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Globe trotting students

Swiss exchange students Pascal Zurcher and Sarah Stebler pose with Betsy Huth, a former exchange student and volunteer with AFS Intercultural Programs.

Swiss exchange students Pascal Zurcher and Sarah Stebler pose with Betsy Huth, a former exchange student and volunteer with AFS Intercultural Programs.

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Saying goodbye to your family and boarding a plane to travel halfway around the world by yourself is a daunting thought to almost anyone. Now add to it being 17 years old, leaving for 10 months, and when arriving at your destination, moving in with a family you’ve never met before. Thousands of students do this every year, just like Pascal Zurcher of Lake Howell High School and Sarah Stebler of Winter Springs High School.

Pascal and Sarah are both from Switzerland, and met briefly before they began their journey to the U.S. as foreign exchange students with AFS Intercultural Programs. They knew each other, but they did not know anyone else when they arrived in Central Florida in August 2011. AFS volunteers quickly took them under their wings and guided them through airport transfers, orientations, school physicals, and introducing them to their new families.

Liaison volunteers are assigned to a student and host family to ease the transition and help them cope with the adjustments of American life and cultural differences. “The volunteers often talk to us one-on-one to give us a chance to tell them everything. Most of them can relate themselves to our situation because they also were exchange students,” Pascal said. AFS volunteers are working for the exchange students long before they ever arrive in the U.S. to ensure the best experience that will be remembered for their lifetime.

The host family recruitment season is upon AFS now for the 2012-2013 school year. Often times these families have interacted with other host families and have seen first-hand the wonderful experience those families have had and also decide to host a student. Other times the exchange students make new friends through their school, visit their friends’ homes, and open the eyes of their friends’ families to the idea of hosting. Host family volunteers interview potential families and once approved, help in selecting the exchange student that will soon become a part of their family.

Once Pascal and Sarah arrived in August, school and extra curricular activities began. Sarah joined the chorus and Pascal the lacrosse team, giving them opportunities to meet more people. Sarah even got to travel to New York City this spring with her choral group and sing in Carnegie Hall. All along the way, volunteers are there to assist the students, families, and interface with the schools.

“During this whole time being here, I know that there are so many AFS volunteers that try their best to make dreams come true and to make this year the best experience we’ve ever had,” Sarah said. “These people are here to give you hope when something doesn’t work out so well, or just to talk to you and have a good conversation and learn something new about the world and make you happy.”

If you are interested in volunteering with AFS, or becoming a host family, please visit afsusa.org or call Julie Smith, the Central Florida community developer at 321-303-4440.