The AFS Exchange

Egypt, Iceland, and How it all Began

July 27, 2021 AFS-USA Season 1 Episode 3
The AFS Exchange
Egypt, Iceland, and How it all Began
Show Notes Transcript

This episode features an interview with Nico, an AFS returnee from the U.S. who was first involved with AFS thanks to his mother, an AFS exchange student to the U.S. from Italy. We’ll hear from Nico about his experiences as an AFS participant in Egypt, AFS volunteer traditions in other countries, and how you can always come back as an AFS volunteer, even if you took some time off!
 
Guest: Nico Borbely
 
Mini Segment Guests: Patricia Chery, Alicia Chery
 
AFScast Paraguay can be found on Spotify or Apple Podcasts 
 
Contact us: [email protected] 
 

Kate M.
Hello and welcome to The AFS Exchange. My name is Kate Mulvihill. The AFS Exchange is a podcast by AFS-USA where we open the door to hear from members of our AFS family. This is a place to have conversations, or ya know, exchanges, with AFS host families, students, volunteers, and educators.
During these exchanges, we will hear from our guests on how their lives have been impacted by AFS. What lessons have they taken away from their experience abroad, or their experience with hosted students in the United States?

This episode features an interview with Nico Borbely, an AFS returnee from the U.S... who is currently based in Iceland. Nico first got involved with AFS thanks to his mother, an AFS exchange student to the U.S. from Italy! We’ll hear from Nico about his experiences as an AFS participant in Egypt, and how his interest in the Arabic language stemmed from a hosted student he met while taking part in AFS events alongside his family. We’ll also learn about volunteer traditions within AFS Iceland, and how you can always come back as an AFS volunteer, even if you took some time off!

Also, about halfway through the episode, we’ll have a little break where I’ll share a clip from Alicia Chery, a 10 year old host sister from South Carolina. Alicia, like Nico, has a mom who came to the U.S. through AFS… and then later moved here! Alicia will share some of the fun experiences she has had with her AFS siblings.

Ah, also, for context… both of these interviews were conducted in the summer of 2020. Anyway, here we go!

So, Nico, could you introduce yourself?

Nico B.
Sure. So, my name is Nico. I was born and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I grew up with my parents, my mom and my dad and a younger sister. My mom, specifically is actually an AFS alumna herself from Italy and she came to the US with AFS which is sort of how everything started.

Kate
Ah, was she placed in Michigan?

Nico B.
She was placed in Maryville, Tennessee, which was a very little town outside of Knoxville.

Kate
Ah, okay. So, when she came back to the states, she got involved in AFS again. So, growing up, what role did AFS play in your family’s life?

Nico B.
My mom for many years volunteered in the AFS Washtenaw chapter, which was sort of the local chapter in my area where I grew up. When I was young, I spent a fair amount of time around exchange students like sometimes we would go to events in the AFS chapter, or sometimes they would come over to our house or my mom was a liaison several times for locally hosted exchange students.

Kate M.

So… thanks to your mother getting involved with AFS while you were a kid... you were seeing the benefits of having AFS students in your community, even before going abroad yourself. What was that like?

Nico B.
I think that it was more It was kind of informative, almost for me in the sense that I got to kind of understand better what American High School traditions, exchange students were excited about about experiencing when they came, like graduation or prom or even just the mundane, little, the more mundane little things that I didn't think about so much. Stuff like experiencing snow for the first time or riding in a big yellow school bus. Those were things that many people were very excited about. And I think that getting to know the other exchange students was a really big part of what interested and motivated me to end up going on exchange so many times over myself.

Kate M.
That’s great, an opportunity to see these American traditions and customs that you’ve grown up with, maybe that you always took for granted… and seeing the discovery of them through someone else’s eyes. I can understand why you would be looking forward to having your own experience like that in another country. Did you always plan on studying abroad?

Nico B.

