The AFS Story



Welcome to the AFS family, a family of global friendship that includes people from all walks of life and virtually every corner of the earth!

The Beginning

AFS Intercultural Programs began as the American Field Service (AFS), which was formed in 1915. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, young Americans living in Paris volunteered as ambulance drivers at the American Ambulance Hospital of Paris. The AFS Drivers participated in every major French battle, and carried munitions, supplies, and more than 500,000 wounded soldiers from both sides of the war. By the end of the war, 2,500 men had served in the American Field Service with the French Armies.

At the end of World War I, the organization remained active through the American Field Service Fellowships for French Universities. This program eventually funded 222 American and French students at the graduate level to travel to and from France for advanced study until the program was discontinued in 1952.

During World War II, the American Field Service’s all-civilian volunteer force was stationed in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Burma. AFS Drivers served near the front lines alongside Allied soldiers. Approximately 2,200 AFS Drivers had served by the end of the war, and they carried over 700,000 casualties.

High School Intercultural Exchange is Born

Having witnessed the devastation of war, Stephen Galatti, an AFS volunteer, challenged his comrades to focus their post-war efforts on peace-building. Galatti believed that promoting exchanges of high school students between the U.S. and other countries would foster a culture of cooperation and understanding among peoples and nations. His vision was to create a generation of world leaders.

President John F. Kennedy addresses AFS students in Washington, DC, 1963

Inspired by Galatti’s vision, 250 American Field Service Drivers assembled in New York City to discuss the future of the organization. In 1947, they launched the secondary school student exchange program that is now referred to as AFS Intercultural Programs, Inc. Later that year, 50 students from 10 countries that had been involved in WWII arrived in the U.S. from Estonia, France, Great Britain, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Syria.

Throughout the 1950s, the number of participating countries rose steadily, especially in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Syria, a participant in the first two years of AFS International Scholarships, resumed participation in the late 50s, along with Iran, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Uganda.

In the 1960s, many African nations emerged onto the world scene. The continent became increasingly well represented in AFS with programs established in Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, the Malagasy Republic, Morocco, and Tunisia.

In 1971, the AFS Multinational Program was started, which allowed students to travel to and from countries other than the U.S.

In the 1980s, teacher exchanges with China began; AFS enrolled its 50,000th student on a year-long program to the U.S.; and AFS embarked on a process of reorganization. The volunteer AFS organizations in each country assumed their own legal status and assumed full responsibility for the operations and finances for AFS Programs in that country. This decentralization — called “Partnership”— put the leadership of the AFS organization into the hands of volunteers in each country. The “Articles of Partnership” were officially approved by the Board in 1990.

In the 1990s, the AFS Network expanded to include the former Soviet republics and satellite republics, and reintegrated Ghana, South Africa, and Ireland. AFS instituted semester-long community service programs for those aged 18 and older. AFS expanded programs with China and became the first organization allowed to place Chinese students with host families in other countries and the first U.S. organization to send students to live with host families in China. U.S. teachers also began to participate in summer programs in China.

AFS-USA Today

Today, AFS-USA is the largest member of the AFS Intercultural Programs worldwide partner network. This unique partnership of volunteer-based non-profit organizations fosters intercultural engagement through student exchanges among more than 50 countries.

AFS starts the Community College Program in 2012

As the high school program stabilized, AFS USA decided to expand it’s program offerings to introduce a college program for our partners high school graduates. 

The AFS-USA Community College Program offers high school graduates who are 18 or older an opportunity to kick-start the next stage of their academic and intercultural journey under the care and guidance of AFS-USA.

While there are similarities between this program and the AFS high school hosting program, the AFS Community College Program is for students looking for an intensive English-language study opportunity and/or a serious academic program.

Host families view college students as young adults. Families are available to guide and mentor the community college student, and at the same time, will also expect the student to self-initiate more activities with friends and using transportation on their own. Students are treated as young adults and are expected, in many ways, to take care of themselves and their responsibilities. The student is usually expected to take part in some family activities, especially evening meals, family celebrations, and holidays. Families may also choose to plan some sightseeing excursions with their student.

In addition, participants on the AFS Community College program are on a very different visa from the high school students. The F-1 visa intent is for academic programs, versus the J-1 visa intent for public diplomacy. The visa is obtained from the US Embassy when the college provides an I-20. The college is responsible for reporting to the US Government on the status of the student and his/her visa.

AFS USA maintains the standards of the AFS network for program excellence and student safety. AFS USA is not audited by either CSIET or the State Department as regards these students. To learn more about this program, please explore the FAQs that follow. If you have any questions regarding this program, please contact Jenny Davis.

AFS is a Volunteer-Driven Organization

One of the things that sets AFS apart from many other exchange programs is that we are a not-for-profit organization with a long tradition of volunteerism dating back to the American Field Service, the volunteer ambulance corps. AFS recognizes that volunteers are and have always been the key to the organization’s continued success. AFS is supported by about 40,000 volunteers worldwide, making it one of the largest volunteer-driven organizations in the world. Most AFS volunteers are people whose lives have been touched by an AFS experience in some way already and have great passion for the organization.

You will rely on AFS volunteers before, during, and after your AFS hosting experience. All host families are assigned a local support Liaison, a volunteer who will help support you through your experience hosting with AFS. Many volunteers are experienced host families or former participants themselves, and thus have experience with other cultures and with the emotional cycles of participants in programs abroad. Volunteers also undergo AFS training so that they are well equipped to support the organization. AFS volunteers run most parts of the AFS Program including local orientations, which they customize for their local area. For more about your AFS volunteer resources, see page 26.

A Proud Tradition of Host Family Home Stay

As a host family, you provide much more than meals and a bed. We know that families in every society are the primary “culture carriers.” This is why the AFS experience is founded on the host family home stay. By participating in family life—daily routines, holidays, and chores—AFS participants gain a true understanding of the elements that make up American culture. AFS is more than simply an exchange program; the ingredients of the AFS experience turn contact between cultures into rare and lasting bonds between people and families.

While we hope this handbook will be a valuable tool for you and your family, the most important thing to remember is that you are never alone as an AFS Family. The hallmark of AFS Programs is that we stand behind our participants and host families. Whether by way of local AFS volunteers or our staff at AFS National headquarters, we provide a “safety net” to ensure that your AFS experience is a valuable one. This safety net has been put into place because we at AFS understand that we are working with unique individuals, all with distinct personalities.

There is no single formula for success. We accept that every placement we make may or may not be the right match. While the majority of our placements are successful, one of the strengths of AFS is its ability to recognize that sometimes a placement simply does not work. Without assessing blame or guilt, right or wrong, AFS volunteers will act quickly to ensure that your family and the AFS Participant leave the experience feeling satisfied with each other’s efforts and supported by AFS.

We wish you well as your family embarks on this challenging, stimulating, and meaningful adventure. We hope it will be an experience in international kinship and understanding for your family as it has been for so many others. Call on AFS at any time because we are here for you. Thank you, good luck, and our very best wishes.