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AFS Intercultural Programs, Japan Encouraging high school students to connect to the world through cross-cultural experiences

This month's Close UP features AFS Intercultural Programs, Japan. Established in 1947 in the United States, AFS is a nonprofit organization of volunteers supporting exchange studies for high school students. Based in New York, AFS has networks in over fifty countries worldwide and has been offering a variety of international study programs. Supported by a number of volunteer members, AFS has sent over 400,000 students to study abroad so far. For this interview, we visited AFS’s Japan office and spoke with Yuzo Takada, national director of AFS Japan, and Noriko Fujisawa, PR staff member.

Ms. Fujisawa (PR staff, left) and Mr. Takada (national director, right)

Ms. Fujisawa (PR staff, left)
and Mr. Takada (national director, right)

Please tell us briefly about how AFS was established.

A.■Mr. Takada: A predecessor of AFS is a volunteer organization called American Field Service, a group of American youth whose mission was to rescue and give care to sick and wounded soldiers during World War I and II. After the end of World War II, the group decided they should create peace more actively and began an international study program, through which exchange students can study at school and live with local families in foreign countries for a year with no fees. The first program was held in 1947, and although it was only two years after the war, the students who participated in the program from Europe to study in the U.S. included those from former U.S. enemies such as Germany and Italy. The AFS programs target high school students because they are old enough to think intellectually yet are young enough to flexibly absorb foreign languages. AFS today offers exchange study programs worldwide, with the cooperation of over 50 member countries. We do send students to non-member countries, which makes the total number of counties to over 100 nations where AFS students are studying.

Students build lifelong friendships from studying abroad

How did the AFS program start in Japan?

AFS Japan Archives at the AFS Japan Toranomon office.
The archives include rare pictures from the early years of the program.

A.■Mr. Takada: We sent our first group of students from Japan in 1954. They went to the U.S. by sea, leaving from Yokohama Port on the ship Hikawamaru. After finishing the program and coming home from the U.S. in 1955, the group founded the AFS Japan office. Counting from the year in which the first group was sent, AFS Japan is marking its 60th anniversary in 2014. So far, over 17,000 Japanese students have participated in the AFS program, and about 15,000 students from overseas have studied in Japan.

How is the AFS’s exchange study program designed?

A.■Mr. Takada: Our exchange study programs are designed to help students gain intercultural experiences on the basis of living together with local families as their family members. The students learn culture, history, and language of the country they stay through everyday living at school and at home. The tuition of AFS’s one-year exchange program is 1.25 million yen, which is much lower than studying abroad on your own expenses. This is possible because we have an established system supported by volunteerism, in which host families take in students for no charge and participating schools accept students by exempting their tuitions. In the AFS’s exchange study programs, not only exchange students but also host families, host schools, local volunteers, students’ parents, and school teachers are all considered as participants of the program. Our concept is that cross-cultural experiences should be shared by everyone who has some part of the program.

Mr. Takada and Ms. Fujisawa on interview

Mr. Takada and Ms. Fujisawa on interview

AFS’s programs are unique in that choices of destinations are so wide because of the organization’s worldwide networks.

A.■Mr. Takada: At this moment, students from Japan are studying in about 35 countries, and students from about 50 countries are studying in Japan. This diversity among the participants certainly characterizes the AFS’s exchange programs. We are also unique in that we send many students to countries in Europe, Asia, and South America, where English is not spoken as the first language. It is interesting that some of our prospective participants start considering non-English speaking countries as destinations after hearing experiences of returnees from Asia or South America at program information sessions or in video messages on our official website. These days, we do see more students willingly selecting non-English speaking countries as their first choice of destination, which I think is great.

Isn’t it difficult for high school students to learn unfamiliar foreign languages?

Lunch time at a school in Thailand

A.■Ms. Fujisawa: When I went to study in Thailand, I became able to make basic communications and enjoy simple conversations with friends after about six months. Prior to the program, I took some Thai lessons for about six months in Japan, but all I learned was the very basics. I gained the rest of my Thai skills after the program started. Once you are in a foreign country, you are soon urged to remember such phrases as “I am hungry” and “I need to go to the restroom” just to be able to survive your day, and then you would naturally start using these phrases as you hear them everyday and get used to them.

A.■Mr. Takada: In some communities, school teachers and local AFS volunteers give language support to students. English is occasionally used as well, including at the first student orientations. So returnees from non-English speaking countries often come back with skills of both English and local language.

Can you explain the process of how students are selected and are sent overseas?

