Brief History of AFS

AFS stands for American Field Service, an international non-governmental, non-profit and one of the world’s largest community based volunteer organizations that provides intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to create a more just and peaceful world through international student exchange. AFS activities based on AFS Core Values and Attributes –that enables people to act as responsible global citizens working for peace and understanding in a diverse world. It acknowledges that peace is a dynamic concept threatened by injustice, inequity and intolerance. AFS seeks to affirm faith in the dignity and worth of every human being and of all nations and cultures– of dignity, respect for differences, harmony, sensitivity and tolerance.

AFS exchange programs were founded by the ambulance driver more than 85 years ago, as a group of 15 Americans living in Paris volunteered to drive ambulances for the American Hospital there. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, this group became known as the American Field Service, whose mission was to transport wounded French soldiers from the front lines to mobile medical units. By the end of the war, their number had grown to 2,500 volunteer ambulance drivers. They did not bear arms. Theirs was a mission of compassion, not conflict.

During World War II, the American Field Service’s all-civilian volunteer force was stationed in Europe, Syria, North Africa, India and Burma to serve beside British, French, American, Australian, Polish, South African, New Zealand, Canadian, and Indian troops. When the war ended in 1945, AFS volunteers pledged not to abandon their tradition of international service. Compelled to hasten the post-war healing process, they vowed to work toward changing the world’s focus from hostility to friendship.These founders of AFS had an idea that was stunning in its simplicity: If future generations could empathize with and understand their global neighbors, recognizing and appreciating their differences, then perhaps future wars could be avoided. They began their exchange program modestly in 1947, bringing 52 high school students from 10 countries to the United States for a yearlong exchange experience. To then later involve students from such “enemy” nations as Japan and Germany so soon after the war was a daring idea.

Today more than 290,000 participants have taken part in cultural exchanges offered through AFS Intercultural Programs, Inc., the organization formed in 1947 to facilitate student and teacher exchanges —the realization of its predecessor’s vision, the AFS ambulance corps–. Just as important, an equal number of host families have opened their hearts and homes to an AFS student, and more than 100,000 volunteers all over the world have generously donated their time and energy to ensure that the programs succeed. At this very moment, AFS students are learning to understand and speak more than 40 languages. Even more important, they are becoming fluent in the language of tolerance. A humble idea born from the ashes of war, AFS today, with offices in 52 countries, is a preeminent leader in the field of international citizen cultural exchange.

Kind of Intercultural Learning could be learnt Through the Program

AFS is committed to cross-cultural learning. An AFS experience involves growth and change in terms of the following learning objectives[1]:

  •  Personal Values and Skills. At the core of all, AFS experiences are the removal of people from their familiar environment and their placement in a new environment. But AFS participants are prepared in advance, and they are assured of support and guidance on an as-needed basis, thus enabling them to turn any crisis into an opportunity to reassess their values, stretch their capabilities, appreciate new cultures and practice new skills.
  • Interpersonal Relationship-Building. The involvement of AFS participant in daily living and working arrangements with a variety of people in the new environment requires developing and maintaining relationships with others from diverse backgrounds. The interpersonal and leadership skills developed in this context are transferable to many other settings during the participant’s lifetime. The families who host AFS students often gain new understanding of other cultures from their contacts with AFS participants. 
  • Intercultural Knowledge and Sensitivity. During the course of their immersion in another culture, AFS participants are exposed to a wide range of interesting challenges and adventures, from the simple buying of daily necessities to the complex and subtle differences in values, social norms and patterns of thought. Most AFS experiences include a formal learning component on the social, political, economic and religious structures of their new “home” country. Involvement in so many dimensions of life deepens participants’ insights into their own culture as well as their knowledge of the culture in which they are living.
  • Awareness About Global Issues. Living in another culture helps us see that the world is one large community, a global island, in which everyone everywhere shares certain problems and joys. Such awareness prepares the AFS participant to take his/her place as future leaders in their communities, countries and corporations to address crises facing humankind

While AFS Global Education Framework addresses the whole range of concerns that people of the world share. It promotes a common commitment to the world and its people, could be categorized into 5 points as follow:

