The AFS Exchange

Advice from Us to You

August 31, 2021 AFS-USA Season 1 Episode 4
The AFS Exchange
Advice from Us to You
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The episode provides advice for AFS participants beginning their program abroad.  AFS-USA staff were surveyed with two questions: What piece of advice would you have for new participants, and what’s something that surprised you about your time abroad?

We will hear from staff who studied abroad in Malaysia, Argentina, Uzbekistan, France, Australia, Russia, Germany, and more! 

While this advice is geared for study abroad participants, a lot of it is also relevant to anyone involved with AFS this fall. Major themes? Be open-minded, be flexible, and don’t be afraid to talk to new people!

Guests: Tara Hoffman (AFS-USA President and CEO), Akemi Akaiwa, Julie Ball, Keri Dooley, Libby Gartland, Melvin Harmon, Scott Hume, Paula Zhang

Volunteer with AFS-USA: [email protected] or afsusa.org/volunteer

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 experiences with hosted students in the United States?

Kate M.
So, it’s been a very busy summer at AFS. Finding host families and schools for students, preparing US students to go abroad, making sure our students and host families have local volunteer support. This upcoming year, 2021-2022, we are bringing in over 1000 more students than we did last year.

And… we’re sure that many of the listeners to this podcast are also busy gearing up for a new adventure- either going abroad themselves, welcoming a hosted student into their home or school, or supporting a new group of students as an AFS volunteer!

This month, we’re taking a little break from our normal podcast format with longer interviews. Instead, we will be hearing shorter clips from a number of AFS-USA staff members from various levels of the organization, who have participated in programs in all parts of the world.

They will be giving their top advice for students beginning their study abroad experience, and while this advice is geared for study abroad participants, a lot of it is also relevant to anyone involved with AFS this fall.

We’ll also hear what surprised everyone most about their experience.

Melvin H.
I guess the thing that would’ve been the most helpful to me…

Libby G.
To remember why you’re on your exchange program

Paula Z.
It’s really important to be open minded

Keri D.

TV was really the key to kind of understanding how people speak to each other

Akemi A.
Just give it some time, talk to a lot of people

Scott H.
Being flexible, it's just so important

Julie B.
To research wherever you’re going

Karen M.
To stay local

Paula Z.
To learn even a little bit of the language

Tara H.
To be as open-minded as possible

Kate M.
Alright, so, could you introduce yourself and share where you went abroad? And what piece of advice would you have for someone starting their study abroad program?

Julie B.

Hi, my name is Julie and I'm the manager of marketing and external communications at AFS-USA. And I studied abroad in Australia, it was an amazing time.

One piece of advice I would give is to research wherever you're going, what you find out about the history and culture of a place before you go, will help you acclimate to your new surroundings and get really excited at least that's what happened for me when I went to Oz.
Australia really inspired me to continue traveling, having some knowledge of what to expect when I arrived just really set me up for success and actually kind of set me apart from others on the program, just because I was able to really connect with the community and be kind of a leader within that group.

Libby G.

Hi, my name is Libby Gartland. I am one of the YES participant support specialists at AFS-USA.

When I was in college, I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. And then after I graduated, I worked as a FLEX recruiter in a few FLEX countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

One piece of advice I would give to incoming exchange students is to remember why you are on your exchange program. You know, is it you know, do you want to learn about other cultures? Do you want to get to know your host family? Everything is going to be coming at you really quick but kind of keeping your goal in mind for your exchange program and keeping everything into perspective can really help you during those difficult moments.

Kate M.
Ya know, this is my go-to- piece of advice too. Ask yourself why are you going abroad? What are you trying to get out of your program? It’s a good idea to think on this before you leave, then check in with yourself routinely throughout your program to see if you are still working towards those goals. Goals like making friends from you host country, getting good enough at your target language that you can go to the movies and not need subtitles, learning more about a specific part of history or culture, or learning how to cook a type of cuisine that’s brand new to you.

Karen M.
Hi, my name is Karen Mills and I work with the Sponsored Programs department coordinating logistics and I studied abroad in Strasbourg, France when I was a junior in college. So I lived there with a host family, I was there for almost a year.