I had always kind of known about it since my childhood with, you know, my mom's experience in the back of my mind, and she, you know, had quite a good relationship with her host family in Tennessee as well. So she, every now and again, would go to see them and I actually ended up meeting them as well.

Kate M.
So how did you decide which country to go to first? Because it was your first of many… well, I guess you didn’t know that yet! For your first program abroad.

Nico B.
I had started to become interested in Arabic at the time.
An Egyptian exchange student in the chapter with us at the time ended up giving me Arabic lessons.
Then, as now I was interested in a very wide array of languages. I considered a number of different options even just as a 12 year old when it was very far down the line. I imagined myself going on exchange to various different countries, but kind of because I had gotten to know Fatima, the AFS exchange student who had given me Arabic lessons, my mind sort of settled on Egypt.
Because I was interested in sort of the combination of cultures, both, you know, current and historical, you know, I had been very interested in Egyptology as a kid. And so I just kind of ended up settling on it pretty soon.

Kate M.
So seems like this was a done deal early on!

Nico B.
And so I remember for many years, it wasn't just “when I go abroad as an exchange student” that I would refer to, it was like “when I go to Egypt as an exchange student.” That was a goal that I was very focused on from basically the time that I was 12 until the until I ended up going when I was 16.

Kate M.
So after you had decided on Egypt, because of Fatima and your interest in Egyptology, you had a few years to wait until you went abroad. Did you study Arabic during that time?

Nico B.
I started taking private lessons with a teacher before I left for about six or seven months in total, just because I wanted to, I wanted to have at least somewhat of a base that I could build on.

Kate M.
So, when you were living in Egypt… could you tell me a little bit about the program you did? You lived with a host family, I assume?

Nico B.
My host family was a very important element of my experience. I got along really well with them. And from the very first day I remember they were, they were very welcoming.

I lived in a host family with a host father, a host mother, and I had in total I had three host brothers, but one of them was on was on exchange in the US while I was in Egypt, so, I lived with two of them but I did get to meet the other one as well because he was placed in Indiana and he came to the U.S. almost a month before I left, and that was close enough that I went to visit him together with my mom just to meet him before leaving for my own year.

Kate M.
That's so funny. That's so great. What a coincidence that he happened to be placed somewhere that is within driving distance of where you live, and the timing just worked out. So, well, what was it like to… live with a host family in Egypt?

Nico B.
It was very different in many ways from the kind of family structure that I was used to in the sense that in Egypt, usually it's not common for people to move outside of their parents homes before marriage. So my host brothers, were all we're both quite a bit older than me. And they both had full time jobs that would be where they had to work pretty irregular hours. And so it was different in the sense that it was a bit hard to plan activities all together as a family basically because everybody had such different hours that they were operating on.

Kate M.
Yes, in living with a family abroad you get to learn more about different family structures, and how other cultures may have different roles for parents and children than we would be used to here. Also, customs regarding adult children living in the house can vary greatly across the globe.

Well, okay, despite all the varying schedules of your host family members, were you still able to get to know them?

Nico B.
But even still, I remember I spent a lot of time with my different host family members.
And my host brothers in particular I remember kind of almost adopted me in a way into their, into their friend groups like they were we we often would, they often would would take me when they would be going to hang out with their with their friends at the at the cafes, or other places like that basically.

Towards the end of the year when it when it got a bit warmer. I remember we went to the beach together several times since I was staying in Alexandria, which is along the Mediterranean coast. And then also I got to know, I was very close also with my host mother, and I got to know not just my host family, but also kind of like their extended relatives and even their neighbors as well.

Kate M.

How was it different from the way you would spend time with your family back home?

Nico B.
The activities that we did weren't as cohesive or all together as I was used to coming from a family where I had only one sibling that was quite close to me in age back home. I still had chances to get to know everyone quite well and do things together.