  • Focus on Intercultural Learning. The kind of intercultural learning that AFS offers is a special type of experiential learning because it focuses on the attitudes, history, assumptions and worldview of the people involved and allows them to change their perspective through cross-cultural empathy.
  • Focus on Communities. AFS recognizes that people are belonging to communities. This is why we involve volunteers and local schools in the AFS experience, because it will multiplies its potential impact. AFS has a global impact when its participants act together and act locally.
  • Focus on Service and Commitment.The ambulance drivers of World War I and II, who began this organization, helped the war wounded on both sides of the battlefield. In this way, they demonstrated their commitment to the core AFS values, including the respect for the worth and dignity of all people, regardless of nationality. The “S” in AFS continues to stand for Service. AFS creates global citizens who contribute to the world through their service to the community, to the environment and to others. AFS returnees often become involved in meaningful volunteer service.
  • Focus on Post-AFS Experience. The end of an AFS program experience is the beginning of a lifetime of change. An AFS program should not be an isolated incident in a person’s life. Cultural lessons learned on AFS apply to one’s daily life in one’s local community. This is AFS’s goal and challenge. To reinforce new knowledge, AFS offers alumni an opportunity for getting together to share and understand the value and meaning of their experiences. AFS alumni are the natural constituents and a link between AFS and their own communities. AFS help them take advantage of the special knowledge and new skills they possess.
  • Focus on Action and Changing Behavior.AFS promotes more than intellectual awareness. The intercultural learning method employed in AFS programs involves learning by doing. AFS participants do not just watch, read or listen. They participate in other cultures, form relationships with other families and give service to other communities. 

Why It Can Be Categorized As a Soft Diplomacy?  

The closest meaning of ‘Soft Diplomacy’ is cultural diplomacy. KM Panikar gives the definitions of diplomacy as the art of forwarding one’s interest in relations to another state.[2] While Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist, defined culture as the learning behavior of a society or sub-groups[3]. Later, France evolution of diplomacy had born Richeliu who argued that ‘diplomacy is the process that keeps continuity, so the development of public opinion is a necessity’.In the term of intercultural learning, AFS wants to eliminate existing prejudices and create a basis that allows discovering what is common between different cultures and also promote the mutual understanding between different cultures.

AFS through its learning objectives, which involve growth and change in term of personal values and skills, interpersonal relationship-building, intercultural knowledge and sensitivity, and global issue awareness, could be more defined as a continuation process in learning the behavior of a society or sub-groups in order to create a more just and peaceful world that encourages respect for human rights and fundamental freedom without distinction as to race, sex, language, religion or social status. Moreover, the effort to gather the support through public opinion, becoming AFS participants fully involved in daily living and working arrangements with a variety of people in the new environment, also rooted in solid cross cultural learning methods and involves the school as the primary participants, has been done.Hence, can be concluded that an AFS exchange student does the function of ‘diplomatic machinery’. That is as a representative of their home country to their new environment and does information gathering by living in a host family that comes from different cultural background for a year, and attaining some learning objectives, such as: (1) increasing the knowledge of the host country and culture, (2) increasing the sensitivity to subtle features of home culture, and (3) understanding the nature of cultural differences. Therefore, the art of forwarding one’s interest, which in this case become reciprocal because the existence of interpersonal relationship-building involved many parties and done through cultural approach by providing an international exchange student program, can be mentioned as soft diplomacy.   



Bina Antarbudaya The Indonesia Foundation for Intercultural Learning, Panduan Orientasi Indonesia Year Program Northern Hemisphere 2001 (Jakarta: n.p., 2000).

Jack C. Plano and Roy Olton, The International Relations Dictionary (New York: Holt Reinhalt and Winston Inc., 1969).

Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon, Alfathri Aldin, trans. Mengenal Cultural Studies for Beginners (Bandung: Penerbit Mizan, 2001).

www. afs. org (The Official Website of AFS International) 

[1] These learning objectives were drafted by the participants in the workshop on Intercultural Learning Content And Quality Standards, Otter Lake House, Quebec, Canada, during February 27 – 29, 1984. Minor modifications in the draft were made during the Trustee meeting o f the following April 8 – 10.[2] K.M. Panikkar, The Principles and Practice of Diplomacy, Bombay, 1957[3] Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon, Mengenal Cultural Studies for Beginners, page 5