August 4, 2015 – What does a small American town on the Oregon coast have to do with international diplomacy, anyway? More than you might think…
Tillamook, Oregon, is the site of a local volunteer chapter of AFS Intercultural Programs (formerly the American Field Service). One of 80+ chapters nationally, this AFS chapter recruits and supports a handful of nearby families in the Pacific Northwest who host international high school exchange students.
Each year, AFS volunteers recruit new local ‘liaisons’ to work closely with incoming international exchange students and their American host families. For a few hours each month, liaisons contribute to the progress of the student-family relationship by helping to facilitate dialogue and by addressing any support-related issues that may arise during the cultural adjustment process. Liaisons are mentors to young AFSers who looks to expand their worlds, absorb a new language, and learn about American culture during their year in the States.
Forming Close Bonds
In the liaison role, close friendships can be made with the local area team’s volunteers, host families and exchange students.
Jean Goecks, a retired school bus driver and electronics store owner, is a longtime AFS volunteer who organizes outings for the chapter. Activities range from community service, cultural enrichment activities (to teach students about American history, civic life, and values) and just-for-fun recreation, like going to see Portland Trailblazers basketball games and attending trivia nights at a local grill.
With the support of fellow volunteers, liaisons establish a monthly contact with the student and family (including an occasional home-visit) and check-in three times with the student’s high school during the year, recording the status of the contacts in AFS’ online portal to ensure compliance with US State Department regulations of student exchange programs.
Students and families rely on the liaison to mediate if any significant challenges arise during the student’s stay in America. In Jean’s experience, good liaisons possess “the ability to listen, to be non-judgmental, and to understand the difference between what is ‘cultural’ and what is a ‘support’ challenge.” In more serious cases, AFS staff provides support and leadership to resolve the conflict.
Making a lasting impact
Exchange students bring diversity to American towns like Tillamook. It‘s a mutually beneficial experience for both locals and international visitors, as each helps to erase stereotypes and educates the other about a different culture.
The students often form long-lasting bonds with their host parents and classmates—and the volunteers who support them.
“It’s a wonderful experience—you won’t regret it,” says Jean. “You’ll get that email back saying ‘thank you so much for being that support role for me that year,’ and it’s so exciting to see the response that people get.”
AFS volunteer roles frequently attract people who are interested in other cultures and making a difference in the lives of others. Jean often encounters Peace Corps returnees, for example, who take on volunteer positions with AFS in order to build a connection to other cultures and join a community of like-minded individuals.
In Tillamook and throughout the rest of Jean’s chapter, volunteers eagerly await the arrival of the next group of AFS exchange students. Jean looks forward to a great year of helping make the intercultural exchange possible. She’s also seeking new liaisons to assist students as they adjust to a new culture. Liaisons have “[felt that] they’ve really made a difference in helping the student understand American culture and values.”