ADAMS TWP — While the American Field Services program has dwindled somewhat since a group of World War I ambulance drivers created it in the belief that cross-cultural exposure would end war worldwide, the exchange student concept is doing well at Mars High School.
John Becker, director of the Mars-North Pittsburgh AFS chapter, traveled to Switzerland in 1980 in the AFS program, and sent his own daughter to China when she was a junior at Mars in the 2009-10 school year.
Becker said participating in AFS provides invaluable life lessons to students, especially today.
“We're in an increasingly global economy, and it gives kids an edge,” he said.
It allows a young adult living a sheltered, protected life in America to learn to solve problems for himself and to broaden his horizons, in addition to learning about a new language and culture firsthand.
“I think that's very good for kids,” Becker said.
He said AFS is the oldest and largest exchange student program, and includes an extensive support network for families.
He said host families are screened and all foreign exchange students meet monthly with an AFS liaison, who checks their progress.
Becker said the Mars AFS program began in 1967, and families have hosted at least one student every year since then.
He said Mars has scholarship money, but no applicants who want to study and live overseas for a year.
“This is the first time in a number of years,” Becker said of there not being an applicant.
He said hosting an exchange student is easier than many people think.
“The idea is not that it's a travel program,” Becker said, “It's the student living with the family every day.”
Requirements include a bed, food, and a welcoming attitude, Becker said. Most students bring spending money with them for incidental purchases.
“Really, it's just being willing to open your family,” Becker said.
Maureen Orchard of Adams Township has hosted three girls and three boys the home she shares with her husband, Jim, since the mid 1980s. The students, who she has stayed in touch with and even visited over the years, have been from Finland, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Austria and Turkey.
She said Mars is a great district for host families because there are fundraisers to help them with costs for prom, graduation, yearbook and school lunches.
“You don't have to be wealthy to have a kid,” Orchard said. “You treat them like your own kid. If you're going on vacation, you take them with you.”
The Orchards make it a point to take their “kids” to professional sports games, museums and flower shows in Pittsburgh and the Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.
“They are always amazed at our backgrounds because of the many countries we're descended from,” Orchard said. “They can usually only name one.”
She said Christmas is always a special time to be a host parent because foreign students are interested in and excited about celebrating an American Christmas as well as sharing their culture's Christmas celebrations.
She also tries to find out her students' specific interests and take them places relating to that interest. She took a Swiss student to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, where they also toured a castle and took in a performance of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
She said the language barrier can be challenging for some students, but most understand and can speak basic English. She said one of her Turkish students spoke little English, and learned best from watching television with the closed caption on.
“He now teaches English to people who speak foreign languages in South Korea,” Orchard said proudly.
At first, immersion in constant English at school and home, coupled with learning a new culture, is exhausting for students.
“They sleep a lot at first,” Orchard said. “It's a mental strain on them.”
She said Mars students in the AFS Club help them assimilate at school and at extracurricular activities and sports.
Orchard remains involved with the Mars AFS Club's largest fundraiser, the annual Holiday Craft Show at the middle and high schools in late fall. Orchard has coordinated the huge craft show for a number of years.
She said proceeds from the event go to families hosting students, to fund ski trips for exchange students, and to the annual International Day celebration each year at Mars.
Craft show funds also pay for one scholarship per year for a Mars student to travel overseas for one school year. She said the scholarship is awarded to a student who is interested in an international career or language.
Carrie Desimone, Mars High School's world cultures teacher, is the sponsor of the school's AFS Club. She said about 50 students join the club each year.
“I think Mars gets involved with exchange students more than other schools,” Desimone said.
Students learn important lessons like cultural diversity at AFS chapter meetings, Desimone said, through presentations and events like AFS Day, when AFS exchange students from other districts come to speak in Mars classes.
“I think they get a real sense of how a different part of the world is, rather than just reading it from a textbook,” she said.
This year, Mars is hosting a young woman from China.
Desimone said the student finds it strange that teachers and custodians clean up the classrooms and mop the floors.
“In China, the students do it,” Desimone said.
She said students from Europe marvel they can't hop on a bus for all their transportation needs because everything is so spread out here. She said the image of Americans portrayed in movies and TV do not jibe with the culture the find when they arrive.
“They think everyone here is obese and lazy,” Desimone said. “Then they come here and find out it's not true at all.”
Host families are needed in Butler County and Northern Allegheny County. For information, call John Becker at 724-612-3685.