Wednesday, November 21, 2007

An Open Letter to Margaret Crotty, President and CEO, AFS Intercultural Programs

Dear Margaret,

Thanks you for the holiday wishes. I know you would have extended your greeting to each AFS volunteer individually if you could. And, since I have a feeling this greeting doesn't come from your personal e-mail address, I can only hope that you get this!

AFS -- but especially the amazing kids we've met through AFS -- has been an important part of my family's life since late in 2004 when my father, my then 14-year-old twins and I returned from my a visit to mother's native country of Germany just months after she died of ovarian cancer. We returned with the strong desire to welcome a young German girl into our homes, perhaps (I now realize) to, in a very small way, bring a tiny piece of Omi -- or at least of her heritage -- back into our home.

Fueled by our desire to open our home, we called AFS in February of 2005, and requested information about becoming a host parent. Within a day we were sent the bio of Laura, a seemingly wonderful girl from central Germany and within a week, an AFS volunteer came to our home to "seal the deal." From that moment on, our family grew by one. We e-mailed and IM'd Laura regularly and, by the time she arrived in Seattle six months later, we already knew and loved her and she already knew and loved us. The six months before she arrived were, in many ways, as important as the ten months she lived with us and I can only equate that anticipatory time to a pregnancy: you know this person will be a huge part of your life soon, and you can hardly wait to welcome her with a hug. The waiting seems endless, but you are rewarded with the smiling face and long-awaited embrace of this new member of your family. You go home and begin to settle in, knowing that life -- at least for a year, but in actuality, forever -- will not be the same because you will forever be so much richer for this experience.

Needless to say, the year that we had Laura in our home was wonderful, and saying goodbye to her in June was excruciating for all of us. Fortunately, we were able to visit her in Germany this past September and meet her family, who we came to love as much as we loved Laura. And since welcoming Laura into our home for a year, I have been a liaison to two other AFS students, last year to E from Germany and this year to M from Brazil.

For us, the AFS experience was and continues to be full of joy and happiness and we are so grateful to have the opportunity to be part of the organization. But I'm beginning to realize that we might just be the lucky ones, for I know that not all AFS experiences are this happy and I think I might know why.

Whereas we initiated contact with AFS and asked to welcome an international student into our lives, fully aware of the financial, time, and emotional commitment that request entailed, many AFS students are not so lucky as to come to America (or any country) with someone on the other side waiting to greet them with open arms. I can't even imagine being the parent of an AFS student (or certainly the student him or herself) who steps onto a plane bound for an unfamiliar foreign country with absolutely no welcoming family. Whereas we already loved Laura by the time we met her, many students get on that plane with only fear, anticipation, and trust (all healthy emotions) but it's at this point that I feel that many AFS students (and their native families) are betrayed. For some reason that I can't fathom -- and I'm sorry, but I can only assume that it comes down to money -- more than a few students are allowed to come to their new country with no one other than an AFS official to greet them. They are put into a temporary home ( and sometimes multiple temporary homes) which, in many cases, is the home of a person or family that has only relented to continual pleading from AFS to open their home, if only for a week, and has no intention of being any more than a temporary placeholder for this poor, lonely international student who fully deserves (especially for the thousands of dollars their native families pay) to be placed in a waiting, enthusiastic family.

I have seen this repeatedly and it breaks my heart each time. Why can't AFS accept only the number of students for which it has families to wholeheartedly "adopt" them? For two summers in a row, I have been getting desperate e-mails, begging me to consider hosting a student again or to ask my family and friends if they might host a student who "will be arriving in just weeks." While I believe that family and friends is a wonderful way to recruit host families, this isn't a magazine drive or a puppy adoption; this is a very serious commitment that will change a family and require full emotional and financial dedication. By late July, the e-mails I get from AFS reminds me of someone who has a stray puppy to give away and begs someone to take it before it is sent to the pound.

It just shouldn't be this way! Don't you agree?

