International Exchange Programs Are Life-Altering

New York, N.Y.   As I travel the world, meeting global leaders, I am struck by how many of them were international exchange students in their youth.  Studying abroad and living with a local family is the best way for young Americans to broaden their horizons.  They certainly need it.

AFS. The worst part of being an exchange student is leaving.
Here, I say good bye to my German family from the train in 1978 (right).

A recent study of American high school students showed one-fifth failed to identify the Pacific Ocean.  Just three years ago, a National Geographic-Roper survey found that half of our teenagers lack basic geographic knowledge.

63% could not find Iraq on a map – though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.

60% do not speak a foreign language fluently.

74% believe incorrectly that English is the world’s most commonly spoken language.

40% could not place the Sahara and the Amazon on the correct continent.

Only 20% have a passport.

Our young people — high school junior and seniors — are not prepared for an increasingly global future. They lack the basic tools to understand relationships between people and places that provide context for world affairs.

Yet many of our world’s leaders and activist have not only global knowledge, but also experience living and studying abroad.

From Hiroshim’s Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba to the Asia Society’s Dr. Vishakha Desai, Welt Politik is impacted by the minds shaped in host families around the world.

Ford Scholars, Gates Scholars, Luce Scholars, Fulbright Scholars, and Rhodes Scholars have incredible, life altering experiences.

Most students in these programs, however, do not have the added experience of living with a local host family.   AFS students do.


AFS Intercultural Programs is the preeminent high school exchange program, operating in 80 countries.   Over 350,000 people around the world have participated in AFS Intercultural Programs.

Many world leaders are among AFS alumni, including the former president of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria and the former interim president of Bolivia, Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze.

Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba of Hiroshima lived in the U.S. in the early 1960’s.   Brian Atwood, dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, who served as director of USAID during the Clinton administration, was an AFS’er, as was my friend R. Nick Burns, former undersecretary of state.

I recently interviewed Mayor Akiba of Mayors for Peace at the United Nations.   He told me of his recent speech at the AFS Friendship Association in Tokyo at the 50th anniversary of his returnee group’s experiences with AFS around the world.

In 1959, I was an AFS student to Illinois.   We were the sixth group to go from Japan.

I was frustrated in my American History class in the States at the time because my English and knowledge were not good enough to adequately discuss the bombing of Hiroshima.

I pledged to myself that someday I would be able to communicate more effectively on the horrors of nuclear destruction.

AFS Intercultural Programs live up to this ideal.

To prevent future war, we need to advocate exchanges so that people can see first-hand how we are all the same,. If we know each other, war is that much harder to wage.

AFS and the organization I head today — Mayors for Peace — are both doing the same thing in a way: preventing nuclear war.

There will be a reunion of my 50th Anniversary Returnees Group in Hiroshima this July and I look forward to hosting them.

AFS played a key role in my life, and Hiroshima is such an appropriate city to focus on the AFS family’s quest for peace.

I also recently interviewed the president of the Asia Society at her Park Avenue office.   Dr. Vishakha Desai is incredibly bright and sitting at her feet down to meet with her is inspirational if not intimidating.

I was born in India in the same town Mahatma Gandhi built his ashram.   I came to live in the U.S. with a family in Santa Barbara, California.   After arriving, I spent the summer with them in the Hamptons.

Exchange programs are vital to developing global citizens.

Just think about it.   At an early age, to be thrust into a new environment where one has to adjust.   This is such an important life exercise, teaching us about acceptance and empathy.

The timing of AFS is ideal.   The exchange students are young and have no real idea about life yet, and yet are not so old that they are set in their own ways.

Living with a family is the highlight of an exchange experience.   Too many college programs lack the family element and this is a great loss.

It is important to be both a global citizen and a member of your own nation.

My experience absolutely made me a better person – and gave me the understanding needed to be a better leader,” she concluded.

AFS deeply affected my own life.   When I was in high school, I was accepted as an AFS exchange student to Germany.

I learned about cross-cultural tolerance from my AFS host father.   Later, when I was in college, my American family hosted a young woman from Japan.

Before 21, I lived with a total of five families, two in Germany, one in Colombia with CEUCA, and two in Japan with the Ministry of Education (JET) and Waseda University.

I have also lived or visited extensively with my own family, in-laws, and orphans in France as a child, and in Indonesia, Haiti, and Sri Lanka as an adult.

What lessons do we as Americans learn by living in a foreign family?

Perhaps the most fundamental lesson I absorbed was from my German host father, Dieter Raupach, who taught me the concept of “Toleranz.”   To accept that different was not bad.

My close friend Ethel Grodzins Romm speaks often about “other-ism.”   We are genetically predisposed, she explains, to fear that which is different.

We often think to turn our backs on those of different races, languages, religions, sexual preferences, and all the other variables that make us uniquely human.

The motto of AFS, taken from Sanskrit, is: “Walk together, talk together, O peoples of the earth.   Then and only then will you have peace.”   This principle has directed my life.

I would not be who I am today — and the organization I founded, Orphans International Worldwide, would not exist — if it were not for my pivotal experiences with AFS.   Orphans International’s essence is its international, interracial, and interfaith approach to raising global citizens.

If you or your child would like to be an AFS exchange student, now is the time to act. Or, if you would like to host an AFS student, an act of kindness that will provide far more than it costs, contact AFS USA.

To learn more about AFS programs, you can view an excellent video on YouTube .

AFS also maintains a strong 2.0 web presence.   You can read an AFS blog, check out a photo gallery of AFS’ers in action on Flickr, or ask questions of an AFS’er on Facebook.   Tens of thousands of AFS’ers may be found on Facebook, including this writer.

Other high school exchange programs of note include Youth For Understanding and Rotary Youth Exchange.

If you have teenage children, I cannot recommend more highly getting them abroad.   The downfall of these programs is that they are often expensive.

If your teens are now college-bound, make sure they spend their junior year abroad – specifically living with a host family.

If you are now working, I suggest going overseas through a volunteer agency such as Cross-Cultural Solutions, which is offensively expensive.   But still a great way to vacation.

For a more economical approach, I recommend the High Cloud Foundation or Earthwatch.

Of course, if you can qualify as a Ford Scholar, Gates Scholar, Luce Scholar, Fulbright Scholar, or Rhodes Scholar, do so!   Look what these programs did for Bill Clinton.

I even believe that studying outside the U.S. is an option.   Look to Canada.   Or any of the American Universities from Lebanon to Nigeria.

Becoming a global citizen usually happens when we are provided with opportunities to explore our horizons.   Take advantage of the opportunities that are available to you.

Do everything you can to experience the world and help your children grow up with an international mindset.   You owe yourself and your children nothing less.

To steal a phrase, Be All That You Can Be, Globally!

Edited by Karen F. Davis.  Originally published in The Daily Kos, July 27, 2009.

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce ( writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (, he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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