High School Student Exchange Programs Form Lifelong Bonds

An AFS student from Bergamo Italy (upper row, right) attended The Tatnall School for his senior year in 2012 and came back with his whole family to attend the wedding of a member of his host family.

Inviting a stranger into one’s home can inevitably result in an interesting experience – for both the host and visitor.

That is particularly true when the outsider is from an entirely different culture and they move in for nearly a year – the kind of transformational experience that’s at the heart of the AFS student exchange program

The deep, lifelong personal connections forged by AFS are a hallmark of the program and something host families across Delaware regard as both special and surprising.

When they first signed up to participate in AFS, the Downs family did not know they would be gaining two family members. Now, they couldn’t imagine their family without the lasting impact of students Andrea and Sara. Inspired by her lasting relationships with two Italian students her family hosted when she was young, Carole Downs wanted the same experience for her children.

AFS Host Carole Downs, son John Downs, exchange student Sara Alhassan, and Mike Adams before the 2018 Tatnall prom.

Six years ago, the Downs family opened their home to high school student Andrea from Bergamo, Italy, “He worked out perfectly and I couldn’t have asked for a better son and brother to my kids.” Her children expressed that their time with Andrea was the best year of their life. Because of this, their family was hesitant to host another student, worried the experience couldn’t possibly live up to the high expectations set by their time with Andrea.

This past year, they finally decided to host another student and could not be happier that they did. Sara Alhassan came to Wilmington in August and is now “one of our family and like my own daughter,” Downs explains. Sara is a Muslim from Saudi Arabia, and the Downs family has embraced learning about both her religion and culture. “For a female coming to the United States, it was a big deal, but her parents have been so supportive and excited for her.” 

In turn, Alhassan informed the entire Tatnall School community about her faith and culture.

John Downs along with exchange students Ally Kong from Yunnan, China, and Sara Alhassan from Safwa, Saudi Arabia. Last day of school as seniors at The Tatnall School.

Wilmington Friends family the Martelli-Rabens have also hosted two exchange students and have nothing but good things to say about their experiences.

After her year with the Martelli-Rabens, Fredrikke Johansen returned to her native Norway with a greater understanding of the world.

Izzy Martelli-Raben, Fredrikke Johansen and Maggie Martelli-Raben in 2015.

She particularly appreciated the support of the AFS program explaining, “I loved how everyone was so open and welcoming and if there was an issue or a problem I knew I could reach out to the AFS coordinators. I got close to all of the other students that were abroad at the same time because we had several retreats where we bonded and had a lot of fun!”

Because of her time in Delaware, Johansen felt prepared and excited to move back to attend college at Penn State.

Anne Martelli-Raben says her family has felt fortunate that Johansen chose to continue her studies in the U.S. “Fredrikke is my third college student, as we have filled in where her parents are not able to due to geographical logistics.  She spends vacations from college with us, and it almost feels as though she never left.”

Martelli-Raben says her family’s relationships with their beloved AFS exchange students have opened up wonderful opportunities for their entire family. They plan to visit Gustav Hagmanat, who lived with them in 2012, at the end of the month.

“We have seen Gustav a minimum of one to two times per year every year and are always in touch with him.  We finally went to Sweden last summer to meet his family, and his mom and I are BFFs!”

Maggie, Jamie, and Izzy Martelli-Raben with Gustav Hagman in front of Wilmington Friends School, June 2012.

Martelli-Raben says the AFS program has been incredibly enriching. “Fredrikke and Gustav are truly part of the fabric of our lives, and we love both of them very much.”  

For 70 years, American Field Service has been at the forefront of international high school exchange, welcoming more than 2,000 international high school students from nearly 100 countries each year.

Here in Delaware, longtime participant and Northern Delaware Volunteer Coordinator Linda Barratt Saad sees AFS as unique and necessary opportunity to garner compassion and friendship across cultural and international borders.

The beauty of the program is twofold, as students experience full cultural immersion and language fluency and host families gain another family member. Additionally, says Saad, AFS enables participants “to feel part of a more just and peaceful world.” While every AFS experience is unique, each is equally amazing and unforgettable.

Families in the Wilmington area interested in learning more about hosting an international exchange student, reading incoming student bios, and more can contact Linda Saad at [email protected] or (302) 559-0313.

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About the Contributor

Domenica Proud

Domenica Proud

Domenica "Minnie" Proud will graduate from the Charter School of Wilmington this month, where she was an active member of the Jefferson Council. She heads to Boston College in the fall.