One of the best pieces of advice that I got was to say yes to new experiences, and also to stay local. So even though I was in college, and I had the ability to travel every weekend and visit new cities, I really enjoyed and I tried to spend at least 50% of my weekends in Strasbourg. So by the end of the year, I knew all the local restaurants, I was a local at a cafe, they knew my order, they would, they would bring in my order, every time I sat down, they knew me, they’d converse with me, they'd recommend books to me. And I really got to know my host family and my host city and my host culture.
So I definitely say stay local, and enjoy experiences with your host family.

Just say yes, even if you're not exactly sure what's going to happen. One of one Sunday, my host family decided to take me out into the mountains into the forest and pick châtains . And I didn't know what they were, and they ended up being chestnuts. So we were hunting for chestnuts, we got into a competition who could find the most in all the leaves. And we came back and we drank bowls of hot chocolate, we had a fantastic time and and that's one of my strongest memories of Strasbourg and studying abroad in France is that random experience that would never have come across in any tour guide or, but but it was really meaningful and and very surprising.

Kate M.
Alright, so, say yes to new experiences and stay local!
And now, we’ll hear from Paula and Keri on the importance of learning some of the local language and initiating conversations!

Paula Z.
My name is Paula Zheng and I've studied abroad in several different countries ranging from Western Europe to Uzbekistan to Korea.

One piece of advice I would give is to learn even a little bit of the language of the country you're going to. So for example, when I did my Fulbright, in Uzbekistan, I, like spoke horrible Russian, didn't know much about the country. So I bought an Uzbek textbook and started studying from it a month before I left. And when I got there, all I could say was, you know, Hi, my name is what do you do? I'm here to teach English. And people really appreciate it, even though my respect was so bad. And I think it made a bigger impact on them than if I had just gone in with Russian, which is kind of, although it's an official language, it's not the language that speaks to people's hearts. So I would say people really appreciate it if you make that extra step and show them that you really care about their heritage.

Keri D.
I'm Keri Dooley. I studied abroad in Germany. I was a congress Bundestag. scholarship recipient from Nevada. So that's where I started my journey. Sparks, Nevada.

So, I, I wish I had better understood what I started out my experience, how important questions are in starting conversations and continuing conversations and getting to know people. I would have concentrated a bit more on even pre-thinking, you know, some list of questions and, and doing that, you know, in both English and German so that I was able to start more conversations sooner. I was kind of waiting for people to ask me too much.

So I think that, you know, it's good bit of advice to think about, you know, the questions that you would ask.

Kate M.
So, learn a bit of the language. In many parts of the world you will find local languages that differ from the official language, which is often the language used in schools. Even if you don’t need to know how to speak it to get by, learning a few words wouldn’t hurt.

Prepare questions so that you will be more comfortable when engaging people in conversation! Ask yourself what you’re curious about.
And next, Akemi, Melvin and Scott on why keeping an open mind is key!

Akemi A.
Hi, my name is Akemi I am what am i sponsored program admissions coordinator in the sponsored programs department.

When I was in college, I studied abroad to Buenos Aires, Argentina. And I had a wonderful time there. And I really enjoyed my time there. One piece of advice that I would give is to really keep an open mind  and everything is going to be new and shocking, maybe even at first but it, just give it some time, talk to a lot of people, go to different cafes and restaurants and learn and just distract yourself to get to know the place better. And sooner or later, you're going to realize that it's going to be, it's going to be a wonderful experience for you.

Melvin  H.
Yeah, okay, hang on a second. Let me get my title up here because I can never remember it. It's extremely long. It just goes on and on. Hi, I'm Melvin Harmon. I'm the Chief Officer of Marketing, Customer Experience and Strategic Advancement at AFS-USA.
I was a year program student AFS student to Malaysia in 1980.

I guess the thing that would have been the most helpful to me, before I left was, if someone had said to me to consider everything I expected my experience to be what I expected my host family to be like school, the countries of my host country, Malaysia, I would say just trash that.

And, and consider that it's probably going to be the opposite or quite different for what you'd expect it to be. Because it was hard when I first got there for quite a good time, like the month or two, where I was dealing with all those expectations of what I thought the experience was going to be like, but it was not. So I think that's that's my biggest piece of advice on the topic.

Scott H.
So my name is Scott Hume, I am the Senior Director of analytics and field management at AFS USA. I spent a semester abroad in college in England. In small town of Grantham, England, which is the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton and Margaret Thatcher was what it was known for, at the time. Ended up meeting my wife while I was there, actually.