Kate M.
Also, you know, culture aside, living with a host family can give participants the opportunity to experience a different family dynamic. As you’re saying, Nico, you went from having one sister who is close in age to you in Michigan... to having two brothers much older than you in the home while you were in Egypt. Yeah, if you’re a family looking to host and you already have a child or children, bringing a new sibling into the home can change the family dynamic a bit! But ultimately, it’s an opportunity to help your children start to travel around the world without leaving the home... and also teaching how to connect with people who have life experiences that could be pretty different from theirs!

So, well, I know your host brothers were older... Did you get to know any Egyptian kids your age while you were there?

Nico B.
There were a lot of AFS volunteers, at least in the Alexandria chapter, that were oftentimes quite young,  had recently returned from exchanges of their own, typically to the USA.
And so many of my friends were recently returned AFS volunteers that were around my age.

Kate M.
What kinds of things would you do together? What types of activities do Egyptian teenagers do for fun?

Nico B.
It's quite common, I think, to go to cafes, or also like coffee houses.
and those are very typical hangout places. Also malls. And because Alexandria is located along the coast, people will oftentimes, especially in the spring and summer, we'll go to the beach. And even you know, all year round, if the weather's nice, it's also just a great to, you know, hang out together outside.
And then I think also a very important sort of center in many ways for teenagers and young people in Alexandria in particular is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which is sort of modernist tribute to the ancient, you know, like the famed ancient Library of Alexandria.
There are many sort of youth organizations or, you know, conferences or competitions or stuff like that which take place within it and also many concerts as well. I remember attending there. So that's a, I would say, a very important sort of rallying place for you know, young people in the city.

Kate M.
That's so great that it's a library, that's kind of one of the centers of the community. And it’s a very impressive building, I’ll make sure to encourage everyone to google it.
Hm, so, let’s see. Could you share a bit about your story from after you got back from Egypt in high school? Because now, well, you’re in Iceland. What has happened between those times?

Nico B.
I went to Egypt when I was a sophomore in high school. So I still had two years left when I got back.
Basically I became a volunteer for the local chapter almost immediately, because one of the things aside from the fact that, you know, I was excited about continuing to contribute to the world of exchange and AFS in some way.I also, one of the things that I really appreciated during my experience was the fact that there were so many volunteers my age that were that were around that I could talk to and befriend and everything.

Nico B.
So I figured that as long as I was going to still be around and be in school and stuff like that, I could sort of be hopefully that kind of person for the incoming exchange students like many of the volunteers from the Alexandria chapter were for me. So then in the time before I finished high school I did another program, I did a summer program with NSLI-Y, I went to Turkey.

Kate M.
So, NSLI-Y, or The National Security Language Initiative for Youth, is a program of the U.S. Department of State, launched in 2006 to promote critical language learning among American youth.

The scholarship, implemented by a handful of non-profit organizations, including AFS, provides merit-based summer and academic year immersion programs, giving students formal and informal language practice and sparking a lifetime of interest in languages and cultures.

Languages include Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Russian, and Turkish. Interested students can learn more on the website, NSLIforYouth.org.

Nico B.
And then after I got back I finished high school, graduated and then I went to Beloit College, in southern Wisconsin where I continue to pursue my passion for languages and just kind of geography and, and culture in general. I majored in Russian at Deloitte and then I went on several different exchange programs, both sort of short and long term.

Kate M.
And for a quick summary, after Turkey the list of programs includes Iceland, Finland, Azerbaijan, Russia, then Iceland again. In 2019 Nico was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in Iceland for one year. After a year at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, he decided to stay and continue at the university. And ya know what, we’ll hear more about that when we come right back.

---

Kate M.
So here, I’m happy to include a little chat between Alicia Chery, host sister, and her mom Patrici Chery, an AFS alum who came to the U.S. from Portugal. After returning to Portugal, then moving to Japan. Patricia eventually came back to the U.S., and has welcomed AFS students into her home as a host mother. And in doing so, she has introduced her daughter Alicia early on to different cultures and ways of life. And maybe… found a future AFS participant to Norway?

Patricia C.
What's your name? And how old are you?

Alicia C.
My name is Alicia. And I am 10.

