Forty-eight years ago, I was a 16-year-old sitting in a high school Spanish class. One of my classmates gave a presentation about a summer in Peru. It made quite an impression on me. I had always wanted to go to Brazil because I had heard that it was one place that all races got along. Of course this was untrue, but it was a powerful message to a teenager growing up in the racially strafed times of the 1960’s. I went home and excitedly told my parents that I was going to Brazil.
The next day a disheartening reality hit. There was a program fee to study abroad and my working-class parents did not have the funds to pay the fee. My dream was rescued by the neighborhood barber who was a member of the local Kiwanis Club and encouraged the organization to raise money for me. The amount they raised was not enough to go to Brazil, but it was enough to go to Bogotá, Colombia, and that’s where I headed in the summer of 1969.
The trip to Bogotá was my first ever plane ride, and the first time I had been further than North Carolina, the home state of both of my parents. I was amazed at the highways and skyscrapers. Bogotá was called the “Athens of South America” because of its many universities and intellectuals. And of course, there were the Andes Mountains. Bogotá is 8500 feet above sea level on a plateau surrounded by even higher mountains. I lived in Bogotá with a family of six, a mother, father, aunt, two teenage sons and a Great Dane.
The summer was one of self-discovery. In a city of several million people, I only saw one other black person. I spent much time reflecting on what it meant to be black, an American and a foreigner in another country. I learned how to become part of a new family, attend a different school, learn about a new city and communicate in another language.
I learned that people are more similar than different, and that families in other countries were much like my family back home. I learned to ask many questions -- but to also listen intently. I learned not to be afraid of differences, and not to be afraid of others.
Returning home, I completed high school at the top of my class, attended Princeton University and then Columbia Law School in New York. The skills of flexibility, adaptability, curiosity, independence and tolerance I developed that summer as an AFS student were continuing strengths as I went on to a career as a lawyer and adjunct college faculty member.
Most recently I have become a Team Development Specialist (TDS) for AFS Intercultural Programs, the same non-profit organization that sent me abroad when I was 16. I work with volunteers, communities and schools to find host families in Missouri, Southwest Illinois, and Arkansas for approximately 75 exchange students who come to this area of the country each year. I have been a host parent for students from Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Japan, Bahrain and most recently Italy, all of whom call me “Dad”. I also work to encourage American kids to study abroad each year and have been a strong supporter of the Quest project in St. Louis.
The AFS exchange experience changed my life. It made me see the people of the world differently and made me a global citizen. I have been to 45 counties and want to visit many more. I am also determined to continue giving back to the exchange mission because it gave so much to me. I asked only one thing of all the kids that I have helped ......to pay it forward and to help another kid when they become an adult.