Terri Windsor is an AFS-USA Volunteer and host parent in the Youngstown, Ohio area. In this article, she shares how her AFS journey began, her work with the AFS Northeast Ohio Volunteer Team, and what volunteering means to her. You can become an AFS Volunteer by filling out this form!

How did you hear about AFS?

I first heard about AFS in approximately 1976 when I was a student at Poland Seminary High School. The school offered an AFS Club for students to be involved with, where we would get to meet foreign exchange students attending PSHS, as well as from schools from the surrounding tri-county area. The AFS club would have the exchange students give presentations on their countries at the meetings, we would have get-togethers/outings, etc. The AFS club, which was organized and run by Mrs. Josephine (“Jo”) Carter of PSHS, would plan fun events where students from the various schools, as well as their siblings, would meet up once a month for some fun events/outings. It was a great experience and I became more interested in possibly becoming an AFS student, and my family became interested in hosting.

What inspired you to become an AFS Volunteer?

As previously mentioned, Mrs. Carter was in charge of the local AFS group at PSHS, and also helped with meetings in and around the various Northeast Ohio counties. Mrs. Carter was also on the nominating committee for students traveling abroad from the USA.  She helped me with my application process and was a great mentor to me. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the full-year program, as there were not any scholarships at that time to apply for, so I applied for the AFS abroad program from early June to mid-September.

After returning from Norway many years had passed, but I never forgot my wonderful experiences with AFS.  Therefore, in 2009 I contacted AFS-USA to inquire about volunteering locally. I was told there were no volunteers in my area and that I would be the first person in many years to take on this role. I worked with AFS taking courses, etc. to help teach me how to be the best volunteer I could be. I had to take courses on helping students and host families through adjustment periods, medical emergencies, or just everyday questions they may have. I found it to be extremely helpful and could not wait to have some AFS exchange students in my area.  

That first year of being an AFS Volunteer and Area Coordinator for Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana Counties, there were 5 families who applied to host and welcome exchange students in 2010-2011 from Austria, Thailand, Chili, and 2 students from Italy. I was so excited and could not wait to meet them (the student from Austria, Valentin, lived with me as an AFS Semester Student).

The families who hosted these students still to this day, stay in contact with those students. I also still keep in contact with my student, Valentin, from Austria, as well as Paticha “Pie” from Thailand. As a side note: Pie knew 6 languages before she first arrived, and learned a 7th language, Japanese, while being here in the USA!

Why did you decide to host an exchange student(s)?

In 1978 when I was a senior in high school, my family decided to host an exchange student from Belgium.  We welcomed Mika from Belgium into our home. My high school had 3 exchange students attending that year.

What did you think it would be like to host an exchange student before they arrived?

Since I had already been involved with the local AFS club at my school, and my family hosted a few students on their stop-over on their way back to NY for their flights home, my family and I kind of knew what to expect.  

What was your first impression of your host student(s) when they arrived?  What about your host student(s) surprised you?

My first host student (1978/1979) was from Belgium. I remember she was very quiet. Mika came from a large family and had 8 siblings. We got along well and we each had our own group of friends, but we would also do things together. In 2010, when I became an area representative for AFS, my mother and I hosted a student from Austria named Valentin. Valentin was only here for the first semester of school, and returned home the following January, 2011. We had such a wonderful time with him, learning about his country, etc. We still stay in contact to this day. He was planning to come for a visit in 2021 for my nephew’s wedding, however, due to Covid-19 and his country’s borders being closed, he was unable to come for a visit. We chat on Facebook messenger and also have video chats.  

(This is the first year that AFS Mahoning, Trumbull & Columbiana Co. Chapter was started, and we welcomed 5 students to the area.)

How has your experience hosting been? Why do you continue to host?