The solution doesn't seem that complicated to me -- though I'm sure it has financial repercussions that might be unpleasant to AFS. (Yes, I am curious what the many thousands of dollars students pay to go to a foreign country covers, other than insurance, since most AFS staff are volunteers and the host or native families cover almost all other expenses... but that's another letter.) Isn't it possible to MATCH UP STUDENTS WITH HOST FAMILIES WHILE THEY'RE STILL IN THEIR HOME COUNTRY and only finalize travel plans once that match is made? The commitment to take a student into one's home for a year is just as serious as the commitment to travel to another country for a year, and I believe that both should be approached with the same sense of dedication and with a strong emphasis put on a great fit for all. When you accept a student's money and then put them on a plane with no one to welcome them with open arms on the other side, as happened to the boy for who I am currently a liaison, I believe you are performing a disservice for all involved. The student certainly deserves better. Until AFS can find a willing -- no, an enthusiastic -- host family, I don't believe that the student's money should be accepted and I certainly don't believe that s/he should be put on a plane. This might mean that you can accept fewer students, but I believe that that is a justifiable and important trade-off to assure positive experiences for all involved.

I'm sure that there's a business-oriented explanation for why students are accepted for travel without permanent host families to greet them, but I can't for the life of me understand what reason might justify the loneliness and confusion I heard about as the student I'm currently a liaison for described his first few transient, lonely, and confusing months in America. Fortunately, he is now with a committed, loving family, thanks to a girl who was in one of his classes and took him home, begging her parents, "Can we keep him? Pleeeease?"

I know that, for each lonely, confused student who stands on foreign soil awaiting a committed host family, there are many more who have experiences like Laura and we had, and for that I thank you and AFS. But the question regarding pre-travel matching of students with families begs to be asked and I do hope you find the time and the interest to answer it. I know that I am not the only AFS volunteer who worries greatly about this issue.

Warm regards,


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kim-d said...

HELLLOOOO, CAROL! I just had to stop by--I'm at work, OOPSIES--to say a quick hi and to tell you that I'll be back. And to say I love the cat in Kat's hood--DARLING!

And I apologize if this comment shows up twice :)...

Goofball said...

wow...that is a shocking situation; Very shocking. Unacceptable. It breaks my heart for the people that are in that situation.

I don't have any experience with AFS. I was a Rotary exchange student. I never really thought about it since my sister had been a Rotary exchange student and we ahd been hosting a Rotary exchange student. So I never considered any other organisation since we are really happy with Rotary.

The only clear difference I know between AFS and Rotary is that AFS is an organisation existing purely with the goal of exchange students and therefore they are costly. It strikes me in your letter that you often refer to the money that students have to pay to AFS.

Rotary is a service organisation existing all over the world with many many local projects and some global projects. The Rotary youth exchange program is just a small part of Rotary.
You can apply with your local Rotary club if you are interested to go on an exchange. They'll interview you, check your motivation etc and then forward your file to your hosting district. Fairly simple for them to accept you as a matter of fact. However if they accept you, it implies that this local club will also host a foreign student coming through their town. And that means they'll be responsible for searching host families for this student. Families in plural as Rotary tries to find min 2-3 families for one student a year. This has many advantages and disadvantages which I will not abord now.

What is the cost of being an exchange student for Rotary?
- the price of your flight ticket
- health insurance valid in your hosting country
You don't pay Rotary anything as an organisation, on the contrary, they pay you monthly pocket money. And your stay with host families is free (they don't get any financial compensation either). Usually they do enquire whether your own family doesn't want to use the empty bedroom to host a student for a couple of months.

Some families feel obliged to do so and are not good host families...but usually it delivers very motivated host families as they know what their own daughter/son is going through.

The problem that Rotary often encounters is that the Rotary members end up being host families...always the same families and they start seeing it as a burden. They too have difficulty finding host families. Usually they don't have all the names of all the host families ahead of time before you leave, but I have never ever heard of someone leaving without a host family picking him/her up at the airport or in their host town!!!!! That is how it should be.

When I applied at the local Rotary club, I had heard already that they had had some bad experience with exchange students coming to our town using drugs etc. The Rotarians were not eager at all anymore to be hosting another foreigner. But hosting a foreigner was the condition for them before they could approve my application. So...they approved my application on the condition that I could give them 4 host families for the student that would come to my town. That's a bit of an unorthodox Rotary request, but I accepted the deal, used our social network and I did provide them 4 families (including mine) for the Californian girl that came over.

and now I am going to stop this longest comment every ;)

Anonymous said...

My god, I had no idea that AFS would have students come to the States without an assigned "permanent" family. That is just criminal. I can just imagine what these poor kids feels like. I thought my experience coming to this country and attending school were horrific, but this is so much worse. At least I had my family around me. This is criminal, just criminal and sure doesn't make us look good to the rest of the world.

Carol said...

