From Air Force Pilot to Exchange Advocate: Meet the Newest Member of AFS-USA's Board of Directors

Photo: Matt van Steenwyk, AFS Host Parent, Natural Parent and Member of the AFS-USA Board of Directors.

March 21, 2016 | New York, NY – In February of 2016, entrepreneur Matthew van Steenwyk was elected to the AFS-USA Board of Directors. A nonprofit organization, AFS-USA has worked for over 65 years to increase the global competency of U.S. citizens through providing a variety of intercultural learning opportunities, including student exchange programs that both send American students abroad and bring foreign students to the U.S. It is part of a growing intercultural exchange industry that is increasingly viewed as vital to U.S. public diplomacy and national security efforts.

Initially, however, Matt served his country in a different way—as a combat ready U.S. Air Force Pilot during the Cold War. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he flew A-10’s for several years before overseeing the turnaround of a major program for the F-16 Air Defense Fighter.

After leaving the Air Force in 1986, Matt studied finance, accounting and investment through the CFA program and embarked on a successful career in corporate turnarounds and investing, focusing on energy related industries. Yet, having experienced the very real impacts of political and ideological conflict, he felt there had to be another way to support national security and global cooperation.

“Having been so close to the ‘other’ side of diplomacy—a last resort option—I knew I had to be an active part of first promoting the kind that resulted in life-long friendships,” says Matt.

He found means to do so through joining the AFS Community, beginning as a host parent to foreign exchange students. Between 1996 and 2004, the van Steenwyk family welcomed four AFS students from Germany into their home, each for a full academic year. In doing so, they helped bring global awareness to their household and community, as the students participated in all manner of activities both inside and outside of the classroom.

Matt also encourage his own children to explore the world as exchange students. In 2000, he and his wife Betty—a Psychologist with the Veteran’s Administration of Reno—sent their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, on a year-long exchange program to Austria with AFS, where she became immersed in the country’s language and culture. While there, she represented the U.S. as a youth ambassador, educating her host community about American life and forging lasting relationships with local residents. Moved by her experience, they later sent their son, Todd, and youngest daughter, Gretchen, on similar AFS programs to Panama and Switzerland, respectively.

Educational exchanges have long played a role in promoting cooperation across cultural lines. AFS began exchanging students in 1947 as a way to foster understanding among nations formerly at war, having recently transformed itself from a WWI and WWII volunteer ambulance driver corps known as the “American Field Service” to a student exchange organization with the aim of preventing future conflicts through cross-cultural engagement.

Today, AFS Intercultural Programs is a global education network with 40 partner organizations worldwide, of which AFS-USA is the largest. In the U.S., moreover, intercultural exchanges are increasingly being leveraged to support public engagement abroad. In January 2016, a high-level dialogue took place on Capitol Hill to discuss the role of exchanges in supporting national security priorities, and in September 2015 a bipartisan congressional caucus was formed to advocate for the growth of exchange programs.

Matt’s life and career have followed a similar trajectory. Having served his country as a member of the Air Force during the Cold War, he later began supporting U.S. foreign engagement as an AFS Parent, Host Parent, and now as a member of the Board of Directors for AFS-USA. In this newest role, he will be lending his financial and operational expertise to AFS-USA’s Board Development and Investment Committees, helping to secure funding and support for the nonprofit’s work.

“We are very pleased to have Matthew join the AFS-USA Board of Directors,” says William Eaton, Chairman of the Board and former Ambassador to Panama. “He brings a breadth of perspective to the organization and truly understands the importance of our mission—to build a more just and peaceful world through international education.”