The World Classroom

This holiday season, my department at work spearheaded a 12 Ways of Giving blog post series on the agency blog, highlighting the volunteer work employees do on their own time. It was a way to introduce ourselves in a personal way, and also underscore that volunteer opportunities of all shapes and sizes abound. This is my contribution to the 12-post series, featuring a photo of me when I was 15.

The 1994 USA to Belgium AFS group. I’m sitting on the ground, first on the left. Sassy white tank.

In a world that’s more connected every day, travel still serves as one of the most inspirational, educational, and life-affirming parts of a life well-led. New cultures give us new ways of looking at things, and new experiences remind us that each day is what we make it.

That’s why I so fervently support study abroad programs for children, teenagers, and adults alike — specifically those offered by AFS, a nonprofit organization my family has had ties to for decades. AFS sent me to Belgium to study French in 1994, but I also have a ‘cousin’ from Uganda who lived with relatives for a year and returned to live in the U.S. as the dictator Idi Amin rose to power. One of my best friends while I was in middle school was Joko, an Indonesian student who stayed with another set of relatives for a year. He kept me company at family parties, taught me about Ramadan, and supported my interest in writing poetry.

While travel may not seem like a pressing need in these tough economic times, the lessons study abroad taught me are deeply ingrained parts of my personality and outlook on life. I believe, for instance, that we are all neighbors. I believe that there’s something beautiful around every street corner on every block on the map. I believe that in our differences, we find similarities, and for all of these reasons, we must respect and love the world we’ve been given.

AFS and other groups like it offer countless ways to give back. Contributions can be made for scholarships, so any student with wanderlust can pursue a travel opportunity. Students from other countries can be hosted in one’s home for a week, a month, a summer, or a full year. Volunteers can help with phone drives, mailing campaigns, and the organization of beginning-of-stay and end-of-stay orientations. AFS alumni like me can speak to students who are interested in traveling, interview applicants, and meet with families to talk about the AFS experience. Many communities have their own grassroots fundraising efforts in place to help send local students abroad; as a teenager, I sold balloons at a weekly outdoor band concert on Cape Cod every summer. It’s one of my favorite memories.

Study abroad has long been something reserved for the privileged, but AFS and other programs make the chance to learn from the world at large a reality for anyone. The world may seem smaller these days as we are increasingly able to communicate with anyone anywhere at a moment’s notice, but there is plenty to see, and this planet belongs to all of us.

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