Life-changing experiences

By Kelly Swope
Newark Advocate

It would take 11 days to get there by ship.

The year was 1956, and John Minsker, a soon-to-be high school senior, was setting sail with 700 other young Americans with the American Field Service to spend a summer abroad in Europe. They all had different destinations, but for a time, they all were headed in the same direction — out and away from the America most of them never had left.

It was a different time. Airplane travel was not mainstream. When one was bound for an obscure town in Switzerland between Basel and Zurich, he first took a ship then a couple of trains. That is exactly what Minsker did, hopping off the train in the provincial city of Aarau, where his expectant Swiss host family greeted him at the station.

Little did he know he would spend one of the most formative summers of his life there, establishing relationships that would stay with him for the next 56 years. Minsker still corresponds with the people he calls his “Swiss brothers.”

Fast-forwarding to this year, studying abroad is not as rare as it once was, but it usually has been associated with liberal arts colleges.

High school study abroad still is something only a small percentage of young Americans have the opportunity to do. Since Minsker’s Swiss adventure, however, the AFS’s Intercultural Programs have begun to boast a global reach and are accessible to greater numbers of high school students than in previous decades.

According to the AFS Intercultural Exchange website, in this year alone, AFS programs will contact more than 13,000 students around the world and have reached more than 400,000 students since 1947.

Minsker has been president of the Granville chapter of the AFS Intercultural Program, helping Granville High School and international students to enjoy the same opportunity he had in 1956, to “truly experience a different culture by living in it.”

However, after dedicating 29 years of service to the various local arms of the national organization, he is stepping down from his current post beginning in early 2013. He said he is ready to pass the torch on to others in the organization who have proven their commitment to helping students embrace the experience AFS provides.

Minsker said AFS provides students of all worldly backgrounds the opportunity to dig through the trenches and see for themselves what it is like to live in another place with different customs and habits.

“Basically, we want to provide students with a life-changing experience,” he said. “Giving people a chance to live somewhere for an extended period of time helps them understand that there is more than one way of doing things.”

While it sometimes is difficult to compare the outcomes of Granville students who have traveled abroad, the common denominator, as Minsker understands it, seems to be the change that occurs in the students as well as in the families who host them.

“This (the AFS experience) is not just for the student but for the families they live with,” he said. “But with regards to our Granville students, I find it personally very satisfying to observe the change that takes place in the time between their interview and their time coming back to Granville.”

Minsker said AFS especially is beneficial to Granville students going abroad because of the horizons it broadens for young people who have spent most of their formative years in small-town America.

He also thinks it is important for international students to be exposed to places such as Granville in the heart of the United States.

Minsker and his family have been hosts to two students in recent years, the first a young woman from Germany with whom they still remain in contact, and the second a young woman from Japan.

Aside from being a host and a chapter president for more than 15 years, Minsker has done a little bit of everything for AFS. He was among the original members who founded the Granville chapter 29 years ago, and he even served a stint in the 1990s as a regional representative for the entire Ohio River Valley area.

For past and current leaders of the Granville chapter, the legacy Minsker leaves behind goes without saying. Cookie Sunkle, who has hosted international students and served as treasurer with Minsker, said she got involved because she was impressed with Minsker’s leadership and with the dedication he expressed to the club.

“John’s a great leader and he will certainly be missed,” she said.

Minsker is confident he is leaving the organization in capable hands, and he hopes to see it continue its dynamic course.

“The thing that would make me most happy is to see the chapter stay strong and be supported by the community and to maintain its great relationship with Granville High School,” he said.

Read the original article here.

Photo: John Minsker as he appeared in his high school yearbook.