Patricia C.
So what was it like to have a brother and sister from a different country?

Alicia C.
It was pretty cool. I really liked learning things like culture.
Like maybe food, or dances and all kinds of stuff.

Patricia C.
So what kind of things do you like to do together?

Alicia C.
I suppose like vacations, or we would ride our bike, or they can help me with my math homework. Which is the worst!
We would also go horseback riding sometimes!
She would teach me how good selfies for the camera to take selfies. Yeah. Like peace sign. Oh, wait, dab .

Patricia C.
What's a dab?

Alicia C.
Well, I can't really explain it. But yeah, it's a kind of dance move.

Patricia C.
Okay, so she would teach you that?

Alicia C.
No, I taught her that.

Patricia C.
Oh, okay. And do you want to go to another country when you’re older?

Alicia C.
Um, yes.

Patricia C.
Where do you want to go and why?

Alicia C.
Well, so far, the only place that I know that actually snows a lot is Norway. Because I'm a pretty big polar bear and I love cold. And the things I would like to do there is probably see hockey on ice. Or maybe go ice skating, and maybe do all kinds of stuff in the snow.

Patricia C.
Do you have a sister brother from Norway?

Alicia C.

Uh huh.

Patricia C.
Oh, what is their name?

Alicia C.
Regina.

Patricia C.

Oh, very good. Okay, well, thank you, Alicia.

Alicia C.
Yeah, you're welcome.

---

Kate M.
So, pre-pandemic, what did a normal day look like for you in Reykjavik?
 
Nico B.
A typical day would consist basically just of classes at the University of Iceland. Since I arrived, I've been living on campus at the university. So it's always, you know,  a quick walk away from the university buildings and I typically would start off the day with some coffee on my way to class. And then, the schedules vary a little bit from day to day, but I would usually be in about two, no more like three ish to four ish hours of classes in a day. And with you know, breaks in between and everything, finish off and then maybe study for a bit on campus, go back home. I auditioned for the university choir and got in which has been a very important place for me in terms of making Icelandic friends. So I, you know, twice a week I go to choir practice.
I was doing my best to go to lots of sort of extracurricular events and talks on the university campus and also  many concerts or you know, other or, you know, just out on the weekends with friends or other things like that.

Because the thing about Iceland is that it's a very small even Reykjavik it's like a very small place very, you know, small population and everything, but there's really a lot to do, if you, if you look in the right places, I think that there are you know, many you know, like, the music scene is very active. There are lots of, you know, cafes where they have different kinds of cultural events. and other things like that, there's a lot to look for here in that sense. And I was doing my best to take advantage of it as much as possible.

Kate M.
It sounds like you really were taking advantage of everything Iceland and Reykjavik had  to offer. That's so important when you are living or going to school or working in a different country, right? Sometimes you really have to seek these experiences out, but it’s worth it.

Nico B.
I’m sorry, I  wanted to make sure that I mentioned this that actually, since I came here, I've actually been able to become involved in AFS actually more again.

Kate M.
That’s great!

Nico B.
Basically, from the time that I, from the time that I finished high school on, I wasn't really able to volunteer regularly for AFS anymore because I was because I was really an aside from the fact that I was really busy in college, I didn't have a car so my mobility especially being you know, in, in southern Wisconsin, where it was a bit was a bit limited.

Moving to Iceland, I've actually become more involved in AFS actually more again, because the AFS Iceland headquarters are here in town. And so I've you know, been I've had, you know, some really nice opportunities to partake in some events with, you know, AFS Iceland. I went on a retreat with them for new volunteers. when I had you know just been back here for about a month at the time and I also got to partake in you know some nice kind of like local traditions like the annual like AFS annual gala and stuff like that and which you know annual gala is our kind of our kind of a fixture with academic departments, workplaces, organizations, that kind of thing. It's very common here in Iceland.

Kate M.
Hmm, could you explain what a gala  is?

