istanbul, we have met a very special teacher, mother of two AFS’ers, who has decided to go to Hakkari to teach for a year. She tells us how incredible her students are and if we could do something, anything for her pupils. The light in her eyes becomes an inspiration for us and in two months, we prepare a short-term exchange for eleven students to come and visit Izmir.

At the end of May, the students arrive and are placed with local families. They attend workshops especially designed for them, go on cultural visits and take part in daily life. One week passes quick and the students go back home, but they never leave us. They write us several times a week, send us photographs, call us, keep us up to date of their lives over there, far far away. Meanwhile, the fighting gets intense in the area and this time we start calling them day and night, just to check that they are safe and sound.

At the same time, they talk to their friends and families. They tell the people around them what an experience this one-week exchange has been and that there’s this thing called AFS, an international student exchange program. Autumn comes, and they tell us that they want to apply. “Sure” we say, “Here’s how to. We would be very happy.”

In couple of weeks, we receive over 90 applications. We pinch ourselves, can this be true? 90 applications from Hakkari, it’s magic. Even if one of them is found eligible, can you imagine its impact on this city? Hence, it’s a very special AFS weekend for us and it started at 4 a.m.

The first stage of the AFS student assessment is a multiple-choice test. It’s an evaluation based on general knowledge and skill. The students fill the classrooms at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. We distribute the papers and start the clock. Will they be able to do it? With so much inequality they are facing, how will they fare compared to students in much more prosperous parts of the country? We don’t yet know the answer, but we get a hunch: They will do just fine. And soon we see the reason as we talk with their teachers. What they may lack in physical conditions, they compensate with the help of some of the most amazingly idealist teachers we have ever seen. Some of the teachers confide in us: “I was shattered with horror when I first heard that I was appointed to Hakkari” one says. “But, the city has changed me. I was afraid of the unknown, and now that I know the place, I don’t want to leave.”

The test is over, but the students don’t leave us. They grab us from both arms, “you are here for us, we can’t just go, we’ll show you our city” they say. And the day goes like that, one door opens another, and by sunset, we might have met half the city.

It is not the poverty that strikes us the most, nor the countless military vehicles. It’s the lack of hope we observe, for things not changing ever. And by just coming to Hakkari, we give them something: a small, very small hope for one small change in this city. A hope that not even themselves, but perhaps a friend, one of their own might be selected for an AFS year somewhere far away to see a different world. And we cannot wipe the smile off our faces for we know that we have a part in that. But the real credit is not ours; it belongs to one courageous AFS volunteer, 52, mother of two, who has chosen willingly to leave her home and come to teach here. She’s the one who started it all. Next morning, we pack our bags and leave Hakkari to go back home, but we sure leave our hearts in this city locked in between mountains.

We already know what a great thing AFS is, but we may sometimes get stuck in the routine of events and forget to step back and look at the bigger picture. Sure, AFS is a great acronym for another fat student, and that’s fun. But it is also born out of the courage of some young men who were brave enough to help save lives working as ambulance drivers in battle fields, and some have given their lives while doing that. It is these courageous young men who have started the AFS exchange programs to contribute to world peace. And along with this legacy that we inherit, comes a huge responsibility: Working for peace requires diligence and courage, and we need to have them both more than ever right now. For we are not just a student exchange program, we are AFS Volunteers.


Turkish AFS Volunteers will continue reporting their works in Hakkari. If you wish to support us, please do contact AFS Volunteers Association of Turkey (info@afsgonulluleri.org), TKV/AFS Turkey (turkey@afs.org), or follow us on Facebook www.facebook.com/afsgd.

Walk the Talk: AFS at the 9th UNESCO Youth Forum

This blog post was contributed by an AFSer from Iceland, Alma Dóra Ríkarðsdóttir who was one of the representatives of AFS at the 9th UNESCO Youth Forum which took place in Paris, France on 26-28 October. Read on to find out more about this event and the role AFSers as active global citizens and relentless change-makers played in it.