A.■Ms. Fujisawa: We first hold student selection exams, which are scheduled four times this year but may be more or less each year. Each exam includes two written tests on English proficiency and general academic knowledge, and an individual interview in Japanese. Students who have passed the exam then participate in an orientation and begin necessary preparations including paperwork, health checkup, visa interview at embassies, and so on. After going through screenings by host countries, students and host schools are coordinated, and each student will be notified at which school they are going to study before departing from Japan. From the initial application to the departure, it normally takes a year to a year and a half.

Smiling together with friends in Costa Rica

Smiling together with friends in Costa Rica

What do returnees say about the program?

Teaching own language to each other

Teaching own language to each other

A.■Ms. Fujisawa: Many of AFS returnees say they were benefited by living together with host families. What makes the exchange program special is that students directly learn from local people in everyday living, not only the language they speak but also the ways they think and customs they practice.

A.■Mr. Takada: Many students mention that people in South America and Asia have a different sense of time from people in Japan. We have a returnee who has become a businesswoman busily traveling around countries in South America after successfully adapting her experience in such cultural differences to her career. On the contrary, exchange students from abroad are often surprised to find how punctual Japanese people are. Some schools here would close the school gates after only a minute has passed from the designated commuting time. I hear stories that some students at first didn’t understand why they were blamed for being five minutes late for school.

Tell us about host families taking exchange students in Japan.

A.■Mr. Takada: Our host families have various backgrounds. Housing situations are different from each family. Some host mothers stay home and others may have full-time jobs. In recent years, we have more young families accepting exchange students who want to let their own young children experience different cultures. We have seen cases in which children of host families who grew up with exchange students close by decide to study abroad themselves through the AFS exchange programs. Japan is one of the most popular countries among students from other countries, but it has been difficult for us to accept more students due to the shortage of host families. We do not require our host families to do anything special other than what they can do in their everyday life. They may find some students to be a bit wild, but we can assure that hosting exchange students will become an invaluable experience for the families. We would like to encourage as many Japanese families as possible to take this wonderful opportunity.

Exchange students and their host families

What advice would you give to those who are interested in becoming a host family but are not ready to make commitment?

A.■Mr. Takada: We encourage such prospective host families to contact us so that we can arrange our experienced host families to meet them and share their stories with them. It is always moving to hear how each host family continues a great relationship with their exchange students. Hosting students is not a year-long event but is a lifelong experience. I myself was an exchange student 40 years ago, and I still keep contact with my American parents, having visited them more than ten times. They call my children their Japanese grandchildren. After completing the initial year as a host family, many families decide to continue hosting different students in the following years.

A.■Ms. Fujisawa: AFS has a number of volunteer members who are ready to offer help to current host families throughout the year. The families can contact us whenever they have questions and concerns. If you are not ready to commit a full year, you may still start hosting a student with a goal to continue as long as you can do.

Do you have any other volunteer positions than being host families?

A.■Mr. Takada: All activities of AFS are supported by over 40,000 volunteer members around the world. In Japan, about 3,700 registered volunteers are divided into local branches and are helping the AFS programs in various ways. In addition to assisting exchange students, host families, and host schools, our volunteers search future host families and schools, hold social events for host families, manage program information sessions, organize venues of student selection exams, and more. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer member of AFS, please contact us so that we can refer you to a local branch near your home. Today, we have many volunteers who were formerly host families themselves. Those members know both the pleasures and issues that host families may experience and therefore make perfect advisors for current host families.

Left: At a national conference of AFS volunteers

Right: Local volunteers and host families get together at a cooking event

We understand that AFS also offers summer exchange camps for AFS exchange students and Japanese high school students.

A.■Ms. Fujisawa: We run two summer camp programs near Tokyo, in Oshima Island and Gotenba. Both programs are organized mainly by volunteers of college students. Most of Japanese participants are high school students who are not ready for studying abroad but are interested in international exchanges. We receive comments from participants that they enjoyed meeting and talking to other young people of their ages who share interest in making international friends and understanding different cultures.

At a summer camp in Oshima Island

AFS exchange students and Japanese high school students having good time together

Lastly, please give a message to our readers.

A.■Mr. Takada: As we live in the era of globalization, our lives in the future won’t be possible without relating to different countries and cultures. Spending a whole year in a foreign country during high school will bring an unimaginable gift to young people in building their characters and developing their career path. We encourage anyone interested in studying abroad to stay open-minded and seek your possibilities. For parents, we would like to emphasize that our priority is always the safety of their children when we help them find the best study-abroad program.