I truly love hosting exchange students and getting to know more about their countries and cultures. Since hosting Valentin in 2010, I have hosted students from Germany (Mona), Italy (Federica), and Greenland (Marie), and I was a virtual host mom to a girl (Maria) from Bangladesh during Covid. Since borders around the world were closed, AFS used virtual families for students who were supposed to travel to the USA. (For the student from Greenland I was a Welcome Family only) 

I have truly enjoyed learning about these countries, their cultures, foods, traditions, etc. I have always made it a point to celebrate special holidays from the various countries while the students are with me, and I have asked them to make their traditional foods, etc.  

The year the USA hosted the Summer games was when I was hosting a student from Germany (Mona). We had the German and USA flag hanging up in my living room during opening ceremonies and we cheered very loudly for both countries. I still stay in contact with Mona. When she returned home Mona finished school and attended college. Mona is now working as an Au Pair in Germany and to this day we still stay in contact with each other.

My student from Italy, Federica (who goes by “Fed”), came to stay with me in November of 2020 after being moved from another home due to a family emergency. We had so much fun, and my family and I learned so much about Italy. After returning to Italy when her stay ended, we continued to stay in touch. While Fed was here she met a really nice guy at school, and they also stayed in touch with each other.  After finishing school in Italy, Fed returned to the USA to live with her boyfriend, Alexander, and for her to attend Youngstown State University. Fed plans to be a Pediatrician one day.  I am so excited that she has returned to the area, this way we get to see each other more. We talk a lot and we try to see each other at least once a month. She plans to stay with me for a week in late June before traveling back to Italy to see her parents for a month.  Fed and I have a special bond and I always enjoy seeing and talking with her.

Read an article featuring Federica and the Windsor family!

What have you learned about cultures and people after hosting an exchange student and being an AFS Volunteer? How have your perceptions changed?

Every culture has its similarities, but it is fun to learn about the differences, holidays they celebrate, customs, etc. I have always asked my prior exchange students about special traditions, etc. they celebrate. When a special holiday for them approaches I suggest they make something special that they would normally serve as a meal, etc.  

I truly enjoy learning about all of the traditions, holidays, etc. they celebrate. I want them to feel welcome here, but I also want them to have the opportunity to still celebrate their special holidays, where we can join in the celebration with them.

How has your host student(s) helped you view the U.S. and their home country?

The USA is so big compared to a lot of the countries the students come from. When showing and telling the students about our culture, historic places, holidays, etc., it makes me think what a beautiful place we live in as well. Sharing our heritages, customs, beautiful historic locations, and more makes it even more special.  

My town is a historical place and was founded prior to the Civil War era. The town I live in still has the building where President McKinley was sworn into the Union Army, as well as many homes, etc. that were built in the 1800s. These homes have been restored and during the summer months, the town offers walking tours of the various historic places still standing. I enjoy showing the students a lot of my town’s heritage because it is a very beautiful place. Also, we have Millcreek Metropolitan Park which is about a 15-minute drive from my home. This park was actually formed by glaciers and has beautiful walking paths and hiking trails.

How have AFS staff and other volunteers supported you? What volunteer roles have you held?

It is my opinion that AFS-USA has one of the best-trained support staff available. You couldn’t ask for a better-trained group of volunteers who are constantly being trained, attending online seminars, etc. so we are always learning new and more helpful ideas to make AFS what it is today. AFS Volunteers from all around the USA give ideas on what works in their areas, and as a volunteer, I enjoy learning something new or better to help make hosting and volunteering even better. When I recently needed help in the past with a medical situation, the AFS Support Staff were available on the spot and helped out as needed.

As an example: A few years ago, I had a host family that had a family emergency. I was already approved as an Emergency/Welcome Family so I was able to take her into my home for a couple of days until her new family was able to get fully approved. AFS staff notified her parents of what was happening, and we had her moved within 2 days’ time to another approved family.  

In addition, I recently had another case wherein a student had received severe burns after spilling very hot liquid on their body. AFS support staff was available late in the evening and the student’s parents were notified and everything was taken care of; the student received emergency treatment and was able to return back to his host families’ home late into the night.  

AFS has the Best Support Staff Ever!!