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Active global citizens, change makers, ambassadors of peace through intercultural learning. Volunteers who walk their talk and make a difference. Volunteers who participate in discussions on global matters and act on their mission of being the change they want to see in this world. Volunteers of AFS.

So why is it important that AFS had two youth representatives at the 9th UNESCO Youth Forum on Climate Change and Sustainable Development? Because we care. We care and we can have an impact.

In addition to the institutional representative Eva Vitkova, the two AFS youth representatives were Alma Dóra Ríkarðsdóttir from AFS Iceland, alumna of 2011-2012 exchange program to Italy and volunteer of the year in her organization and Marcelo Lopes from AFS Brazil, alumnus of 2011-2012 program to Hungary, facilitator of intercultural learning and president of the local AFS chapter Comite Dourados, Brazil. Both of them attended the AFS Youth Volunteer Forum in Buenos Aires earlier this year, are involved in the Volunteer Voices initiative and care very deeply for global issues and sustainability.

Representatives from Iceland and Brazil have two interesting and completely different viewpoints of the two very important topics of the forum. Still they did not find this to be quite enough to cover the all the perspectives of AFSers. This is why they started by reaching out to volunteers from all over the world to hear what they had to say. The survey published in order to do so got over 160 responses from 41 countries that represented AFS´s input at the forum.  Almost 90% of those who participated in the survey claimed to be interested in contributing to a project to encourage sustainability as a follow up of the forum. We would like to thank everyone who took the time to participate in the survey and who offered amazing suggestions how AFS could contribute more actively to sustainable development:

“It could be an idea to look at how AFS workshops can be organized in a more sustainable way by reducing and reusing paper and other materials”.
“We can generate an impact on people, making them see it is in their hands to do something about sustainability”.
“Every AFSer could be asked to teach one new good habit to their host family and bring one back home”.
“The first step is to educate all our volunteers on the subject and encourage them to be more sustainable in their everyday lives and teach them how to do that”.

The Forum itself took place at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris where around 500 representatives from 159 member states came together under the title of “Young Global Citizens for a Sustainable Planet”. The participants took part in discussions on climate change and the recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The outcomes were globally recommended actions that participants formed throughout the Forum. The methodology used was the Future Literacy KnowLab and participants had the opportunity of applying for peer-facilitating the discussions as well as participating. Being familiar with the concept of facilitating a discussion, our volunteers attended the training session followed by peer-facilitating the main workshop of the event.

This was a great experience that they took with them home to their organizations and will keep in their AFS toolbox for future trainings. The workshop consisted of three levels where participants imagined their predicted and preferred future and worked on building bridges to connect these two in order to create a vision of the future they would like to build. In order to do so, there were a lot of discussions, presentations, artistic approaches and people from different backgrounds deciding which global actions to present to the President of the UNESCO General Conference.

As a follow up to the Forum the UNESCO has published the outcomes which you can find here. The outcomes are focused in areas of Young Global Citizens for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Young Global Citizens for a Sustainable Planet, covering in depth topics like rights, freedoms and responsibilities, diversity and identity, knowledge, awareness and media, and capturing the energy of youth. Watch short summaries about the outcomes of each day at the Forum here:

Along with the main workshop, participants were engaged in various other activities including smaller scale capacity building workshops, inspiring talks, marketplace introductions and presentations of ongoing UNESCO projects. It was incredibly inspiring to see so many ideas that have come to life during the forums throughout the years. There were also a lot of networking opportunities in the program including diverse concerts and a boat ride on the Seine. What was maybe one of the greatest experiences of the Forum was to get to know amazing people from countries where AFS does not yet exist. Meeting these strong characters and visionaries from some countries of Africa, the Middle East and many more places gives us hope that one day AFS will expand to every country in this world.


From Interculturalism to Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today

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 and EFIL. 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 the level of intercultural sensitivty in developing a better mutual understanding of diverse groups in Turkey.

