A year abroad becomes a lifelong global vision

"All you have to do is give a scholarship to one child and see what becomes of that to realize how much you can be giving. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.” -- Jenny Messner

Jenny Messner, right, with some of her Speedwell Foundation scholarship recipients and their family

by AFS Staff

When she got on the plane to Brazil in 1970, Jenny Messner had no expectations. Until that moment, the furthest away the Pennsylvania country girl had traveled was the Jersey Shore.

Forty years later, Messner’s year studying abroad with AFS-USA still shapes her life in ways she never could have imagined. Fluent in Portuguese, with a successful career in international banking behind her, she now helps local teenagers, like she once was, have the same opportunity to have a life-changing AFS experience abroad. This year, Jenny and her husband Mike’s Speedwell Foundation sent 19 students from Pennsylvania’s Lancaster and Lebanon counties to study abroad in nine different countries with AFS.

“I was very proud of studying abroad back in 1970s, and now I have a whole club,” Messner said. “I’m very proud of my students. They all look like I did. I have a picture of me at 16 with all my luggage with AFS tags on them, and I just look wide-eyed with that “Oh my gosh” young enthusiasm that reinforces my idea that these students are the best ambassadors we could send into the world.”

Unexpected Joys

In retrospect, Messner’s trip seems almost like a happy accident. Motivated by a love of languages, a poster in a display case at her high school, and an inspirational AFS Volunteer, she applied to study abroad with AFS in September of her junior year. She had no destination in mind, and had nearly forgotten about her application by December when she was told she had been accepted to live and study in Brazil for the next year.

A whirlwind three weeks later, Messner was on a hilltop overlooking the white sand beaches of Rio de Janeiro, about as far away as she could be from rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

A young Jenny Messner with with Brazilian soccer star Pelé during her 1970 AFS year abroad in Brazil

“I had never seen scenery that spectacular in my life,” she said. It was the first of many spectacular scenes -- Iguaçu falls; Brasilia; her hometown for the year, Santo André, a suburb of São Paulo – and many unexpected surprises.

Her host family was shocked she wasn’t tall; didn’t go to Disneyland everyday; didn’t eat ketchup at every meal. Her schoolmates were entranced by her long blond hair.

Messner was surprised by the warmth of the Brazilian people; the joy of dancing the samba; the spice of the food; and the persistence of host sister, her right-hand friend and mentor who wouldn’t let her crawl into bed until she could say pillow in Portuguese. It was her host sister’s persistence that helped lead to another surprise: Messner’s first dream in Portuguese that woke her up thinking, “I did it.”

“I just remember being so impressed with how welcomed I was down there: blown away by how they could bring me into their home and share their culture with me,” Messner said. “It made me want to give back, and I think what it has sparked in me was this desire to make sure other people [can study abroad].”

But before she could give back, Messner had to leave Brazil. It wasn’t always easy – “When I returned, my mother would say ‘Jenny, you need to speak English.’” – but it didn’t mean her journey was over. In fact, it was just the beginning.

“Brazil and AFS changed me into a global person,” she said. “I definitely became aware that the world was something to get to know rather than to hide from. There’s no doubt it set me up to be a global citizen.”

Global Vision

Messner earned a degree in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania (she applied to school from Brazil), where she also met her future husband Mike, with whom she has three children. That degree, and her specialty in Latin America, led her into international banking as well as to an ITT International Fellowship to Brazil, where she stayed with her former AFS Host Family. Eventually, she became a specialist in the Brazilian banking system for the Bank of New England, where she also translated documents and acted as a kind of cultural ambassador.

“For a Lancaster County girl to be able to morph into something so Latin really takes people by surprise,” she said. “It’s so much fun.”

Messner reconnected with AFS first in the 1980s as a donor, and again in 2002 when her daughter Rebecca studied abroad in Italy with AFS. She was shocked to find out how strongly Rebecca was pressured not to study abroad.

“The guidance counselor told her, ‘You realize you’re going to miss out on so much,’” Messner recalled. “Even now, I’m dismayed that so many students don’t even consider [studying abroad] because students in the US have been taught to be almost dogmatic about AP courses and sports. It’s a shame. They don’t realize what they’re passing up… I can’t say enough about global vision. I think it’s a huge part of your education that can be missed if not given the opportunity.”

So what has Messner done? She’s giving that opportunity, through full study abroad scholarships to high schoolers in and around her hometown.

Making A Difference

Jenny Messner with husband Mike and daughter Rebecca on their 2006 trip to Rio de Janeiro for AFS-Brazil's 50th Anniversary

“Without this scholarship, [studying abroad] would have been impossible for me,” wrote Amy Boggs, who will be living in Konz, Germany for the next year, in a letter thanking the Messners and their Speedwell Foundation.

This year, the Speedwell Foundation expanded from three recipients to 19, and eventually Jenny Messner hopes to take the scholarship statewide.

"Jenny and Mike's extraordinary generosity is making a tremendous difference in the lives of teenagers who would otherwise be unable to afford an AFS exchange experience abroad,” said AFS-USA President Jorge Castro. “We are so grateful to the Speedwell Foundation for expanding the program to serve more students this year. With so many deserving students in need of scholarship support throughout the country, every dollar counts. The Messners' program is an example of many more life-changing journeys that each of us could give flight to from our own corner of America through our own philanthropy. AFS programs expand cultural awareness and build global competencies and our goal is to provide this experience to as many young people as possible. The Speedwell Foundation is doing its part to empower a new generation of global citizens who will help to create a more just and peaceful world."

The Messners contribute to a number of different educational and environmental projects through their foundation, but this is “one of our very favorite ways to give back,” Jenny said. She’s even taken her commitment to the AFS mission internationally.

In 2006, she traveled to Rio de Janeiro for AFS-Brazil's 50th anniversary, where she spoke in Portuguese to 400 Brazilian AFS volunteers about her love of Brazil, about meeting soccer star Pelé and the need for supporting the AFS mission through not just volunteering, but through donations.

“I’m hoping [our scholarships] will serve as some sort of model for other donors. All you have to do is give a scholarship to one child and see what becomes of that to realize how much you can be giving. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.”

Messner, center, with AFS-USA President Jorge Castro and her 2011 Speedwell Scholarship recipients.