Other than communicating in English, what other skills have you noticed your host student(s) have gained? Have you gained any new skills as either a host family or volunteer?

Patience, Patience, Patience….Some students are shy when they first arrive, which is to be expected since they are traveling across the globe to a new and strange place to live for a school year or semester. The students are now hearing English 24 hrs. a day; having to adjust to our culture, make new friends, and live in a different home. I am sure just about everyone would find this to be somewhat scary not knowing what to expect. I have learned to give the student some time to adjust. For the first week take your time introducing them to family and friends. Possibly have your own child gradually introduce the exchange student to students they will be attending school with to help them feel more at ease. 

The one thing I have learned is that it does take a little longer for your exchange student to understand our slang words, but don’t worry by the time they leave they are extremely fluent! Many students will also tell you that when they return home they find that they have trouble remembering words in their own language and their friends find it funny to hear some of our slang words. Remember exchange students coming here mainly learn British English – there is a big difference between our English and British English.

How has volunteering affected your personal development so far? How have you grown as a person?

As stated in a prior question – you must have lots of patience. We are so used to a fast-paced life here in the US, and I have found that a lot of the exchange students take things at a much slower pace. Therefore, you have to keep this in mind at all times when you are working with them. I have learned to listen more, and also never to take things for granted. I have also learned that I too need to take things at a slower pace sometimes because if not, I might miss something special along the way.

What advice do you have for other families who are considering hosting an exchange student?  If they’re worried about it, what would you tell them to make them feel more confident?

Hosting an exchange student is one of the most rewarding experiences ever. You actually get to learn about another country, culture, and heritage without even leaving the USA. You find there are many similarities with other countries around the world; however, there are just as many differences – both culturally and within the family makeup.  

I have hosted several AFS students from various countries, and I have found that learning about another person’s culture is so interesting and exciting. As a prior host family, and as an exchange student myself, I have had the opportunity to learn firsthand about other countries, schools, etc. instead of what you may read in a textbook. Remember everything you read isn’t always correct, but when you hear about a different country straight from the student who lives in that country, you learn so much more and appreciate every minute you spend with your student. 

What advice do you have for those thinking about volunteering with AFS?

If you are looking for something to do that doesn’t take up a lot of your time, and you want to learn more about places in the world we live in, about other cultures, and enjoy working with students – please become an AFS Volunteer. You won’t regret it because it is so much fun and interesting meeting students from around the world and learning about their cultures. You would be surprised at the differences and also the similarities between all the countries. How children are taught in other countries, the rules they have, family structure, etc. You don’t have to invest hours being an AFS Volunteer, even if you only have an hour or so to spare each month, we would truly enjoy having you become part of the best group of people ever!  

Become part of the AFS Family and bring some excitement and enjoyment from learning about new cultures and meeting AFS students from around the world. You will probably ask yourself later – “Why did I never get involved sooner – I love AFS and the wonderful friendships I have gained in being a volunteer!!” 

I love being an AFS Volunteer and meeting students from around the world, learning about their cultures, family traditions, and more. I am so honored to be able to be a part of this program.

Why is intercultural exchange important? What is the AFS Effect?

I never thought being an AFS exchange student was possible. My father was a steelworker, my mother was a Registered Nurse and we didn’t have much money, especially when the steel mills shut down. My grandparents knew that I wanted to be an AFS exchange student, and with their help, I became an AFS student abroad in 1979 traveling to Grindeheim, Norway for the AFS Summer Exchange. I have found that being an AFS exchange student has changed my way of thinking about other cultures and places. I now embrace learning about various locations, and being able to meet students from countries around the world. I find myself being able to adapt to change so much more easily.  

The AFS Effect really motivates you to adapt and change to what life throws you, albeit good or bad. You have more patience and understanding, and you take this with you in the workplace, home environment, etc.  I enjoy learning about other cultures and their daily routines, workplaces, family structures, etc. I also find myself volunteering for other causes and events.