Nico B.
Sure. I mean in this in this context at least it's basically just like you know, an evening where everybody everybody gets all you know dressed and done up really fancy and gets together for a meal often accompanied by a video with you know, sort of almost comedy-like sketches with a very particular sort of dry like wry kind of sense of humor. And then there's dancing or other stuff like or other stuff like that afterwards.

Kate M.
Well that sounds fun!

Nico B.

Many of my good friends that I've made since I got here, I've gotten to know from the AFS community as well. So it's been a very nice opportunity for me to sort of reconnect with the world of AFS basically.

Kate M.

Well that’s so great to hear. It really is, it’s a network all over the world, you can find AFS or at least a community of AFSers in so, so many countries. And it’s great that you were able to get involved with AFS again! I think there’s two things in your story to highlight there. First of all, if you’re a volunteer and you take a few years off from AFS… I mean, we’re still here. It’s never too late to get involved again. Also, it’s a great way to meet new people if you’ve just moved to a new spot! Be that in a new state in the U.S., or another country entirely.

And speaking of living somewhere new and discovering a new place, what would you say is something that has surprised you during your time in Iceland?

Nico B.
That’s a good question...

Nico B.
I think the level of knowledge that there is about the country itself in a way. I mean, if you look at it in the sense of you know, it's a very sparsely populated country.
Reykjavik and some of the surrounding metropolitan area feels like pretty normal sort of size towns coming from outside the country, but there are big parts of the country where it's very sparsely populated and you know, towns are quite small and sort of give way to these majestic natural spaces which which the country has become quite known for in recent years with good reason.

There's this very, like, what looks at least like a very deep knowledge of the lay of the land and sort of this very etymological or like this, you know, very, almost like linguistic mapping of the landscape, which I think is very fascinating. And with the with, like a great amount of detail that I wouldn't necessarily have expected.

Like so many different things, even in a very, you know, even in very deep populated areas, everything or almost everything seems like it has a name and some sort of background because many of the features of these geographical features have people's names attached to them.
Natural features like the mountains, the streams, the rivers, the glaciers...

Kate M.
Hmm, how does speaking the local language... how has that enriched your experiences abroad? And you know, I’m sure it’s different in Turkey versus Iceland versus Egypt, but overall how has speaking the local language influenced your experiences?

Nico B.
It has given all of them an element of connection and a depth to that connection that would not have been possible.
In a place like Egypt or Turkey, it's hard in general to get to get around only speaking English, but it is possible, especially in a situation where you're going in as an exchange student, or maybe you could choose to hang out with classmates that are more comfortable in English and sort of just live your experience in English.

Learning the local language enriches things beyond recognition.

I was able to communicate with people that I would not have been able to otherwise. In Egypt in particular, my host mother was very important in terms of helping me to learn Arabic because she knew lots of English words, but wasn't very comfortable expressing herself in English. So in a way I was sort of forced, quote unquote, to learn Arabic in order to be able to communicate, in particular with her.

We hung out a lot with my host family’s extended family and my neighbors and stuff and most of them didn't really know English. So it was very, very helpful for me to be able to connect, you know, like I was able to sort of have relationships with those, you know, family members and friends and acquaintances, just one on one rather than having to rely on someone my age, you know, to help translate.

Kate M.
It’s such a sense of accomplishment, you know, having a friendship or a relationship or a connection with someone else… that was built entirely in a language that you’re still learning. This is true for many AFS participants! Going abroad and interacting with family, classmates, etc, who don’t speak English… you are kind of forced to communicate in the target language, if you want to go beyond pleasantries and “where is the bathroom?”

So, this was your experience in Turkey and Egypt, more or less. What about in Iceland? Is it easier to connect to people and get around without speaking the language?

Nico
Here in the Nordic countries, you know, people learn English from a young age because of their exposure to English language media and technology, especially so many people here are practically bilingual. In these countries, it's possible to get by without, you know, learning that much of the local language.

