Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The First Step

As I entered my eleventh year of primary education, I made a decision that would change my life: I applied to be an exchange student.

The selection process started in September 1977 with an expression of interest to my school guidance counselor. I was then interviewed by a committee, after which I was given a 17-page application to fill out. By the time I was done with the paperwork, I had something that would have filled a small three-ring binder. This application was delivered to the regional AFS representatives, who in turn conducted a lengthy interview with each candidate and a parent.

Up until this point there had been a lot of discussion between my parents and myself with regard to the country to which I may be assigned. You see, in the AFS program of the 1970s, students were never allowed to choose their country of temporary residence: They were assigned according to availability of host families and compatibility of the student. This is what we were told. Still, we could not help but discuss the possible location to which I might be sent.

Candidates were provided a list of locations to which AFS was currently sending students. I was a deeply religious young woman, and I very much wanted to visit the Middle East. The only country in the region that was on the list of approved locations was Jordan. I told my mother I wanted to go to Jordan and she flipped. She said that I would not under any circumstances be allowed to go to Jordan: too dangerous. I argued that it must be safe if it was on the list, but she was adamant. So I started examining other countries listed.

AFS had opportunities globally: Asia, Europe, South America, Central America, Australia, Greenland, the islands of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans...even Mexico and Canada were possibilities. Evan though I knew we weren't allowed to choose our destination, I still gave a lot of thought to the possibilities. If I was going to another country to learn about culture and international understanding, then I hoped that it would be exotic and enormously different from what I was used to. India was at the top of my list. Next, I thought Greece would be amazing with its history and culture. Last I thought Australia because it is so vast, and yet so few people live there.

I was green-lighted for the regional interview, so on a chilly autumn evening my dad and I set out for Osceola, Iowa, where the interviews were being held. All told, the trip there and back was an hour and a half, and the interview itself was about an hour. I remember this brief trip very fondly because it was one of the few times I did something just with my dad.

The AFS representatives encouraged me to not only apply for the summer program, but also for the 11-month program. We followed their instructions and I applied for both programs. What we didn't know was that summer candidates were selected first. Once a candidate had been selected, their application was pulled from the process. Therefore I would not be considered for the 11-month program if I was selected for the summer program.

Right before Christmas of 1977 I found out that I had been selected to be a summer semester International Exchange Student Program through AFS. Even though I wouldn't be going for the more lengthy program, I was overjoyed just to have been given the chance to be an exchange student. But...I wouldn't know where I was going until May!

The next four months were among the slowest in my life. I thought I'd probably end up going to Canada. Knowing the way things went for me, I'd be within a stone's throw of the Canadian-American border. That, however, was not to be.

I was lucky to be given 4 weeks leeway in finding out the destination of my journey: At the beginning of May, I found out that I was going to Australia. Australia...isn't that where they have kangaroos and billabongs? Don't they wear lopsided hats and live in the "outback" (whatever that is)?

Truth be told, I really didn't know much about Australia--but I was about to find out. I had been selected by the American Field Service (AFS) as one of the 48 students in 1978 to represent the US in schools all over "Land Down Under". I was 17.

(to be continued...)

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