“The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway…”

| December 22, 2008

Every year, a group of young Australians commit themselves to go overseas solely with the purpose of helping disadvantaged people, environmental groups or human rights organisations.

"You, a person with a vision, are like a pebble in a stream, moving ever outward to infinity, impacting on all who come into contact with the ripple."
Wayne W. Dyer

Our holidays may not always be picture perfect- it seems we're constantly flummoxed and irritated by lost luggage, delayed flights and insect repellent that should have shielded our arms from ten very determined mosquitoes. And of course, when we attempt to capture those really special moments on film, the Duracell bunny conveniently ignores our plaintive cries for help.

But sometimes these overwhelming episodes don't seem to have so much gravity- why waste a perfectly good opportunity to indulge your curiosity about the new places, sights, sounds and tastes around you?   From the perspective of an intercultural exchange organisation that values the concept of learning about and from other cultures, it is important that people travel to make a difference. In their own life or in the lives of others. Granted, most people may not consciously fly business class to undertake a safari in the wilds of Africa with the intention of mingling with the people and aiding the community, but it is hard to imagine that a person would leave their holiday destination untouched or unmoved. It is difficult to imagine that a person would not find himself or herself questioning common cultural assumptions and stereotypes that allow prejudice to fester in the world. Harder to imagine is the prospect that the person has not indelibly impacted on the community itself.

Our community service program returnees are perhaps best equipped with the knowledge to disclose how challenging it is face up to your own misconceptions about other peoples and cultures; and how inspiring it can be to live and learn with local communities across the world. Every year, a group of young Australians commit themselves to go overseas solely with the purpose of helping disadvantaged people, environmental groups or human rights organisations to name a few. When they return, they realise just how much they have learnt from these people. People who seem to be so different, and yet with whom we share the common bonds of humanity and avid hopes for the future.

It's never easy to adapt to a different way of life, more difficult so to do away with paternalistic attitudes when we think about the many communities around the world who are disadvantaged, or the environments threatened by manmade and natural phenomena. But the young people who do get the opportunity to either go on high school exchange or  a community service program, despite being hindered by language barriers or perhaps map-reading incompetence in a foreign place, do find that they have indeed made a difference. They have empowered their own cognitive abilities and cultural awareness, or perhaps helped a developing community empower themselves. But more importantly, each and every individual that has been a part of an exchange journey has moved us one step closer to creating a world without prejudice. And without the prejudice that often moves human beings to violence and negative thinking, we have the opportunity to work in solidarity to create a more peaceful and tolerant society.

But why take it from me? See the world for yourself. Fear not the differences between your world and the world a thousand miles or perhaps a few paces away from you, for these differences are what enable us to learn from each other. As long as we remain wary of the different way people speak, eat, dress, walk or sit; we deprive ourselves of creating an enduring human experience by exchanging knowledge.

For more information, please visit our website www.afs.org.au. If you would like to read the personal inspiring accounts of our exchange students, please follow this link. AFS International also has a unique blog which allows people from all over the world to share their personal intercultural journeys with others. To contribute or read about the amazing adventures of these aspiring global youth, please go to http://afsgoabroad.blogspot.com/

Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Sheenal Singh, AFS Communications Coordinator

AFS Intercultural Programs is one of the world's largest not-for-profit community-based volunteer organisations and is dedicated to building a more just and peaceful world through intercultural exchange. AFS Australia is a world leader in student exchange, supported by over 40 organisations and individuals. A network of 52 AFS partner organisations run programs involving over 11,000 students, young adults and teachers each year. AFS Australia has sent over 15,000 Australian teenagers overseas and hosted more than 25,000 exchange students and community service volunteers since 1959. These students represent some of the finest in Australia, not solely based on their academic achievements, but also their leadership skills, community participation and commitment to fostering peace in the world through intercultural understanding. 

More information is available at www.afs.org.au