A whole new world

When Eviane Leidig wanted to step out of her comfort zone, she turned to AFS Intercultural Programs.

Since 1919, AFS Intercultural Programs, formerly known as the American Field Service, has been sending people on journeys they will hopefully remember for the rest of their lives. Every year, the nonprofit organization sends more than 13,000 people to more than 50 countries.

Leidig, wanting to expand her horizons while a student at La Cañada High, chose what she considered to be the most foreign country on the AFS Intercultural Program's website at the time, Ghana.

The program's website states its goal is to empower people to become "global citizens working for peace and understanding in a diverse world" by seeking "to affirm faith in the dignity and worth of every human being of all nations and cultures." Their core values are dignity, respect for differences, harmony, sensitivity and tolerance.

It's been two years since Leidig's trip to Ghana, but she said she'll never forget it. She spent a month living with a host family, doing community service at orphanages, and teaching kids basic reading, writing, math and hygiene skills.

"It's really different than vacation because you're really immersed into the culture of your country," Leidig said.

Leidig will soon be starting her first year at UC Berkeley, and she knows that she'll always have the desire to travel after her stay in Ghana.

"When you travel, you don't just learn the new environment, but you learn a lot about yourself," Leidig said. "I feel that is extremely important. What else allows you to examine yourself and see all the different things that you can accomplish?"

The experience of visiting a new country is priceless, according to Marty Breckheimer, president of AFS Intercultural Program's La Cañada chapter.

"It's just a wonderful thing not everyone gets to do," Breckheimer said. "For me, traveling is far more valuable than owning a fancy car or having a big house."

The most popular countries La Cañada students choose to visit are France, Italy, England and Germany. African countries have recently become a popular destination as well, after being overlooked for many years, Breckheimer said.

The United States not only exports tourists but also imports some through the AFS Intercultural Program.

Students coming from their home country to America stay with a host family while going to classes and participating in extracurricular activities at La Cañada High School.

This year, two students from Norway and one from Italy will be staying in La Cañada through the program.

The program offers young adults the chance to visit another country in different capacities. They can spend an entire school year, semester or summer abroad through their high school exchange program.

Students can also go to a different country through AFS Intercultural Programs to do community service. Those not looking to travel can host a student through the program.

Breckheimer said she doubts anyone can return from a trip to a foreign country the same as when they left.

"I think people's understanding and appreciation of the differences that exist in how people experience things change when they meet someone from another country and see how those differences in how people live," Breckheimer said. "It's just a good, unique experience that causes people to grow extensively."

For more information on AFS Intercultural Programs, visit their website at http://www.afs.org.

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