In other words, the AFS Effect helps you understand yourself, your community, your world, and other cultures without being scared or worried, you just take it all in stride and embrace it and learn from it. 

At AFS, we talk a lot about passing peace forward. How do you think your experience as a host family and volunteer will impact your future? How do you hope to “pass peace forward”?

When my area has exchange students, I make it a point to contact the various news agencies and local newspapers asking if they would like to interview the students. They are always excited to have the students appear on morning news shows; it is my goal to have people learn more about our exchange students and the countries they come from and to show that hosting an exchange student is a wonderful experience for everyone.  

I have found that when I take AFS students to various high schools to give presentations about their countries, you get a greater response from students when you start out with something really interesting about one of the countries that they will hear about. For example, when I took a Japanese student to a 5th & 6th-grade history class, I introduced the AFS Student to them, then proceeded to ask the students: How many letters are in our alphabet? Needless to say, I got strange looks when they all answered 26. Then I asked the Japanese student to tell them how many letters/characters they learn in their very first year in school. She proceeded to tell them approximately 1,000. However, since there are so many by the time you are in your 80s you probably know closer to 10,000. Right away you get the attention of the students and they want to hear more. Or, I will ask the students: How many days a week do you go to school and what are you doing each day in class? Then I ask an AFS student from Switzerland, Italy, etc. how many days they go to school, and the answer is 6 days a week because they also attend school on Saturdays. This helps get the presentations started and AFS students have the attention of everyone in the room. I have had AFS students even teach our students some of their traditional dances. Even kids from kindergarten through third grade find it very interesting meeting the AFS students, albeit their questions are more about their age group asking about what games they play in school, etc.

Because of this the local schools in my area truly enjoy having the exchange students come and give presentations about their countries. Teachers have commented that they could not get over how attentive the students were, and the great questions they would ask. It is always apparent that the students are extremely interested. I have heard many comments from students that they enjoy being able to ask questions and hear firsthand about another country instead of just reading about it in a book. Passing Peace Forward… 

Anything else you’d like to add? Funny intercultural experiences or inspirational messages?

Volunteering with AFS is so very important to me. I truly love this organization and to me it is the best student exchange program to become involved with, either being a host family or becoming an AFS student and traveling abroad. You have the support of so many volunteers from around the world and I believe you also learn more about yourself.

Some additional comments from Terri about her experiences with AFS:

In my senior year of high school we had Mike from AFS Belgium living with my family.  After Mika, I then traveled to Norway for my AFS stay (June thru September 1979). I lived with a terrific family. I had a host mom, 3 host sisters, 2 host brothers, and several host cousins that lived across the road from my home. Norway was magnificent. I have continued to stay in touch with my host sisters. Prior to Covid-19 my sisters invited me to come stay with them for a week; however, shortly after we started to make those plans Covid-19 took over and the borders were closed. I am still waiting to make the trip. 

I am still volunteering as the AFS Volunteer/Chapter Chairperson for Mahoning, Trumbull & Columbiana Counties in Ohio; I am also a liaison for exchange students and host families; past host parent of students from Austria, Germany, and Italy. I am on the AFS Hosting Advisory Committee for AFS-USA, and lead Student Bio Writer. Being a lead Bio Writer is so exciting as I get to read about students who we, as AFS Volunteers, are trying to place with host families. 

My niece and 2 nephews who have stayed with me a lot of times also look forward to meeting and getting to know all of the AFS students. Teachers have told me that when they are learning about various countries, sometimes my niece and nephews would speak up and tell the students about the AFS students they have met from the various countries, and what they have learned from them. 

Being the local Chapter Chairperson, I have taken several AFS students to local schools in the area where they have given presentations about their countries. The students are very welcoming and enjoy learning firsthand about the various countries. The students have voiced that it is nice to be able to actually ask questions to get their perspective instead of reading about it. Even kids from kindergarten through third grade find it very interesting meeting the AFS students, although their questions are more about their age group, asking about what games they play in school, etc.

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