By Tara Hofmann, President and CEO of AFS Intercultural Programs/USA
For more than thirty years, I have worked in the U.S. and abroad to foster cultural understanding through youth exchange. I have repeatedly witnessed the positive impact of international education—not just on the lives of teenagers who study in the U.S. or abroad, but on the families who host, the volunteers with whom we work, and our wider society. As the President and CEO of AFS-USA, a leader in international high school exchange with one of the largest volunteer bases of its kind in the world, we create opportunities for young people to connect across differences and divides, engage in challenging dialogues, see past what divides us, and discover so many of the ways in which we are similar.
Today, we must consider that while there are many exchange initiatives, most notably in higher education, it’s especially important to make it possible for teenagers to also have the study abroad experience while they are considering and forming their own opinions, interests, and ideas. I’ve seen countless examples of high school students who have not only changed their perspectives, but also decided to explore (or change) their studies and career paths based upon their experiences abroad. The exact words I hear from our program alumni time and time again are, “The experience of exchange changed my life.”
At AFS-USA, this simply would not be possible without several thousand volunteers located in communities across the U.S. who give of their time and expertise and people who so generously open the doors of their homes to host students for a year, semester, or summer.
Yet still, a study abroad opportunity is often not available for those whose parents cannot afford to provide this experience. That’s why AFS-USA launched the Global Citizen Scholarship & Aid program that offers U.S. high school students more than $1 million per year in scholarships to study abroad with AFS-USA. We are committed to meeting the demonstrated financial need of every accepted applicant to make study abroad programs more accessible and affordable to U.S. high school students from all backgrounds. We encourage others to offer similar programs and not just scholarships for a select few.
AFS-USA partners with more than 1,000 high schools across the U.S. and engages with over 8,000 educators annually through in-person and virtual programs, resources, and professional development opportunities. But, as educators do their part, so must exchange organizations. At the center must be the tenets of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility and, likewise, we must make a concerted effort to not only be available to but to seek out students from all backgrounds and experiences to represent the diversity of our country.
The necessity for international education is evident. But it’s not just because of the times in which we are living, and this is not just about AFS-USA. We have a responsibility as a society to develop globally engaged young people, especially teenagers, who will lead us to a more peaceful, sustainable future. It’s not easy work for organizations, or frankly for teenagers who embark upon programs abroad, but it is necessary work. At AFS-USA, we feel strongly that as a society we must be committed to creating global citizens and even more emboldened to do what we must to empower our young people to become the kind of leaders that our world needs.