Thanks for the feedback! I should make it clear that our own experience with AFS has been 99% positive (and our experience with Laura has been 100% positive!) and that all-in-all I think it's a great organization.

But this whole "they're on the plane... we need host families, quick!" thing has really been bothering me and I just SOOO feel for a kid who has to endure that and the loneliness it causes -- as the boy I'm a liaison for this year did. There are lots of important lessons to be learned on a year abroad and I think "I'm really not comfortable in this environment" and "yikes, I need to learn to communicate and adapt" are two of them. But feeling lost and afraid amid an organization whose job it is to make you feel welcome and wanted should not be among those lessons, in my opinion.

I did send this letter to Margaret. I'll let you know if I get a reply...


mks said...

wow what a wonderful thing you are doing being a host parent/liasion and caring so much. it truly is fantastic and it is heartbreaking to think that a student would be brought to another country, money taken, if there was anyone less that enthusiastic to meet and welcome them

kim-d said...

I wanted to come back and wish you a very Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving, Carol.

I am so glad that you found me, and I look forward to having a little more time next week to read back and get to know you better!

swenglishexpat said...

Hi, just dropping by to say that I have “roared” you. Visit my blog to find out what I am talking about. Roooaaar! (Will be back to read your long post!)

Goofball said...

Hi Carol,

yes I realise your experience with AFS has been very positive so far. I didn't mean to criticise AFS as I don't know them.

I just tried to explain what I do know: how Rotary works.

I am curious for their reply though!

Keep up the good work and happy thanksgiving!

Jen said...

Oh, Carol, I've worked with both AFS and YFU, and I'll write you privately about this... and you are SO right. On the flip side, too, neither agency, nor any other exchange organizations, should take kids who have multiple allergies, extreme religious, political or extracurricular needs, etc. I could go on and on and on about this.

Hugs to you and I feel your pain on this issue!

Anonymous said...

As an AFS volunteer, you should get all of the facts about an AFS situation before you post only your side and your view to the world. As a volunteer with AFS for 20 years since my own abroad experience for the year to Japan with AFS, I am ashamed and angered by your post. Committment numbers are set by all AFS partner countries years in advance of anyone ever boarding a plane. The responsibility of finding host families for all of these students around the globe is a daunting challenge for AFS staff and volunteers every year. With the tighting economy, placing students into 'enthusiastic' host families is increasingly difficult. We believe in our mission, and we choose to press on with a positive attitude. Ghandi asked us to "be the change you want to see in the world". That is how I choose to live my life.

Carol said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm sorry my post angered you. I'm sorry, too, that you question my commitment to exchange programs -- and AFS in particular. Our experience as host parents (and my subsequent experience as a liaison) was nothing short of life-alteringly wonderful. And I know that most AFS students ARE welcomed into loving homes.

My post was about those eager young people who get on a plane hoping for the experience that was presented to them, only to be shuffled from temporary situation to temporary situation. If there's no home waiting for them on the other end of that plane ride, and if they enrolled into the AFS program with that expectation (and PAID for it), it just doesn't seem right or fair that they land in the foreign country in which the agency has told them there'd be a family for them... to NO ONE except a "holding" situation. It seems no more "warm and loving" than foster kids being shuffled from holding family to holding family.

I understand that host families are hard to find, but that's the reality. Why accept numbers of exchange students that goes far beyond the number of committed host families to house them? If nothing else, it's simply a bad business decision.

That said, Margaret Crotty and those at AFS who are doing all they can to keep the exchange program alive, have my full respect and admiration. She is an amazing, committed, intelligent woman, and I trust that her heart is in this and that she will do great things for AFS.

Feel free to keep the dialog going, but you might want to identify yourself if you do.


Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes.

I found this old post while googling "horrible experience AFS," because I've been stunned with what I've seen. You are 100% correct.

This organization isn't what it once was, and it disappoints me so much. I was a student, I've hosted and now I've witnessed the most insane treatment of a young exchange student studying here in the USA. He's asked me not to speak up in public, because he's been told that if he complains, he has to return to his home country. Shocking and so disappointing.

Carol said...

It's been quite a few years since I wrote this post and, although I still get those "please welcome this poor student into your home, even just for a week - s/he has no family to live with" emails, I largely ignore them now. I tried to impact change, but not sure my post did a thing. I'm so sorry the student you refer to is afraid to speak up. I have heard of that with other students, too.

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