AFS programs have a magical way of bringing people together; across oceans, borders, languages, and cultures, participants often can’t help but fall in love with one another. Many AFS alumni around the globe have their own unique love stories to tell – tales of long-awaited letters, diverging career paths, and spontaneous Facebook friend requests. Here are three stories of AFSers who, despite the many obstacles of international romance, managed to find their own version of happily ever after.
Dian Anggraini – Indonesia to U.S, 2005-6
My AFS story is a feel-good story you find in fairytales and chick flicks – this is a story of how I found my second family, my confidence, and my significant other. When I landed in the USA in 2005, I was a foreign exchange student from Indonesia and seeing the United States for the first time. The Hutches family hosted me for the year in Aurora and has been my ‘second family’ ever since. As an ambitious student, I wanted to take AP Calculus, but my guidance counselor advised me to take Pre-Calculus Honors instead. This bruised my ego a bit, but little that I knew, the future love of my life would be sitting several rows behind me in that class. Our first journey together took place in spring 2006. It was a Model UN Conference at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. We were not dating at that time – simply two high school seniors with a fascination in world cultures and dreams of making the world a better place. I spent the conference attempting to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, while Ben represented Brazil on the Security Council. After high school, we followed separate paths through our twenties as we advanced our education and careers and enjoyed what opportunities we could for global travel.
After completing my PhD in Germany in 2018, I started working for an international consulting firm – a job that took me to assignments in Denmark, France, Singapore, Spain, Canada, Belgium, and Indonesia. Then COVID-19 happened. In March 2020, as the world went into quarantine, I decided to send a text message to someone I knew during my exchange year in the USA. He received my message on his way to work and assumed it was another “Hello, how are you doing?” courtesy message old friends and contacts were sending each other as the lockdowns began. He replied anyway. The messages continued, becoming longer and more frequent as we worked to catch up from the past 15 years. After several months of daily messages, he finally agreed to try a video call. It quickly became a weekly occurrence as we both looked forward to our ‘Saturdates’. After a year and a half of our long-distance relationship, we finally met in person in Berlin, where we committed our love to each other, and to building a life together. From that point onward, we put our best effort into arrangements so that I could move to the US. After numerous attempts in getting all the paperwork lined up, I finally moved to the US in August 2022. It was a truly historic moment! This year, we look forward to celebrating our love at the old church of his childhood and my second family. And by the way – my host father will be walking me down the aisle!
James Baker, U.S to Germany, 1957
I was in the first group of AFS abroad students that were not just in a summer program in 1957. Prior to that, AFS was a summer program only. We went by boat, taking (I believe it was) nine days one way and thirteen days back to get to our landing in France. I learned of my goal country about one month before leaving, so I found a German tutor, but was busy with my senior year in high school and had little time for German, so I knew very little when I got there. My German brother was fluent in English, so I confess to using him as my translator completely. I missed much of the 1st semester of my senior year, so had to scramble to try to catch up upon my return. As a freshman in college, I went to two AFS parties (at the invitation of local AFS chapters) where I met my future wife, who was from Japan.
I majored in Japanese Studies in college (with a minor in Pre-Med), so AFS has influenced me the rest of my life in so many ways by opening my eyes to the world. I wrote letters to Fumiko (no email in those days, and calls were expensive.) After a year in the language school, I was stationed in Okinawa as a Chinese translator in the military, while Fumiko attended college in Tokyo. I looked her up, we fell in love, and we ended up getting married. She visited me in Okinawa and I visited her home in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Her father told his girls that he didn’t want any blue-eyed grandchildren, but her parents were both gracious and generous in their hospitality. Fortunately, our children are brown-eyed.
Gena Tran and Matt Heaney – U.S to New Zealand, Summer 1992
Our family, my husband and I, met through the AFS 1992 Summer Program to New Zealand in high school. We have been married for 23 years.
Matt says it was love at first sight when he saw me walking around at our pre-departure orientation in LA, California. I’m known for my bad eyesight. He was placed with a family on the North Island of NZ in Marlborough, and I was with my host family on the South Island in Blenheim. AFS grouped some students on the southern tip of the North Island with those of us on the north tip of the Southern Island. Fate entered, and Matt and I ended up at the same outdoor adventure camp of our exchange program. We bonded over a hiking trip as we were a part of the A-Team; we did extend the hike while most stopped and stayed in the cabin. The whole camp experience was memorable – just that amazing nostalgic good time in your youth.
Some stayed in touch and others drifted apart. What’s ironic is that most of the boys and girls paired up – your most normal high school camp hook up story – but not Matt and I; we’re the ones that got married.
Matt is the type of person to call and keep in touch, to this day. He called all of us from the camp after we got back from New Zealand. We kept in touch with weekend phone calls (because back in the day, long distance weekend rates were cheaper.) I learned how to dial long distance because of him – I had never called out of state before calling Matt.
We then emailed when it came around in college. During college breaks, we would set a meeting place or travel together, like Mexico. This pre-dated cell phones, so we would say something like, ‘southernmost parking spot on US side,’ and then crossed the border together. I flew to Fairbanks, Alaska where he was in college and spent a summer there.
He asked me to move to Alaska with him after college graduation since I had gotten a job. He flew to Lynchburg, Virginia, attended my graduation, packed the car, and off we went on a circuitous road trip to see family. While we were in DC, he proposed to me in front of [the Lincoln Memorial.] I thought his allergies were acting up and he was fainting when he got down on his knees, before it dawned on me what he was doing, and the rest is history. We got married on July 24, 1999, in Fairbanks, AK – it was a super small wedding, just us and two witnesses.
It has all worked out with life’s regular ups and downs and trips in-between. Our exchange experiences touch our lives on a daily basis. We’re still adventuring together. We have returned to New Zealand and stayed with his host family twice. We have had my host parents extend their Alaska cruise to come up to visit us here in Fairbanks, Alaska. We still keep in touch with a handful of students from our 1992 group – we have travelled to the US twice to meet up individually or in small groups. Just two summers ago, we met up with several and met their children, which was so exciting to see the next generation.
We have also been on the hosting side of AFS with two YES students. We are AFS volunteers and have played several roles, we’ve hosted groups of AFS students from Anchorage, Alaska for their spring break trip. The largest group was 15, with students and their chaperones spread all throughout the house. We cannot imagine a life without AFS and cultural exchanges.