A Lifetime of Intercultural Exchange

AFS Host Mom, Jennifer, at age 11 with her then AFS Host Brother, Tekle, from Ethiopia.

Our AFS story started in 1974, with the arrival of Tekle, a young man from Ethiopia, to our suburban home in Colorado. We certainly didn’t have many things in common!

I was just 11 years old that year, and my two teenage siblings were more connected to him. They all were in high school, doing teenager things, etc. But I was nonetheless affected by his presence in a very big way.

At age 11, I had never met anyone who didn't sleep in a bed like me, or who lived in a humble hut without any modern conveniences (despite the fact that he was from his country’s capital city). His native food was strange to me (hot and spicy with a distinct taste of "dirt," which I realize now must have been curry), and I was baffled by the Ethiopian politics that allowed 12 year-old boys to be drafted into the army. As the year came and went, I quietly absorbed all of this around the fringes of our family.

After Tekle left, we kept in touch for a few years, but eventually lost track of each other. I have not spoken to him in more than 35 years, and yet, he remains part of who I am; Tekle marked the beginning of my becoming conscious of the world outside of my little bubble.

Me at age 11 with Tekle, our AFS exchange student from Ethiopia.

A few years later, with my sister and brother out of the house, my parents suggested we host another student during my senior year of high school. We were excited when we found out that a girl from Japan named Kiyokos was coming to live with us. She was excited, too - our family had moved to Alaska by then and she had no idea what she would find!

It was a fun 10 months, and in the years that followed, Kiyokos and I came to appreciate how much we had learned from one another. As we hit the milestones of marriage and children, we shared our respective experiences in our differing cultures.

Kiyokos’ influence in our family remains strong, even after 33 years. Her presence in our lives prompted two of my children to begin studying Japanese, which they both hope will further their careers.

Me during my senior year of high school with Kiyokos, our AFS exchange student from Japan.

Then, about a year ago, I received an email from AFS asking for host families. Out of curiosity, I opened it and began scanning through the different student profiles. We really had not discussed as a family the idea of having an exchange student. My kids had often asked if we might, but it never seemed like the right time. But as I looked at the profiles that day, a Japanese girl holding a soccer ball stood out. Reading about her, I began thinking that this might be the student for us. “Maybe THIS is the right time,” I said to myself.

I broached the subject with my husband that evening, and he tentatively agreed. So, we made the call.

A few weeks later, Mayu came into our family. She was not quite what we expected – she was very intelligent, but also very shy. Consequently, being dropped into an American high school was challenging for her, but we were so proud of how hard she tried to make friends; going out for basketball, which she’d never before played; joining the stage crew for the school musical; and waiting (impatiently!) for our long, snowy winter to end so that she could finally play her beloved soccer.

As with any family member, it was sometimes hard for us to watch her face these daily challenges. But as we witnessed her overcome them one by one, we felt more and more involved in her journey, and she became more and more a part of our family.

My three kids with their AFS host sister, Mayu, standing in front of the White House during a family trip to Washington, D.C.

What I have learned over these many experiences with AFS is that a year is just a flash - only the ember that sparks a lifetime of influence and experiences to come. Being an AFS mom instead of a sister was a new experience for me. I know that I made an impact on Mayu, and I can’t wait to see what a lasting impact she has made on me.

- Jennifer Schaffer, AFS Host Mom & former Host Sister