Kate M.
Hmm okay, so in the Nordic countries- Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden- you’re saying you don’t need to learn the language to be able to get around and meet new people. But well, it seems like in your case at least, you do want to learn the language, even if it’s not necessary for survival!

Nico B.
I mean here in Iceland, it's entirely possible to survive only on English. I would say it lends kind of a depth to the one's experience of the local culture that is otherwise not possible. Even though my Icelandic is far from perfect, it's a very difficult language as you know, many people might have heard.  I it's so it's very rewarding for me to be able to use it in conversations, you know, with I with my Icelandic friends and you know, communicate successfully and comfortably.

Kate M.
So you’re saying that even though you could get around Iceland, pretty much, while only speaking English… knowing the language adds so much. Even if you are just learning a few new words every day, each new word or conversation is a step closer to experiencing Iceland through the eyes of an Icelander.

So Nico, when you see Americans in Iceland, but just passing through… what do you wish you could tell them about the country?

Nico B.
That's a good question.
But I think that many people come here, and they just kind of have this added this immediate attitude of like, Oh, I'm not going to, you know, bother, you know, learning about anything related to the culture just in general because that's not what I'm here for, much less the language.
You don't have to speak a language fluently, completely fluently in order to connect with people or in order to communicate your appreciation for a place or like desire to connect with it more even just a you know if maybe like a few good words that Or even if you just understand some kind of typical words that maybe describe a cultural concept that's hard to translate or something like that.
And so someone knows that they can, you know, talk to you about something without needing to explain what it is. Even if you just know a few things that can still, in the right situations or contexts, that can still be groundbreaking in its own way.

Kate M.
Absolutely.

Hmm okay, I guess maybe one last question. Okay, so you grew up in Michigan, inside of a bilingual, bicultural household. So... what has going abroad taught you about your American and Italian identities?

Nico B.
Growing up with a bilingual bicultural background. I think that I've gone through many different stages of, you know, reckoning with my identity at different parts of my life, what I like to joke about is that I have many identity crises on a regular basis. And I think that in many ways, you know, sort of starting with, I think, you know, my, my experience with AFS in Egypt, for instance, I think, in some ways, almost affirmed that I even had an American identity to begin with.

Going somewhere entirely different and, you know, missing the US feeling homesick for it, that kind of way for the first time almost done for, you know, sort of highlighted for me “Wait, no, I'm not” you know what “I'm not either one or the other, like, I'm both,” you know, like, both places are a part of me both places feel like home to me and I belong to both of them in different ways and they’ve both shaped me in different ways.

Kate M.
Hmm, interesting!

Nico B.
I really like being able to represent how different communities are present in the US and how there are like different cultures and different languages present in the US.

Kate M.
That’s very interesting- that it wasn’t until you went abroad that you started to identify with your American identity. And I think it is so important for you know, our participants, our volunteers, host families, to be able to show different sides of the U.S. There is no like, archetype of what an American is or what they should look like.

Well anyway, on that note, is there anything else you would like to share Nico?
 
Nico B.
I think that's, you know, I think that's about it. Nothing else in particular at least comes to mind.

Kate M.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat and have a good afternoon.

Nico B.
Thanks likewise

Kate M.

Well that was Nico Borbely, an AFS volunteer and returnee from Michigan, currently based in Iceland.

Thank you for listening to The AFS Exchange! I’m Kate Mulvihill. And before we get to the end credits, I wanted to do a quick plug for AFS Paraguay’s podcast, AFScast Paraguay. If you speak Spanish or are learning Spanish, go check them out on Spotify.

Let us know what you thought of this episode by sending a message to [email protected] 

If you enjoyed this show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, and subscribe on Spotify.

Keep an eye out on AFS-USA’s social media- you will be hearing more from The AFS Exchange soon!

This podcast was created by Kate Mulvihill. Social media by Julie Ball and Sara Ahmed. Special thanks to Heather Jackson, Annelise Depman, Jill Woerner, Rebecca Oswalt, Federico and Ivanna from AFS Paraguay, and our guest, Nico Borbely.