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Daniel Obst, AFS Intercultural Programs

Daniel Obst is president and CEO of youth exchange provider AFS Intercultural Programs. He spoke to The PIE about the organisation’s role since being founded in 1914, the motivations and behaviours of GenZ and how AFS is partnering more with higher education institutions globally.

 

"They're basically saying, 'I can't believe that I'm sitting here in New York and there is a peer in India and one in Tunisia and they think in many similar ways to me'"

The PIE: What is AFS’s mission and has its role changed over the last century?

Daniel Obst: Our mission is to provide intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to make the world a more just and peaceful place.

AFS was founded more than 100 years ago (then called the American Field Service) as a wartime humanitarian ambulance corps. At our core, we’re about volunteerism. It’s about people who say they see a need in the world, they take action and they dedicate their time to this. And so that has stayed with AFS even now.

I mean, we’re a completely different organisation; we don’t drive ambulances anymore. Now we have intercultural education programs, with operations in more than 60 countries. Our core program is the academic year or semester abroad for high school students and we also offer shorter term programs, volunteer abroad programs and academies and so on. But at the core, we are a volunteer organisation with more than 50,000 volunteers worldwide.

In the past three years, we’ve adopted a new network strategy with three major impact goals. One is to develop active global citizens, the second to globalise schools and institutions, and the third is to expand access to intercultural education.

The first is really how we impact an individual. How do we make sure that they learn and experience the right things so they can be an active global citizen?

The schools piece is really about expanding reach, scaling and helping schools and teachers in their efforts to provide more intercultural learning and global competence development in their classrooms.

[For example, our] partnership with the Ministry of Education in Malaysia to provide our global competence certificate for teachers [to] develop their own intercultural competencies creates a multiplier effect – if teachers are more aware, they can pass it on to their students.

“It was really clear that GenZ want global experiences. They want to make an impact on the world”

And then thirdly, expanding access: how do we reach well beyond our usual audiences? How do we diversify our activities? How do we make things more accessible to people from different backgrounds and with different resources?

The PIE: Is Generation Z an easy group to engage with on global experiences?

DO: Four years ago when I started at AFS, we actually did a study on 10,000 GenZ kids around the world and what their motivations and behaviours are. It was really clear that they want global experiences. They want to make an impact on the world. They want to contribute to society. And that has defined our strategy. We developed a new theory of change, which is “experience, learn, practice”.

You have an intercultural learning experience, whether that’s in person or online. You learn intercultural and global competence skills. And then you put what you learnt into practice. An example is our partnership with the University of Pennsylvania to develop content that teaches young people how to create social impact.

It’s not enough to just go abroad. That doesn’t make you a global citizen. It’s applying what you learned from your experience that actually makes you a global citizen.

The PIE: What I find quite interesting about that AFS Global You virtual programs is the wide access it offers. I guess the more diverse the enrolment is, the better it will be for everyone, right?

DO: Exactly. I personally believe that in-person experiences can’t be replaced. I cannot wait until we can fully go back to travelling, meeting people from other countries. We now have almost 2,000 participants back on in-person programs, which is kind of amazing, but it’s far below what our normal program volume is.

“The pandemic has demonstrated that you can have meaningful experiences online”

But I think what the pandemic has demonstrated is that you can have meaningful experiences online. And it doesn’t have to be any less valuable.

For example, in any given cohort of our Global You Program, we have participants aged 15-17 years old, from 25 countries together and they have live sessions. And they’re basically saying, ‘I can’t believe that I’m sitting here in New York and there is a peer in India and one in Tunisia and they think in many similar ways to me, they have the same passions I have’. I really do think it has allowed us to widen our net.

It’s really important that you still have very clear educational objectives with these virtual activities. You really want participants to gain something from it, not just to have an opportunity to chat with someone from a different country, but to really learn and develop their intercultural competence.

The PIE: To come back to the idea of global citizenship – how do we as a sector respond to parts of society who may not accept ‘global citizenship’?

DO: I think we hear this very binary view, not just in the UK or in the US, but in many places. Actually, when I think of what a global citizen is, it is someone who is aware of and understands the world and their own place in it. So it has to do both with your local community and with the world.

We’re in a completely interdependent universe, whether it’s our cultures, our societies, our economy, we’re totally connected. And so what happens in the world has a relevance to the local community and vice versa. So I think you can be a global citizen and a local citizen – you shouldn’t have to choose.

The pandemic has revealed our interdependent nature so strongly and how much we rely on each other. Educating global citizens is even more important in times like these.

The PIE: What I like about AFS is this positive approach that it generates, with such a focus on inclusivity.

DO: Thank you for saying that, you know what? I think that has to do with our roots [as] a volunteer-driven organisation.

We’re a global network, 60 national AFS organisations, with roughly 1,000 professional staff, and then you have our 50,000 volunteers. We are active in communities around the world, trying to make the world a better place by giving young people an opportunity to live with a host family in another country. And I think it creates that friendly family feeling of an organisation. We’re still very professional, but there’s also a real family sense to it.

The PIE: How did you join AFS?

DO: I grew up in Germany, German mother, American father. I wanted to experience the American side of myself, and so I came to the US for an exchange in 11th grade and then finished high school in Germany, came to the US for college, went to England for grad school.

A friend of mine from grad school had moved to New York in 1998 at the height of the dot-com bubble, found a job at a start-up web company called iAgora.com and asked me to join. It was an online community for young internationals who live, work or study abroad.

I was always interested in public diplomacy and foreign affairs, and so after a few years I started at IIE. From my perspective, I landed exactly where my passion was because I am passionate about building bridges through people-to-people engagement. I think that is so fulfilling.

“A core piece of what we do as well is to partner with higher education institutions and universities”

I came to AFS in 2016 and the work is primarily focused on school exchanges, but of course, a core piece of what we do as well is to partner with higher education institutions and universities, to provide content for study abroad programs [through] our Global Competence Certificate.

We partner with 25-30 different universities – a lot of them in the US, but we also have strong partnerships in other countries including for example with Education New Zealand – [to] offer the certificate as a part of their programs. We’ve had nearly 10,000 participants in the program.

[Students on the certificate program] increased their intercultural development by more than 10 points on the intercultural development inventory scale, research we did with Purdue University found.

It’s great that AFS is partnering more with higher education institutions, because I think we have so much to offer, both from our experience, but also bringing perhaps a different perspective and a stronger focus on intercultural learning and global competence. So that’s been quite important to me in the last couple of years.

I’ve been very impressed with what many universities and institutions have been doing to diversify their outreach and recruitment. At the same time, we all have to do much better to really reach beyond our usual audiences and ensure that international education is truly an opportunity for all.

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