6 things you can learn from the AFS Returnee in space

AFS Returnee Samantha Christoforetti adjusts her Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit. Photo Credit: NASA

January 6, 2014 - For many AFS participants, studying abroad is the beginning of a lifelong international journey. For Italian AFSer Samantha Cristoforetti, however, study abroad has opened her up not just to the world, but to the universe - literally!

Samantha, who was an AFS exchange student to the U.S. in 1994/95, is one of six astronauts currently orbiting the earth on the International Space Station (ISS). She is Italy’s first female astronaut and the source of immense pride from the global AFS community.

Check out footage of Samantha's arrival on the ISS.

As far as role models go - for all of us, but especially for aspiring exchange students - we can’t think of a better one than Samantha, who seems to be taking every step of this challenging journey in stride. For that reason, we've put together a list of six things we can all learn from her experience, whether we spend our days up in space, out in nature, behind a desk or in the classroom. Get ready to be inspired to start planning your next international adventure...


1. Adaptability is empowering

Few experiences require greater adaptability than spending five months in a confined, zero-gravity environment. Astronauts on the ISS have to clean themselves with dry soap and shampoo, eat dehydrated food and tie down their sleeping bags at night, among other quirky habits. Nonetheless, since arriving at the ISS in late November, Samantha has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt.

What explains this ease of acclimation? According to Samantha, studying abroad as a teenager helped her become a braver, more flexible person. In a recent YouTube video, she explains that her AFS experience taught her how to adapt to new and foreign settings, as well as to get along with people from different cultural backgrounds – an essential skill among the multicultural ISS crew.

Watch Samantha's video about what helped excel in the field of space exploration.

In short, Samantha’s story teaches us that adaptability opens doors, and also that stepping outside of your comfort zone at a young age is key to acquiring this invaluable skill and maximizing its benefits.


2. Study abroad isn’t just for liberal arts enthusiasts

There’s a gross misconception that study abroad offers little to the science-focused student. It’s true that some of the larger benefits of exchange pertain to cultural awareness and character building, admittedly not the most quantitative takeaways. But it would be a grave mistake to assume that these qualitative benefits are somehow less valuable to aspiring engineers or astronauts than they are to future diplomats.

In the above video, Samantha cites her AFS study abroad experience as a crucial factor in her success, in part because it gave her the intercultural competence needed to thrive in a job where colleagues and trainers come from all over the globe. The field of space exploration knows no borders, and neither do fields like technology and engineering, which increasingly serve the needs of humanity rather than individual nations.

Samantha may spend her days aboard the ISS conducting scientific experiments and controlling the station’s robotic arms, but she likely wouldn’t be there without the ability to work effectively with people from other cultures.


3. Global cooperation is crucial

On a similar note, cooperation among cultures is essential to accomplishing many of our most meaningful technological advancements. After all, when it comes to solving problems, two heads are typically better than one, and diverse perspectives lead to better outcomes. Of course, there’s also the practical matter of pooling resources.

Take Apple, for example. The U.S.-based tech giant relied on 707 businesses in 43 different countries to develop, program and manufacture the iPhone 6! Similarly, to prepare for her ISS mission, Samantha relied on the guidance of instructors from Japan, Russia, Canada, the U.S., and numerous European countries.

As it turns out, being able to thrive in multicultural environments, thinking outside of the "cultural box," so to speak, and recognizing strength in diversity are among the most valuable professional skills you could hope to gain.


4. Sharing culture is a lifelong endeavor

Each day as an exchange student, you’re faced with numerous opportunities to share your culture with others and learn about the culture of your host community. It’s truly a unique experience, but the sharing doesn’t need to stop the second your program ends.

Samantha has demonstrated this fact by finding impressive ways to share her culture with her fellow U.S. and Russian astronauts. A true Italian foodie, she teamed up with Lavazza to bring the first-ever espresso machine into space! She also solicited the help of a special space food engineering firm to design gourmet, slow food meals that could be consumed while in orbit. Before departing for her journey, she assured Italian president Giorgio Napolitano that she would share these culinary treats with her fellow travellers, demonstrating that even in space, there’s no excuse not to open yourself up to others and let your unique personality shine through.


5. You have to get out to start seeing things differently

It’s no secret that our world looks drastically different from space. But if there was ever any doubt, Samantha’s Twitter account dispels it pretty quickly. Each day, Samantha treats her followers to breathtaking photos of the earth’s surface from different vantage points - all approximately 250 miles away! Looking at any one of these awe-inspiring photos will make you, your problems, and our differences start to seem small – really, really, small.


Spending time abroad provides a similar experience (albeit on a much smaller scale). It gives you distance from your daily routines and concerns, and it introduces you to new perspectives. As you expose yourself to new people, places and ways of life, you begin to view the world differently, and you start to see the place you come from in a new light.


6. Friends are important

Friends get us through the tough times and make the good times even better. For that reason, the ability to make friends wherever you go is invaluable.


Samantha drove this point home when she tweeted a photo capturing a rare moment of leisure among “#GreatFriends” on the ISS. The current crew aboard the station includes astronauts from Italy, Russia and the U.S. who were thrown together under challenging and unusual circumstances. And yet, despite their differences, they’re able to work together effectively and help each other make the most of this incredible opportunity.

In space, as in life, you often don’t get to choose your teammates. But if, like Samantha, you seek opportunities to cultivate an open mind and interact with diverse people throughout life, you’ll be able to have fun wherever you go!