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Often in non-formal education trainings, courses or seminars, I see people having a hard time with academic terms. When working with topics related to culture, it is not possible to stick to one term only. There are quite many variations of the terminology used. Multicultural, intercultural, cross-cultural and now transcultural! It is important that we have a similar understanding of them when working as cultural mediators, trainers or consultants otherwise we are in danger of misunderstandings and ineffectiveness. This post aims to define some of the core terminology while introducing transcultural as the recently popular term in the field.

Let’s start with the definitions:

  • From a more general perspective in society, the condition of cultures being together is referred to as multiculturalism: a situation in which two or more cultures are represented. Multiculturalism is used primarily in educational contexts involving multicultural classrooms and, to a lesser extent, relating to multicultural identity, institutionalized with particular policies, procedures and curricula. [1]
  • Cross-cultural refers to a particular kind of contact among people, one in which the people are from two or more different cultures. For example; “on a multicultural campus or in a global corporation, cross-cultural contact is inevitable.” [2]
  • As we often use it in AFS, intercultural(ism) refers to the interaction and engagement of multiple cultures. It is a particular kind of interaction or communication among discourses, one in which differences in cultures play a role in the creation of meaning. Interculturalism is the process of delivery of meaning among cultures. [3]

Although “intercultural” is commonly used to describe to the state of the 21st century in communication, education and business, Wolfgang Welsch, a German philosopher, criticizes interculturalism because it uses “a conception of cultures as islands or spheres” creating a separatist character of cultures. [4] In “Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today”, he refers to the inner complexity of modern societies and how the traditional concept of culture cannot cope with it. As Welsch explains, cultures today are extremely interconnected and entangled with each other. The life for an economist, an academic or a journalist is no longer German or French but more or less European or global in tone. Local realities and cultural identities are linked globally. Ever-increasing global communication technologies and tools make it more possible for all kinds of information to be available from all points of the globe. Passports are not the definition of cultural identities. Being Indian or American may not necessarily show one’s cultural belonging.

Today in a culture’s internal relations — among its different ways of life — there exists as much foreignness as in its external relations with other cultures. [5] Therefore, Welsch claims, it is important to understand that cultural determinants today have become transcultural. Every concept of culture intended to pertain to today’s reality should face up to the transcultural constitution. Having a transcultural understanding of culture provides researchers with an inclusive approach rather than an old, separatist and exclusive one.

“Transcultural webs are, in short, woven with different threads, and in a different manner. Therefore, on the level of Transculturality, a high degree of cultural manifoldness results again – it is certainly no smaller than that which was found between traditional single cultures. It’s just that now differences no longer come about through a juxtaposition of clearly delineated cultures (like in a mosaic), but result between transcultural networks, which have some things in common while differing in others, showing overlaps and distinctions at the same time. The mechanics of differentiation has become more complex – but it has also become genuinely cultural for the very first time, no longer complying with geographical or national stipulations, but following pure cultural interchange processes.” [6]

Welsch prefers to offer this new term for describing the current situation and he criticizes the traditional perception of intercultural and cross-cultural communication. Bearing his approach in mind, I believe that nationalities are usually a barrier for more successful and efficient intercultural communication. Individuals with more developed intercultural sensitivity are the ones who take nationality as a weaker influencer during their communications with others. Linking certain actions, tendencies and thought concepts directly to nationality limits the communication processes. Hence, recognition of inner diversity, inclusion of various cultural belongings and the influence of networks provides stronger and more developed intercultural sensitivity.

Welsch brings up an important question, “Are weactually being separatist and exclusive to a certain level when we only speak of inter ‘cultures’ while our intention is completely the opposite?” Can transculturality foster our passion for daring to live together?

[1] Milton J. Bennett, Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication, USA Intercultural Press:2013, p. 10.
[2] Milton J. Bennett, Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication, USA Intercultural Press: 2013, p. 11.
[3] Asker Kartarı, Kültür, Farklılık ve İletişim: Kültürlerarası İletişimin Kavramsal Dayanakları, İletişim Yay., İstanbul, 2014. s.39
[4] Wolfgang Welsch, Transculturality-The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today, Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, ed. By Mike Feather stone and Scott Lash, London: Sage 1999, 194-213.
[5] Wolfgang Welsch, Transculturality-The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today, Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, ed. By Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, London: Sage 1999, 194-213.
[6] Wolfgang Welsch, Transculturality-The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today, Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, ed. By Mike Featherstone and Scot tLash, London: Sage 1999, 194-213.

