Volunteer Spotlight: Nancy Studwell

Volunteer Spotlight: Nancy Studwell

How did you learn about AFS and what prompted you to get involved?

As a kid, when I learned it was possible to travel abroad, live with a family, go to school and learn speak a new language, and that there was a name for this sort of thing, I was obsessed. The answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up” was invariably  “an exchange student”.  By middle school, I was at the library reading anything I could get my hands on about study abroad and that’s when I first learned about AFS. Using my formal grade school style ‘business letter’ writing skills (“Dear Sir or Madame”, lol), I wrote in a request (with pen and paper) for a brochure. I still remember the thrill of receiving (in an actual mailbox) a fat envelope full of information with the AFS logo in the corner. And that…is how it all started. In high school, I applied to AFS, got a scholarship, went to orientation, was matched with a family in Arequipa, Peru and scheduled to go on program. I was going to be an exchange student! But… I didn’t go. There was a conflict with the start of college and what’s more, my parents weren’t particularly supportive of the whole idea. As ‘consolation’, we hosted two students during their end of stay orientation and gateway transit…and I listened stoically as they shared what a fantastic year it had been. I did eventually study abroad, in college (Florence, Italy), and traveled widely, but AFS faded into memory and I’ve always regretted that lost opportunity. About eight years ago, I stumbled on my faded, ancient AFS placement paperwork from high school. I thought I would see if there was a local chapter and maybe find out about volunteering. One thing led to another (as it does with AFS) and soon I was hosting as well as volunteering.

What keeps you coming back?

To know that I play even a small role supporting a teen’s study abroad experience, is enough to keep me engaged with AFS. To do this with others who understand the mission and long term results of exchange, makes the work that much more rewarding. I’ve hosted six students (and many more have passed through our house) and enjoy opportunities that continue to connect me with families and fellow AFS’ers around the world. Especially from countries and cultures very different from my own.

What’s a typical volunteer “shift” like for you?

In a word, communication. Spreading my enthusiasm for the program by reaching out to schools, families, fellow volunteers, staff and supporting youth on their adventure. Because I’ve been a bit of an AFS ‘junky’ over the years, I’ve done a bit of everything. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to set up students with host families, get them into school, plan activities, follow up with program requirements and help navigate the ups and downs.  As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village’…not to mention a ton of emails, texts and calls! But one of my favorite things remains witnessing the before and after effect at arrivals and departures.

What have you learned or how have you been personally affected by your experience with AFS?

Humanity, kindness, perseverance, respect, understanding and the idea of feeling at home in the world, regardless of borders and boundaries. But also remaining interested in what makes us unique and diverse. I’ve also learned to recalibrated my approach to challenges and expectations. But above all, I’m inspired by the students and their journey. They show trust, patience and resilience beyond their years, as they build confidence, character and nourish their curiosity, in a foreign language no less! Hosting or volunteering is the next best thing to being an exchange student. To watch this all unfold from the other side of the experience, is almost as fascinating.

Please share the best or the funniest thing that’s happened to you while volunteering with AFS. 

About six months into volunteering, a student I’d chatted with at a tabling event months earlier (one of my very first volunteer assignments), spotted me at the airport, as she was about to catch her flight to go on program. She pointed me out like a celebrity shouting, hey look, mom and dad, it’s “The AFS Lady! “ (the parents leaned in and beamed, like in one of those Disney commercials where a costumed character turns up). We all basked in the earnestness and excitement for a moment. When I went to check in for my own flight, the agent, who had witnessed it all, greeted me with “Hi AFS Lady”. It was an awkwardly funny yet proud moment (and a running joke in my household for quite a while).

What do you want to say to people who might be interested in volunteering with AFS?

AFS is very welcoming and there are opportunities for every skill set, and available time. But it’s unlike other volunteer work, in the sense that you’re not just carrying out a task to support the organization or the students, on some level, you are also participating in the program yourself. Talented staff work closely with volunteers and help bring out their best, delivering educational content and training. What the program teaches youth about communication, understanding and growth, is infused throughout the organization.

What’s one thing AFS volunteers and staff don’t know about you?

I’m a trained horticulturist (though anyone familiar with my wild yard would gasp in disbelief!). I’ve studied plant identification and nomenclature. Essentially, putting names to plant faces, and learning unique things about them. When I travel  to a new destination, where I don’t know the language or have any contacts, seeing familiar plant life is like connecting with old friends, and it helps orient me to a new place.