The Role of the Liaison
AFS volunteers are instrumental in providing a quality experience for all participants, and work together at many levels to ensure that students and host families receive the support vital to a successful experience. Although support for AFS participants is provided through a community of volunteers as well as the national office, the AFS Student/Family Liaison (“SFL”) is the primary “grassroots” contact for AFS participants. As such, it has a role that is extremely important in maintaining the communication link between AFS participants and the AFS organization.
The primary role of the SFL is to maintain regular contact with his/her assigned AFS student and host family, providing support and information and assisting in problem-solving if and when the need arises. Liaisons are not responsible for handling situations that are beyond the normal range of cultural adjustment. Rather, they are there to facilitate discussion between the student and the host family, identifying potential problems early when they can be solved easily and before they become deeper misunderstandings which are more difficult to resolve.
Effective Liaisons are objective but caring. They make themselves available to the student and host family, and are good and supportive listeners.
Essentially, the AFS Liaison helps create opportunities for AFS participants to work toward achieving the following AFS Learning Objectives.
AFS Program Learning Objectives
- Awareness of one’s self as a cultural being; knowing attributes of one’s own culture and society
- Knowing how to communicate in the language/expressions and social context of the host environment
- Knowing key attributes of the host culture
- Understanding the connection between events in one’s host and home cultures
- Thinking critically
- Adapting to different lifestyles
- Acting in a way that is appropriate to the host culture
- Resolving conflicts from a win/win perspective
- Accepting responsibility for oneself and one’s own actions
- Being concerned for and sensitive to the needs, aspirations and values of others
- Valuing diversity; seeing differences as a source of strength rather than as a threat
- Being committed to solving problems—among individuals, among groups and among nations
Components of Cultural Adjustment
The AFS Student/Family Liaison provides guidance within the context of the following predominant relationships:
- The student’s relationship with the new culture. The AFS Liaison provides information about normal cultural adjustment problems and support when this adjustment seems particularly difficult.
- The student’s relationship with the host family. The AFS Liaison helps guide the student and host family’s adjustment to living together through monthly contact, sharing pertinent information, and intervening if necessary.
- The student’s understanding of self. In conjunction with the student’s adjustment to a new culture, the Liaison helps the student deal with personal questions s/he may have about him or herself, as well as reactions to and expectations of the experience.
Normal adjustment issues involve elements of all these relationships. Everyday family life contains certain stresses which can increase when new cultural values are present. Experience shows that all students will undergo several emotional stages during the course of the AFS year. These highs and lows are charted in the following “Exchange Student Adjustment Cycle”. By consulting this adjustment cycle, AFS Liaisons can plan their interactions with the exchange student, providing the student with the tools needed to get through the next “emotional low.”
It is important to realize that adjustment difficulties are normal, usually relatively minor, and typically of short duration. All students and families go through high and low periods. What initially may seem to be a “mini-crisis” can become a personal growth opportunity to build on the knowledge, attitudes, and skills we strive to teach and learn. Indeed, these challenges are a fundamental part of the intercultural learning process.
When difficulties do surface, they most often arise from miscommunication. This is why it is especially important for Liaisons to try to foster and facilitate good communication between the participants.
The AFS Communication Network
If situations do arise which cannot be resolved through problem solving discussions with the host family and the student, the Liaison may refer the situation to other AFS support people. The following flow chart shows the communication links between the local volunteer and the area, region and international community of staff and volunteers:
Important Note About Confidentiality
Confidentiality is a key component in the relationship between the student, the family and the SFL. Family matters of a personal nature should be discussed only with the appropriate AFS support volunteer or staff, and then only when relevant to the student’s welfare.
Sample Calendar of Contact
The following activities are suggested in addition to or as part of your ongoing monthly contact with AFS students and host families:
Meet with host family (before student arrives). Review expectations and highlights of their host family orientation materials (e.g. host family handbook, etc.).
Within one week of arrival, meet with newly arrived AFS student and provide them with your phone number. Have an informal social get-together with student and host family.
Check in with student after first week of school. Have individual meetings or an informal social group gathering of family with the student.
Check in with the host school to see how the student is adjusting (if another volunteer isn’t already doing this).
Connect student with community service project, if available.
Inform host family of the potential “low” in the adjustment cycle during this time of year. Encourage student to be active and get involved in holiday celebrations during this month.
Be sure student is aware of any mid-year orientations (if they are being offered).
Check in with school again.
Help student think of ways to thank their host family during AFS Host Family Recognition Month.
Arrange speaking engagements for student (local organizations or clubs).
Assist student with prom needs, graduation plans. Help student prepare for departure (be sure they know about any pre-departure orientation events being held).
Assist student in finding out how to send items to their home country (encourage them to pack light for their return trip!). Host a farewell get-together for student and host family. Help student write a farewell/thank you letter to the editor for the community newspaper
AFS Program Standards and CSIET Guidelines
Maintaining a schedule of contact such as the sample calendar provided above fulfills AFS quality standards as well as ensures compliance with regulatory requirements outlined by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET). CSIET requires that these contacts be documented (date, place, nature of contact, etc.), and a form is available from AFS for this purpose.