Intercultural experience can leave life-changing impressions among the young

(File pix) The experience of living abroad opens up the mind to many things.

IN today’s interconnected world, communication with another person is just a mouse-click or a tap of a screen away. But yet there is a lack of peace and harmony among citizens and nations across the globe, resulting in friction and conflict in the form of xenophobia, stereotypes and exclusions.

Yayasan AFS Antarabudaya Malaysia (AFS Malaysia) chairman Khalilah Mohd Talha said lack of understanding of traditions and values of other people is a major cause.

“We connect but we do not engage. We acknowledge the existence of different cultures, but we do not understand them. There is a ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and it subtly becomes a pervasive form of society bias, which prevents diversity and inclusion,” said Khalilah.

She added it is crucial to promote intercultural exchange, whether virtual or physical, among the young in today’s world.

In its 60 years of existence since 1958, AFS Malaysia continues to bridge cultures through intercultural learning and provides a platform for Malaysians to gain global experience. Over its six decades of operations, AFS Malaysia has sent 4,000 students on exchange programmes abroad and hosted 3,000 foreign students here in Malaysia.

“Intercultural learning makes students more sensitive to different ways of life, traditions, customs and worldviews. It is our hope to produce active global citizens and make them more globally competent to face a more challenging world.”

global citizenship education is a transformative, lifelong pursuit that involves both formal learning and practical experience.

“The student, who has had experience abroad, is more confident in public speaking, has global competency and understanding of issues. They understand themselves better. So when they carve out their career path after university, they usually have an edge over their peers.

“Exposure to intercultural learning leads to volunteer work. They are more compassionate, caring and concerned about their fellow citizens.”

It is AFS Malaysia’s vision to mould future leaders through intercultural learning and understanding, and its mission is to “engage Malaysians to embrace our differences and celebrate our commonalities through committed volunteerism for a united Malaysia”.

Experiences you absorb at the age of 16 or 17 are the ones that will stay with you the longest. “The intercultural international exchange programmes AFS Malaysia offers are generally for those in that particular age group—who are neither too matured nor too young to retain the memories longer than any age group,” said AFS Malaysia chairperson Khalilah Mohd Talha.

AFS Malaysia offers three categories: the Year Programme, Semester Programme and Intensive Programme.

The Year Programme is open to Form Five students who want an opportunity to live and study in another country for a period of up to 11 months. This programme is suited for someone who wants to learn a new language and feel a part of a local community.

Also open to Form Five students, the Semester Programme Offers an opportunity to live and study in another country for six months. It allows the participant to learn a new language, embrace the local lifestyle and be exposed to intercultural learning.

The Intensive programme is open to students from Form Three to Form Five, giving a chance to live and study in another country, with minimum interruption to their education. It is the perfect way to improve language skills before the final years of study at secondary or high school.


For Tan Sri Hamidon Ali, his exposure as an AFS exchange student in the United States 50 years ago was a key influence in shaping his career in foreign affairs.

A diplomat on multiple Malaysian missions and the former Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the United Nations, Hamidon had his first taste of intercultural experience and international exposure in a Midwest town called Fosston in Minnesota, near the Canadian border.

“It was extremely cold in the winter but extremely exciting in other ways. This small community was very close because they were descendants of Scandinavians. I was placed in a family where the father was a preacher at the Baptist church.

“I was reluctant to go to church with the family at first but after a while I decided to join them except for attending Sunday school. Then I began to understand that the values of this particular group of Christians had a lot of similarities to Islam,” he said.

“My experience opened up my mind to many things — we have to accept people and accept them as different, learn from the differences, and use the differences for the betterment of societies, countries and global community.

“We need to bridge the gap to know each other better and not be segregated. We need to find common values. I spent 40 years in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, I met people from all over the world—when your mind is open, you are receptive. You don’t have to compromise your beliefs.

“The experience made me stronger, it strengthened my faith. When you understand we have the same roots, we can then smoothen the edges.”


Suraya Zainudin, 30, from Shah Alam in Selangor went to Japan on the six-month AFS exchange programme from March 2005 till February 2006, when she was 16.

“I was hosted in Handa City, Aichi Prefecture and lived with the Hibi family. There were three of them — Okaa-san (host mum),Otou-san (host dad) and Asami-chan (then nine-year-old host sister). Their extended family also lived nearby, so I had an Obaa-chan (host grandmother) and Ojii-chan (host grandfather).

“I was their first hosted student, and we got along really well and keep in touch until now. I consider them my second family. Both my host parents work in print publication, while my host sister has just finished university and plans to be a teacher,” she said.

Suraya went to Handa Koukou (Handa High School), with a reputation for being an academically good institution. She often get “undeserved” compliments for being a former student at the school.

She rode the bicycle to school —around trip of 40 minutes to an hour. “I joined the kyuudo bu (archery club), sadou bu (tea ceremony club), koto bu (koto club; koto is a Japanese musical instrument) and sometimes attend the eigo bu (English club).”

The AFS experience taught her that kindness and goodwill foster more of the same. “My host parents didn’t have to take on a stranger, but they did, and out of their own pocket too. So did countless other strangers who helped for the sake of helping. It made me realise that good people are truly everywhere.”