I would say, the biggest thing is just being flexible, it's just so important, being adaptable, you're going to have expectations, you're going to have hopes and dreams of what your experience is going to be like. But being willing and able to let go of that and may and make new memories and new create new expectations is probably the best way for you to be successful while you're abroad.
So just being flexible, and looking at the things that you are able to do or the are able to accomplish, even if it's not 100% what you thought you would be doing is a really good way to approach that experience.

Kate M.
And our President and CEO, Tara Boyce Hoffman.

Tara H.

I am currently the president and CEO of AFS-USA. I have had a very long professional career in association with AFS for 35 years, I have worked for the organization, in different capacities and in different countries. And I'm very happy to be leading AFS-USA at the moment.

I studied abroad in Strasbourg, France through a university program through Syracuse University.

So I would say that I think the best piece of advice to a student starting their exchange experience is to be as open minded as possible. And I say that because I had studied French for many, many years, like eight years, and I had this in my head, what this you know, experience was going to be like, and what French people were going to be like, and even after all these years of studying the language and studying about the culture, it's very different when you arrive, and you're interacting with people. And in my case, living with a host family. That was in the eastern part of France, with a with Alsace, being a very unique culture and unique language. So I really had to pretty quickly adapt to the fact that a lot of my expectations of what quintessential life in France was going to be was going to be a little bit different. And it was great. But I think we all bring expectations to any experience, you know, it's just a normal part of life and mindset.

Kate M.

Okay so there are definitely some common themes when it comes to advice. Be flexible, be open-minded, and keep your expectations for your time abroad pretty general! I am pretty sure no AFSer has ever looked back on their time abroad and thought, “Oh yeah my AFS program went exactly as I thought it was going to, my host family was just as I predicted they’d be, my community as well…” No! That’s also what makes a program interesting and challenging and what encourages growth.

Kate M.

I asked another question to this group, “What is something that surprised you while you were abroad?”
I studied in the Dominican Republic and in France. And what surprised me about the DR is that they put corn and ham on their pizza, and it is honestly pretty good. And about France, I was surprised how many shops were closed on Sundays, even in larger cities! Also a lot of public offices and smaller stores close for an hour and a half or so in the middle of the day for lunch.
Okay well, let’s see what everyone else has to say. Starting with Julie.

Julie B.

One surprising thing I learned or experienced in Australia, especially when first arriving, is the diversity because when you think Australia, you don't at first think of it as a very diverse place. You think everyone, you know, maybe speaks English and that it's very similar to the United States. And I actually I studied abroad in the Northern Territory, which is very close to Southeast Asia and that culture, so tons of different cultures, tons of different languages, especially among the Aboriginal population in Australia. And it was inspiring and also enlightening and shocking in many ways to hear about the history of Aboriginal people in Australia, their culture, their life and the issues that they're facing in today's world.

Kate M.

A few people commented on being surprised at how people immediately welcomed them into their community and made them feel like they belong. Akemi, Paula, and Libby.

Akemi A.

One thing that shocked me a lot is really how friendly people in Buenos Aires are and how much they love to socialize and they love to talk and really get to know you. You go to a cafe and there will be people chatting for three hours straight. So that was the biggest culture shock for me. But it made me want to get to know them at the same time.

Paula Z.

One thing that surprised me is how much people will let you into their communities if you just show curiosity. So I was once in Boston, just on a family vacation, and I heard people speaking Catalan, which was a language that I studied in college. So I went up to them and I was like, Esteu parlant català?, which means "Are you speaking Catalan?" and they were so shocked. And it turned out that same year, I was going to live near Barcelona for a year. And they are from Barcelona too and so they let me stay with them. Every time I was in the city. They introduced me to all their family members, people around town started asking if I lived with them. And I think that wouldn't have happened if we weren't both open to the idea of learning about each other. them asking me about America, me asking them about Catalonia and their language. So I think it's really important to be open minded and you might be surprised where that takes you.

Libby G.

I think how friendly and open everyone was to get to know me. You know, I would, I would try to find opportunities to go up and say hello to people. And I think I was surprised how responsive they were and how interested they were in getting to know me. So I would suggest students to not be afraid to go up and say hi, and to introduce themselves. It's hard, but it can be very rewarding..

Kate M.

And some people were surprised by how difficult these experiences can be… we’ll hear from Tara and Keri again here.

Tara H.