Czech this out! AFS & Schools in Czech Republic

This blog post was contributed by Monika Nikolova, Program Director of AFS Czech Republic. Monika has been with AFS for eight years in many different roles, including being in charge of this organization’s intercultural learning efforts. As she is a member of Czech pool of trainers as well she combines her roles and is currently working on her project of training local chapters on the basic knowledge on intercultural matters.  Monika has been living in two cultures since her birth as she was born to Bulgarian parents in the Czech Republic, having international friends since childhood. 

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Schools are an invaluable partner of AFS, a staple of our high-school student study abroad programs. As the formal education side of our structured experiential learning programs, schools are the place where our exchange students learn a lot, not only about the curriculum, but the culture and relationships in their host country. However, there is always space for improving the relationship between AFS and schools, and the type of support our organization provides to educators.

With this in mind, AFS Czech Republic created a new position within the organization a couple of years ago, namely the School Coordinator, in order to focus on schools’ needs when hosting an AFS exchange student. We learnt teachers sometimes do not know how to work with a new person in the class who does not understand Czech, often they do not understand why the student is in their class, where the students come from or what the academic requirements of exchange students are. It turns out the communication between AFS and school principals is not enough. Even though we always sent all the information about AFS programs and the hosted students to the principals, these materials would not always reach the teachers at the school.


New approach

What have we done to improve this situation? A lot! During the past four years we have created or updated the following materials for the educators:

  • Handbook for schools
  • Practical info kit “How to integrate a foreign student in the class”
  • School curriculum for students by months
  • Info on how to evaluate students during the school year

However, the most important change is the seminar for the teachers.


Seminar for the teachers

In September 2015 we successfully ran our fourth edition of the seminar for teachers. We organize these seminars at the end of August and during September when schools open and students arrive. We invite not only the principals but mainly the AFS contact teachers at schools, class teachers of AFS students and, of course, any other teachers from the school who would get in touch with our AFS students during the year. Our School Coordinator facilitates the seminar together with one local volunteer, ideally somebody who has previously participated in the exchange program, either as a student or a host family and who can speak from experience. We offer this event to all schools within the country that host AFS students, trying to organize seminars as close and convenient to the schools as possible.

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The seminar is a half-day event. It starts with the presentation of our organization and programs, explaining the hosting program and student’s status in Czech Republic. The school enrollment process and administration necessary before the school year begins are explained, as well as the curriculum and student evaluation. A very important part of the event is Maslow’s pyramid of needs, which shows teachers how students feel at the beginning of the program and why they may not be ready to participate in the classes immediately. The cultural adaptation curve and factors that can slow down the integration of students are also discussed, along with the ways AFS supports them during their exchange.

Finally, the seminar is accredited by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, which puts the event in a prestigious light in the eyes of the schools.


Be part of AFS international community

Apart from the essential support during the hosting of AFS exchange students and the seminar for the teachers, we have started to strengthen our relationship with schools by offering them participation at international AFS events such as the Spectrum of Education conference held by AFS Turkey or Forum on Intercultural Learning and Exchange organized by Intercultura Foundation, the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL), AFS International and AFS Austria. Two Czech educators also attended the AFS centennial celebrations in Paris.

Czech schools are very appreciative of international opportunities and we are always happy to hear how much attending these events helps them learn about the AFS network and understand our mission.

It goes without saying that we have many other activities and offers for hosting schools, such as class exchanges, information on scholarships, national volunteer training, annual ball and others.


Online tools

We have started the new school year with the new website and online tools for our educators. Here we present the benefits for schools to host an AFS exchange student and we inform them on the enrolment procedure. We post testimonies from our host schools and host students and we include the map of where the students are hosted in our country. Schools interested in intercultural learning can easily check what we do online with our volunteers, returnees or host students, also using a direct link to our website section on intercultural learning.

