AFS volunteers are instrumental in providing a quality experience for all participants and ensuring program excellence. In providing orientation and guidance to all participants hosted in the United States and their host families, and all American participants sent abroad and their natural families, AFS volunteers at the local, team, regional and national levels work together to ensure that participants and families receive the support vital to a successful experience.
The local support volunteer structure (liaisons and support coordinators) is a particularly critical role in supporting students.
Hosted participants and their host families
Local Team level support volunteers have an extremely important role to play in ensuring the on-going adjustment of each participant within the context of four predominant relationships:
- Participant’s relationship with the new culture
- The support volunteer provides information about cultural adjustment problems that might be typical for participants to encounter at certain stages of their program and support, guidance and counseling when this adjustment seems particularly difficult.
- The participant’s relationship with the host family
- The support volunteer helps guide the participant and host family’s adjustment to living together through separate monthly contacts with each party, sharing pertinent information, and intervening if necessary. This intervention may look like family or separate meetings to address the challenges. Input from the Support national staff could be received or sought out in the early stages but should be involved if issues escalate or persist.
- The participant’s relationship with their school
- Just as the participant is adjusting to life with their host family, so too are they having to adjust to life at school. The support volunteer should assist the participant with their adjustment to school and ensure that the participant continues to progress at school both academically and socially throughout the year.
- The participant’s understanding of self
- In conjunction with the participant’s adjustment to a new culture, the support volunteer helps the participant deal with personal questions they may have about themselves and their reactions to and expectations of the experience. It’s important to remember that the participant is going through developmental stages on a personal level and that these might factor into what they might be experiencing.
Participants going abroad and their natural parents
The local volunteers also have an important role in the following areas:
- Providing critical orientation information to natural parents prior to their child's departure.
- Providing ongoing support to natural parents to help them better understand the process their child is experiencing. This kind of knowledge allows them to be better prepared to assist their children through potential ups and downs in a constructive manner.
- Being available to natural parents to discuss concerns that arise during their child’s AFS participation. It is very important for each natural parent to know who they can call for advice and reassurance regarding their child’s experience.
This education of natural parents and ongoing relationship with them becomes ever more important today as participants communicate more regularly and instantaneously with their natural parents by email and phone. In more and more cases, natural parents are informed of problems or events directly by their children before anyone at AFS has been notified. It is important that they know how best to interpret communications from their children and who to contact if they feel there is a problem that needs addressing.
Experience shows that all participants will undergo several emotional stages during the course of the AFS year. These highs and lows are charted in the Exchange Participant Adjustment Cycle. By consulting the adjustment cycle, AFS volunteers can time and plan their interventions with hosted participants and host families in the form of routine orientations or formal/informal meetings. In this way, they provide the participant and their host family with the tools needed to get through the next “emotional low”. By helping natural families understand the adjustment cycle, they will be better prepared for the phone calls, emails or messages they receive from their child who is experiencing a low point and better able to help them through it.
Experience also shows that when difficulties occur during the exchange experience, they are often due to miscommunication. The following articles help expand on the range of skills needed for successful communication and they outline how these skills can be developed and taught to others: Communicate in an Intercultural Context, Build Effective Communication Skills, and Checklist of Twelve Effective Communication Skills.
When support volunteers can foster and facilitate good communication between the participants, their host families, and natural families, they help to ensure a successful experience.
Value of Crisis in Learning
Finally, when working to support participants and host or sending families it is important to keep in mind the “Value of Crises in Learning” concept put forth in the Statement of AFS Educational Content and Learning Objectives drafted by the participants in the Workshop on Intercultural Learning Content and Quality Standards, Otter Lake House, Quebec, Canada, during February 27-29, 1984.
“The Value of Crises in Learning concept reminds us that it is not accurate to conceive of participant orientation and support as aiming toward a crisis-free intercultural experience. Personal crises are bound to occur throughout an AFS experience because the participant is continuously compelled to act and react in the absence of familiar cues. When they remain manageable, such crises become highly productive bases for intercultural learning because they force the participant to challenge old assumptions, to think creatively, and to acquire new knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Crises rarely become overwhelming for AFS participants because of the emotional security provided by the host family and other host nationals, and because of the network of support available from AFS volunteers and staff members. Participant orientation and support should be reconceptualized as an effort to provide AFSers with knowledge, awareness, and skills that will better enable them to seize, cope with, recover from, and above all learn through the succession of personal crises that inevitably will occur throughout their intercultural experience.”