I think one thing that, that really surprised me was that it was harder than I thought it was gonna be, that it was a little bit lonely at times. And I really had to, you know, find in myself, this level of comfort of kind of being independent.
But in the end, I think we often say this AFS it's, it's more about yourself, and how you evolve yourself and how you start to understand your own culture and yourself through this intercultural experience. So that was surprising for me. When I went I didn't have all this wonderful AFS support and orientations. I went on a different program and I certainly appreciate the importance of how we talk about this and how we address this in our AFS content.

Keri D.

A lot of things surprised me.  Maybe one thing that surprised me was, you know, how long it would take me, you know, to get my bearings and discover how to start relationships, how to overcome maybe what might have been my inhibitions around speaking German, poorly, or not at all. 
In the beginning, it surprised me that took a lot more time and effort, and you know, how much and how helpful it was to watch TV. I might have been a little nerdy before I departed and, you know, kind of had to sort of have all read books, but TV was really the key to kind of understanding how people speak to each other, you know, and, and getting some phrases that were simple enough for me to repeat pretty quickly. counter intuitively watch TV.

Kate M.

...and also how tiring this experience can be, even after recovering from your jetlag. 

Karen M.

One of the things that surprised me most while I was studying abroad was how tired I would get living life in a second language and just adjusting, constantly listening. But my host family did a great job at slowing down and speaking to me and they kept a dictionary, a French to English dictionary right next to me during every meal. And so we'd pause the conversation and I'd flip through the dictionary and find the right word. And half the time it would be wrong, but they would understand. And it was a great way to spark conversation. 
But I definitely needed to take naps every afternoon. 

And one of the other things that was really surprising, but very pleasant surprise was my host family was immediately so welcoming to me. And they really wanted to include me in every aspect of their family life, including, like three hour long lunches every Sunday with their extended family members. And that became a weekly occasion. Very long, very long family lunches. 

Kate M.

And in Melvin’s case, the thing that surprised him the most about going to Malaysia was that… he was going to Malaysia. 

Melvin H.

I think that my family and I, we were surprised that I was going to Malaysia because in those days, you didn't get to choose your destination. You could request one but you rarely got it. AFS decided where was, what country was best for you.
 
So when I was placed, I was placed with a devout Muslim family. And being from a tiny town in the mountains of North Carolina, we had some pretty strong stereotypes and expectations that came just out of that. 

And I expected this sort of very strict conservative environment to be very restrictive where I would have to be extremely careful. Just just a lot of things that were in my head that I expected based on stereotypes and movies. 

But of course when I got there, we're all the same throughout the world. That's why we do what we do at AFS once I got there my family was warm and wonderful and non-judgmental not trying to force the religion on anyone. Yes, they were devout but that didn't mean that it made their lives sort of I don't know how to describe it, but sort of an environment where no one smiled, did anything that was fun. You know, that was a 17 year olds expectations. 

But that was one wonderful realization. I grew up on meat and potatoes in the south and the food was a huge challenge for me and I thought that I would never adjust and I would have to go home. But by the end of the year I was so I was dreading coming back home. Because the food. I was so in love with th e food and have continued to broaden my horizons with food even until today.

Kate M.
And not only in Malaysia should you anticipate some cultural differences… 

Scott H.

One thing that surprised me, I think that people, I think assuming that while it's England, it's an English speaking country, it'll be just like the US only  they talk funny. And seeing that even in a place like that there are a lot of differences. Not just, you know, words, they use the, you know, the, the way they approach, you know, everything from how they approach family life or going out to eat or shopping or, you know, there's just so many differences, whether or not it's an English speaking country, or Italy or Russia or anywhere that I think there are always going to be those cultural differences, regardless of the language being spoken. 
 
Kate M.

And those were AFS-USA staff members sharing about their experiences abroad. Akemi Akaiwa, Julie Ball, Keri Dooley, Libby Gartland, Melvin Harmon, Tara Hoffman, Scott Hume, and Paula Zhang.

Before we go, I wanted to extend a huge thank you to our AFS-USA volunteers, working hard to place students in their communities. If you’re interested in volunteering with AFS-USA and you are based in the United States, head over to afsusa.org/volunteer or send a message to [email protected]

Kate M.

Well, thank you for listening to The AFS Exchange! I’m Kate Mulvihill. 

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, or 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. Editing support provided by Annelise Depman. 

What piece of advice would you give?
What surprised you about your time abroad?