Monday, July 19, 2010


Part 4 of my posts about Arlene's life. Read part one here, part two here and part three here:

The American Field Service, or AFS, started as a volunteer ambulance service in World War I. The mission of the mostly American volunteers was to transport wounded French soldiers. After World War I, AFS sponsored 'fellowships', an exchange program between French and American university students. After World War II, the program expanded to include other countries as well as high school students. Today more than 13,000 students, teachers and young adults take part every year in exchanges of varying length in more than 50 countries. The following is Arlene’s experience with the program.

One day in 1984, some people came to Benoni High School and did a talk about the American Field Service. I'd never heard of them before and I didn't even know such things existed. I just remember hearing that there was going to be a talk and I went. The school was packed with like minded students.

The AFS representatives basically said you could go anywhere in the world. They had programs in South America, Europe, and the United States. I don't know what it was about me, but I just knew I had to do this even though no one in my family had left the country before. At first my dad said, 'Absolutely not.' So I worked my mom, who worked my dad, and I proceeded with the selection process. About 400 kids applied for the four slots available. It was very, very competitive.

I remember my mom typing my application on a typewriter. I had to write an essay about why I wanted to be an exchange student and all that. There were rounds of interviews that made up the selection process. With 400 kids applying, my first thought was that I would never make the cut. I was up against wealthier kids and smarter kids so I thought there's no way. Then I realized that AFS was actually looking for someone like me, not wealthy, not well travelled, but super keen for the experience. And with each interview I did, the thought of going overseas became more and more real.

For the last interview, the AFS representatives came to my home to do a family assessment. During this interview, my dad made three stipulations. He said, “I'll let her go if she goes to an English speaking country, the host family has to go to church every Sunday, and there has to be a piano in the house.” It was a bold thing to do on his part but it was the best thing that could have happened because I got just that.

I remember when I was told by the AFS representative that I had been selected, I went silent, almost like I knew this was going to happen. I told my friend Laetitia the good news. My mother, however, called everybody she knew. Both my parents were very proud. No one in my family had been outside of the country, let alone on an airplane. Soon after, I was informed of my placement. My host family, the Ogburns, turned out to be a family in Shelby, North Carolina who went to church every single Sunday. They had a piano in their house and their two daughters were gifted pianists. Just like my dad stipulated! Then I received a letter and a family picture from the Ogburns. I would read the letter and stare at the picture. Before I even met the family, I fell in love with them.

As the reality of the situation began to sink in, I started to get seriously excited. Unlike the US, the school year in South Africa starts in January and ends in December. As a result, I had to attend my first six months of university before my scheduled departure in July. I might have physically been at school but I wasn't at school. I was on the plane. My mid year exams? I failed them hopelessly. I think I got 40% on my psychology exam. I just was not there, I was gone.

The program was a scholarship type of thing. In addition to airfare, we were also provided pocket money so I don't recall having to come up with much. But I had a lot to do. I had to get a passport. I had to pack for an entire year. I didn't even own a suitcase. I got the biggest one I could find. Aside from my clothes, I remember packing a lot of pictures and a South African flag that AFS gave me to present to my host school.

While I couldn't wait for the day to arrive, my extended family's reaction was interesting. I remember them acting like it was strange to go overseas. A lot of people said to me, "I could never do that."  I think they were expressing their own fears of being away from their families. I just couldn't relate to that. I had no fear. I was like, 'Absolutely, bring this on!'

I really didn't know what to expect of my exchange year. Before I left, my AFS host family sent me photographs and letters. In their letters, they would describe the town that I was going to, and I was very excited that it sounded like a small town in the United States. I don't know what I expected, really. I was very into the family. They sent me a family picture and I had it by my bed and I'd stare at them for hours and hours. It was like I couldn't get enough of them.

AFS did their best to prepare us. I remember them asking me in interviews what would I do if the American girls in school told me that I needed to shave my legs or shave my underarms. Arm and leg shaving for girls was common in South Africa, but I think the AFS representatives thought we followed the European model of not shaving. I suppose you could say this was my first exposure to people doing things differently in different countries. I replied that I would do it if I needed to fit in. AFS also explained about culture shock and being home sick. They gave us quite a lot of preparation and education. 

And they told us we had to come back. I think they knew that a lot of kids at the end would not want to return to their home country so a stipulation of the program was that you had to fly home at the end of the year. Most of all, I remember my dad saying, “Just come back South African.”  It seemed strange to think I wouldn’t come back or that I would cease being South African. But then again, I had no idea of the experience I was in for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

each memory begets another!!! :) so very awesome.