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American Field Service seeks host families from Greensburg to Erie

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Matt Osche

Mary Osche went to Mexico on a summer program through the American Field Service in 1982 that helped to shape who she would become.

Her daughter, Elizabeth, recently returned from a summer program to Paraguay and her son, Matt, leaves in August for Norway for a year, both through AFS.

At the end of the summer, the Osches will welcome Karolin, a student from Germany they will host for the 2013-14 school year. They've previously opened their home to two other students.

“A lot of people are afraid of having another teenager in their home,” said Osche. “It's not like having a guest for a year. It's like having another member of your family.”

AFS, a nonprofit organization, has been leading international high school student exchanges for more than 60 years.

It is seeking families to host exchange students from Erie to Greensburg for the upcoming school year.

Three exchange students who are coming to Westmoreland County from Germany, Japan and Spain will arrive Aug. 12.

Darlene Frederickson, president of AFS Westmoreland County, has welcomed 20 exchange students into her home over the years. Frederickson was an exchange student in Peru, giving her “an unbelievable experience” that made her a better teacher, she said.

Frederickson said there's a misconception abroad about Americans gleaned from movies. Many expect a rich but violent culture.

“As Americans, many think we all have a lot of money,” said Frederickson, who taught in the Greensburg Salem School District for 35 years. “We're not all violent; we don't carry guns. I've seen so many positives come out of (this experience).”

Over time, the program has expanded and Frederickson said many different types of families have welcomed exchange students, including gay couples, empty-nesters and even individuals.

According to the AFS website, it sends more than 1,100 U.S. students abroad and provides $3 million in scholarships and financial aid. It also welcomes 2,500 international high school students who come to study in U.S. high schools and live with host families. It is supported by more than 5,000 volunteers in the United States.

The American Ambulance Field Service began in 1915. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the French Army appealed to the service for drivers for its military transport sections and the organization renamed itself the American Field Service.

Following the Great War, AFS became sponsor for French Fellowships, graduate student scholarships for study in France and the United States, which were administered by the Institute of International Education and served as forerunners for the Fulbright Foundation exchanges.

In 1946, AFS President Stephen Galatti established American Field Service International Scholarships. During the 1947-48 school year, the first students came from 10 countries — Czechoslovakia, Estonia, France, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Syria and Norway.

When Matt Osche, 16, was younger, his family hosted a student from Norway, which inspired his interest in the culture.

“I've never done anything like this before,” said Matt, who is going into his junior year away from Greensburg Central Catholic High School. “It's interesting to live with another family and see how they live, their culture. I've only ever lived with my family.”

His mother said her own family experience in Mexico helped her gain a deeper appreciation for her own culture.

“What I learned the most is who I am. I was 16 too when I went and I wasn't sure what I believed,” Mary Osche said. “But when I came back I had a new appreciation for my own family and what my priorities were.”

Osche hopes for the same experience for her son, as well as Karolin, the German exchange student.

“I want her to feel like this is her home,” Osche said. “It's also exciting to learn about the differences and the observations she makes when she's here. My friends think I'm crazy but I think it's an opportunity to grow and learn that you can't get in any other way.”

Michele Stewardson is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.