The educational value of AFS programs comes from the direct experience of the participants in their encounters with previously unfamiliar places and cultures. Experiential learning is learning by doing. It involves the body, the senses and the emotions as well as the mind, and it always involves relationships with others.
The orientation program provides students with some structured support and practical information. It should also engage the students’ intellectual abilities to help them understand their experiences in a larger context of intercultural education and global awareness.
Orientations at Different Phases of the Experience
AFS has long understood that our participants have different learning needs at different stages in their experience, and orientations were often organized specifically to provide support to students at those times of peak difficulty. Accordingly, the post-arrival orientation was delayed until the student had some experience in the host culture, had made some mistakes, and had questions and concerns that would need attention. Much attention was paid to the adjustment cycle concepts, though the cycle itself was always seen as very fluid and different for each participant.
Since the 1980s, AFS has placed its major emphasis on the orientation program During the Sojourn, with secondary emphasis on the preparation activities of the Pre-Departure stage. This is in sharp contrast to many organizations that send groups of students to other countries and try to fill them with everything they need to know before they leave. This approach also suits the structure of experiential learning, emphasizing a learning style that depends on action and doing more than one that depends on setting up a theoretical understanding first, as the basis for guiding the actions that follow. The responsibility for all During the Sojourn orientation was given to the host country, with the expectation that the majority of the orientations would be done regionally or locally, and typically only orientations that came immediately before or after the international travel were done at the national level.
In Sending Country
|During the Sojourn||In Host Country|
In Sending Country
Adjusting Our Approach to Orientation
While the Hammer study did show significant gains made by our students, AFS is working on improving the educational results of our programs. The strong emphasis on the orientation program and support in the host country should remain strong, but these programs focus largely on the learning style most ready to learn by doing, providing support and information to participants in the midst of their encounter with the host country and culture. More can be done here to explicitly teach concepts of intercultural education to make students more aware of their learning and to increase their competence in forming relationships and adapting their behavior in the host culture.
The draft framework presented here presents a proposal for the goals that should be handled by the orientation program in each stage of the experience. Throughout these stages, a number of consistent topics are included:
- AFS and You. What the participant needs to know about AFS.
- Required Logistics. Specific information about travel and program requirements, school requirements.
- Personal Safety and Wellbeing. Safety tips, health issues.
- Cultural Adjustment and Coping. Culture shock, interpersonal relationships, changing attitudes and behavior.
- Culture Learning. Understanding cultural differences and similarities, communication skills, developing appreciation for the host country and culture in a wider context.
- Personal Goals and Expectations. Reflection on the participants’ own goals and aspirations for the experience.