The highlight of our online resources for teachers is our password-protected area called AFS Wikipedia. Here teachers can download worksheets for seven different subjects they can use for students during the classes, they can find the handbook for schools, curriculum, a welcome brochure or Czech-English dictionary that we give our students upon arrival.


We have succeeded in strengthening our school relations but we will not stop here. Our goals for the future include a national conference for the educators in April 2016 and supervision for our teachers in the middle of the program facilitated by one of our experienced AFS teachers and the School Coordinator. Stay tuned!



Strategic Approaches to Intercultural Learning in Argentina and Uruguay

This post has been contributed by Julia Taleisnik, who is a staff member and former volunteer of AFS Argentina and Uruguay. Julia has a university degree in Psychology. She went on an AFS intercultural exchange program to the USA, and volunteered for more than 10 years. While volunteering, she became engaged with intercultural matters and trainings and attended the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) on two occasions. Julia is an International Qualified Trainer for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program, and nowadays as a staff she designs and delivers trainings on intercultural topics for internal and external audiences.

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It is important for AFS to ensure standards and quality of its programs, and one way to do so is to streamline intercultural learning in everything we do.AFS in Argentina and Uruguay, like many other members of our worldwide network, decided to do so by creating a formal strategy for intercultural learning.To this date, the strategy is seen as a great success and a best practice example to be shared widely.

In 2012,the AFS partner organization in Argentina and Uruguay designed its first organizational strategy on intercultural learning. Its key questions were:Which role do we want intercultural learning to have in our organization in the future? and How are we going to achieve that?

A strategic group of volunteers and staff formulated the following vision: AFS Argentina-Uruguay will be a benchmark organization regarding intercultural learning, both nationally and regionally. It will be recognized by the government, the corporate sector and NGOs as an expert in the field. Intercultural learning will be across-cutting topic of our programs, in order to add quality to our content. Our volunteers and staff will be highly trained on the topic and intercultural learning will be the subject of discussion between them. Our materials, handbooks and manuals will be updated to promote the development of intercultural competencies in our participants, volunteers and staff.

This organizational strategy focuses on AFS’s internal audiences, namely volunteers, staff and participants of our programs, that is exchange students and host families in order to improve how we deliver our study abroad and other programs. The key task for our organization became to train and develop competences of our volunteers and staff – our goal was to make them fluent in the language of intercultural learning.

To achieve this, the first step was to develop a pool of intercultural trainers and hold a National Qualifying Trainers workshop within the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program, an exciting multi-step training and assessment program designed to further develop intercultural learning facilitation competencies for AFS volunteers and staff worldwide. This training used different methods and working styles, including opportunities for trainees to practice their training skills, design non-formal education sessions and assess their knowledge on intercultural topics.

The second step was to help volunteers advance in the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program and take the next level of training. Members of our pool of trainers attended online sessions and webinars in order to deepen their understanding of the intercultural issues and get new insights on different topics. They also gained a better understanding of their own personal intercultural sensitivity by taking the Intercultural Development Inventory assessment and continuing their educational path with an Intercultural Development Plan.

These well trained volunteers and members of our pool of trainers were then also able to hold trainings for other volunteers in different roles in the organization, with the help of AFS International. Over 150 volunteers in key roles, such as presidents of local AFS chapters or coordinators of orientations for students, completed Levels 1 and 2 of the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program, which brought them a higher level of knowledge and competences on intercultural matters relevant for their engagement within and outside AFS.

Our hard working volunteers and staff members also dedicated their time to reviewing and updating materials and manuals used at orientations for the exchange students who participate in our programs. Apart from ensuring a better quality of our programs, this was an excellent opportunity for us to put into practice the intercultural content and skills gained through trainings.

Two years into the strategy we can proudly say that a major part of our volunteers and staff are trained on intercultural topics, that we speak the language of interculturalism in our everyday lives. Volunteers and staff now feel more motivated when it comes to dealing and working with intercultural matters. Still, there is much more to come. We are continuously improving and our next focus will be on making our relations with schools and external audiences better. We will keep you informed!

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.