Volunteers on a Student Learning Journey

Earlier this year, AFS world-wide network was introduced to the new AFS Student Learning Journey Curriculum. The document provides a clear and coherent structure that includes all the major non-formal learning touchpoints for exchange students from the moment they learn about AFS programs, through their experience abroad, until they return home and are invited to become AFS volunteers.

Inviting our program alumni to become our volunteers is the last step described in the Journey, and it is also a specific challenge for AFS Hungary. In AFS Hungary, a significant number of active volunteers is between 15 and 17 years old, and therefore many of them decide to study abroad with AFS and start their Student Learning Journey with 2-3 years of volunteering experience. They are usually among the most active and hardworking volunteers of their local chapters, they have contributed a lot to AFS, and they really enjoy what they do.

We knew that this special position they are in requires additional preparation and support. It might sound hard to believe, but one of the biggest challenges we faced was convincing these young people to suspend volunteering while they prepare for and participate in an exchange program.

Instead of making an abrupt change and asking these young people to simply stop volunteering when they apply for an exchange program, we introduced additional steps to their Student Learning Journey.

  • Hand over volunteer responsibilities
    (3-4 months before going abroad) 
    Local chapter and the volunteer discuss and plan for a hand-over of responsibilities in the upcoming period. This reassures our volunteers and gives them a chance to focus on preparing for their exchange program, for example by learning the language of the host country.
  • Different realities
    (pre-departure orientation)
    Even though all AFS network organizations follow the same standards and procedures, there are differences in local realities. There are differences in volunteer stuctures, ways of providing support or accomplishing other tasks. This is an excellent way to discuss the organizational culture of AFS in a wider context of different national cultures.
    As most of these volunteers already have a general intercultural knowledge, we recall Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS model), a framework that explains the reactions of people as they engage with cultural differences. We encourage volunteers to reflect on their progress along the DMIS scale, and to observe organizational differences without making judgements. This exercize helps them suspend judgement and accept organizational or cultural differences.
  • Volunteer hat removal ceremony
    (pre-departure orientation)
    Volunteers step on stage in front of all participants with a candle in their hands and a folding volunteer hat on their head. Each volunteer says a few words about what AFS has given them so far, and blows their candle once they finish sharing. When walking off stage, they leave their volunteer hat behind, and the rest of the participants embrace them with a group hug. From this point on, these young people stop volunteering and are fully immersed in their Learning Journey as participants of our exchange programs.
  • Volunteer reorientation
    (re-entry orientation)
    After their time abroad, on the first day of their re-entry orientation, all students discuss and analyze what they experienced and learned. On the second day those without a previous volunteer experience go through an AFS Basic training preparing them to become our volunteers. Meanwhile, exchange students who are also former volunteers participate in a one-day volunteer re-entry orientation that transforms their exchange experiences into knowledge they can use while volunteering. At the end, students who volunteered before the exchange get their volunteer hats back as a symbol of the continuation of their volunteer journey.  

We have already implemented some of these steps, while others are still being shaped and perfected in AFS Hungary. There is an obvious need for countinous review and discussion and as an educational organization we feel compelled to provide these additional learning opportunities to our volunteers.

Have you had similar experiences in your AFS organizations? Live a comment below or contact us at education[at]afs.org, and we will be happy to exchange ideas with you!


This post was written by , Organizational Development Coordinator and Trainer for AFS Hungary. Gabor is also a Qualified Trainer for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program


  • Hello Gabor, really interesting ideas! In BFL we have a small, but potentially groing group of people who go on trimester program, sometimes also volunteer at their return, and then inscribe for year program.  I find the rituals and the room for becoming a participant again rather than a volunteer, inspiring. A challenge we identified, was that being a former pax and volunteer, these people are already familiar with workshops of the preparation track.