AFS-USA Host Parents, Gayle (left) and Randy (right, in Italy with their former Italian Exchange Student (center).

My husband, Randy, and I truly believe in the value of international high school student exchange. I have volunteered with AFS-USA since 2005, and we have hosted five exchange students in our home, all of whom have changed our lives and perspectives for the better.

Yet, it wasn’t until our recent trip to Italy that I truly understood what a lasting impact student exchange can have.

It all played out in the Fall of 2013 when Randy and I traveled to Naples, Italy, to visit our son, who is currently serving there with the U.S. Army. After some long awaited catch-up time with him, we seized the opportunity to reunite with the Italian students we had either hosted or met through AFS.

We were amazed by how these young people, whom we remembered as brave but undeveloped teenagers, had grown into such incredible young adults.

We first connected with Daniel, who now lives in London. He traveled all the way back to Italy just to see us! Daniel lived in our home for a semester in 2008, and one of our fondest memories is taking him on his very first camping trip.

To say that he was out of his element would be an understatement. Daniel is incredibly fashion savvy and would have preferred a slightly more cosmopolitan adventure, but he was a great sport nonetheless. He helped gather firewood and participated in all the fun activities that we love to enjoy in the great outdoors. He even asked us to take a picture to send to his friends back home to show them he was actually, “doing camping!”

AFS-USA Host Mom, Gayle, reunites with her Italian Host Son, Danny, in his home country.

After our visit with Daniel, we met up with Michela, who lived with us for the 2006 – 2007 school year. Michela was a wonderful addition to our family. She is an amazing cook who was always willing to help out in the kitchen, often preparing exciting new Italian dishes for us. She even prepared lasagna for our daughter-in-law’s baby shower, which was a hit!

We were proud to learn that Michela is now in her fifth year of pharmacy school in Milan, and we loved getting to meet her family – a long awaited pleasure.

AFS Exchange Student, Michela (center), from Italy with her U.S. Host Parents (left and right), Natural Parents (far left and far right) and canine friend.

Finally, we met with Carlo, a former Italian exchange student in our Wisconsin community who is now completing his Master’s Degree. While catching up with Carlo at a restaurant, a young couple seated next to us asked if we were affiliated with AFS. Imagine our surprise to hear this question out of the blue!

My husband replied “yes” and the woman explained that she, too, was an AFS student from Turkey to the U.S. Furthermore, her dad had been an AFS student to Wisconsin, and her dining companion had been an AFS student to Canada. We were floored by how small the world is when you are involved with AFS!

As we headed home from this unforgettable trip, we reflected on how significantly our lives have been impacted by AFS Exchange Students. They have become our links to the world, as well as sources of tremendous insight.

Seeing Daniel, Michela, and Carlo grow from wide-eyed teenagers into poised and successful young adults drove home the point that we all want the same things for ourselves and our children: success, happiness and opportunity.

At the same time, seeing what unique people these students have become reminded us that every country is diverse. There is no stereotypical Italian person, just as there is no stereotypical American.

It is our hope that everyone can have similar experiences by opening their hearts and homes to these wonderful students.

-Gayle Hulsebus, AFS-USA Volunteer and Host Mom