Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Field Service (AFS)

In 1914 as the Great War began, a 41-year old American, born in Indiana but resettled in Massachusetts, an economics professor at Harvard, but lately serving the government in various roles (National Monetary Commission, director of the Mint, and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury—thus rather decent accomplishments for his age) began organizing what became the American Field Service (AFS), a volunteer effort to provide ambulance services to the French Army. The man was Abram Piatt Andrew. With American involvement in the war, Andrew received a commission and continued to serve in France as a major, later as a lieutenant colonel. The volunteers, at the peak numbering more than 2,000 Americans, were all drawn from the ranks of university students; Harvard contributed the largest number. Many died in the war. A strange idea, perhaps, to organize this force. In Andrew’s background were postgraduate studies overseas. He studied at Halle and in Berlin in Germany and in Paris. Those experiences, no doubt, had a significant bearing. Andrew’s career continued in politics after the war; he became a six-term Republic Congressman from Massachusetts; his work with AFS also continued. Andrew’s picture courtesy of Wikipedia here

Between the world wars AFS launched a student exchange service. College students from France came to the United States, students from America went to France. This was the initial venture into a sector of service which, these days, constitutes the principal mission of AFS: international student exchange. Before that effort became permanent, AFS once more served as a volunteer ambulance service in World War II as well.

The modern AFS operates across the world and has become the largest international student exchange organization in the world. It is professionally managed but in execution, thus at the local level, AFS relies entirely on volunteers. Volunteers organize and run its branches, select families to host exchange students, select students to dispatch abroad, and they also watch over the entire process as students and their host families undergo a genuine learning—and human—experience.

Our family became involved with AFS around 1978. Monique heard of the program at school and wanted to go abroad. We backed this initiative enthusiastically and, in the process became active first as volunteers, then as a host family. From 1979 to 1983 Brigitte rose to become the head of the AFS branch for our immediate region, one of several in the Minneapolis area. Monique spent an AFS-year in Bolivia (1979), Michelle a year in France (1981). We hosted Roberto from Argentina, Delrine from Sri Lanka, and Ann from Denmark, each with us for a year, and—for a briefer period—William from Hong Kong.

AFS became, as these exchanges indicate, a big part of our life for a time. In addition to sending and hosting, our work involved annual cycles of family and student selections and demanded active involvement with students and families in what turned out was a large extended family, a kind of international clan, the kind of family that Ghulf Genes portrays. In the nature of things, we developed close relations to the Rotary program (now called Rotary Youth Exchange) and with Youth for Understanding, another group with a profile similar to that of AFS. We exchanged services—and when, occasionally, students could not get along with their host families, or vice versa, we all cooperated to house temporarily students who needed to be sheltered, calmed, loved, and resettled with another family—which had to be found, vetted, and supported in what were often difficult situations.

All this comes back because one of the fine people we met back then as an eighteen-year old youth, Bruno Crabbe of Belgium, is visiting us briefly as part of a family-and-musical sweep of parts of the U.S. and Canada that he’d just finished with Miriam, his wife and mother of four children. Both are accomplished musicians. We’ve kept in touch with Bruno all through these many years. This is our fourth encounter since his AFS days. We’ve met in Brussels, in Michigan, and in Paris in the past, now here again.

A footnote to this account. It seems to me that prizes like the Nobel, awarded for promoting peace, ought to be given to figures like A. Piatt Andrew—great leaders in the genuinely human sphere. Those with experience of such initiatives understand their enormous impact although you don’t see much on the surface or in the news. The impacts are real, widespread, last for lifetimes, but they take place entirely beneath the radar of celebrity.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely write-up.

    Yes, indeed, 'beneath the radar of celebrity'... exactly where the most important things usually occur.


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