Suraya learnt to overcome challenges. “I was very shy back then, and the experience made me realise that I will miss out on many life experiences due to shyness. I forced myself to overcome my shyness to make the most out of the experience.”

She feels that her AFS experience has made her a more empathetic and curious person.

“Perhaps that is why I chose communications as my major and career — I love knowing how and why people are different, as well as how they reveal their personalities and values through words and actions.”

Entertainment journalist and host Shafiq Najib, 25, works for Los Angeles publications and networks such as US Weekly and E! News. He has also worked in London, covering various entertainment events and credits his career to his AFS experience.

“My AFS experience has taught me to be more compassionate to others and to always think outside the box. Since then I had gone on to pursue my passion to become a journalist. I want to help to make a difference in the world by telling stories that will inspire people to love and be kind to one another.

“I gained life skills that have been very useful to my career and life in general. I learnt to adapt to a foreign environment, communicate with people from all walks of life and accept people for who they are, without judgement. I am very appreciative of these experiences and will never trade them for the world,” he added.

Shafiq, who is from Kluang, Johor, joined AFS in 2011 under the YES (Youth Exchange and Study) programme funded by the US Department of State. He was 17 and was hosted in Los Angeles, California for six months with a Jewish American family with four sons. He attended Culver City High School as a senior student.

“I joined the programme to broaden my horizons with first-hand experiences of living in a foreign environment with a different culture and lifestyle. At the same time, as a proud Malaysian, I wanted to introduce my culture and identity to people from the other side of world that had probably never heard of us,” he said.

“I went with an open mind and ended up having the most amazing experience of a lifetime and built such beautiful relationships with people that I never thought I would ever be able to have a connection with in my life. I learnt that regardless of religion, race and culture, we are all equal as human beings.”


AFS Malaysia plans include expanding international exposure for students as well as providing intercultural learning within Malaysia for Malaysians.

Its latest initiative is a domestic exchange programme in the country which allows local students to experience the different cultures of the races among our communities. Five students were selected to participate in the pioneer programme during the recent Deepavali celebration. The programme aims to enhance awareness and knowledge of other cultures as well as deepen the understanding, appreciation and respect for the multiracial people of our own homeland.

Speaking at the recent AFS Malaysia 60th anniversary gala dinner, Khalilah Talha said: “As Malaysia has a diverse cultural landscape, it’s time to help in strengthening the cultural understanding of the people in our homeland and eventually help in the nation-building agenda. It is also our hope to be able to share our expertise and 60 years of intercultural experiences to bridge the gap and connect Malaysian communities.

“The (new) programme tailor-made for our local communities is our attempt to introduce inter-racial exchanges in the country and offers local students a first-hand experience of Malaysia’s multi-cultural forms and practices.”

AFS Malaysia is drafting a programme for university students on a gap year that will immerse them in community projects abroad involving the underprivileged and the differently abled, for example.

“We have been hosting programmes for overseas students under this gap year type of programme but we want local university students to go overseas for the experience too.

“We also want to hold educators’ programmes so that they can pass on the message of embracing differences and celebrating commonalities to their students.”

AFS Intercultural Programmes began as the American Ambulance Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps created in April 1915 by A. Patt Andrew. Under the leadership of Andrew in World War I and Stephen Galatti in World War II, AFS was transformed from a wartime humanitarian aid organisation into a groundbreaking international secondary school exchange, volunteer and intercultural learning organisation with a noble vision: help build a more peaceful world by promoting understanding among cultures.

AFS Intercultural Programmes provide intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to create a more just and peaceful world. By linking its “learning to live together” philosophy to the defining global issues of the 21st century, AFS is dedicated to building an inclusive community of global citizens determined to build bridges among cultures.

(File pix) Malaysian AFS alumnus Vimal Raj Vivekanandah (second from left) with friends he made in Houston, Texas.


VIMAL Raj Vivekanandah, 21; Umi Nabila Mat Yusuf, 19; and Chow Shenn Kuan, 22, have two things in common.

All three have participated in an AFS intercultural exchange programme and have gone on to volunteer in various projects on campus.

Fresh graduate Chow, who pursued the Bachelor of Science (Honours) Business Studies of the Lancaster University-affiliated programme at Sunway University, joined the 10-day student exchange programme Kizuna Project 2012 in Japan which promoted better understanding of its revitalisation and reconstruction after the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

A Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Bachelor of Social Science in Psychology final-year student, Vimal joined the AFS Exchange programme 2015 for six months in Houston, Texas funded by a British Petroleum scholarship.

Umi Nabila, a Universiti Teknologi Mara Shah Alam Bachelor of Science (Honours) Biomolecular Science first year student, also had a six-month experience in Dallas, Texas under the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study programme last year.

Chow said: “Today, I am an advocate for student exchange programmes or learning abroad. During my undergraduate years at Sunway University, I received a scholarship for an exchange programme to Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, and a travel grant for a visit to Harvard University in the United States.

“Truly grateful for the opportunities offered by Sunway University, my form of giving back to my education institution was to be an active student leader. Since my first year at Sunway University, I have been hosting visiting students to Malaysia from the United Kingdom, US and Hong Kong, for example.”

Vimal is a student buddy for international students in Malaysia. He has also developed an interest to participate in conferences and summits including those organised by the United Nations.

“Recently, I represented Guinea as its delegate for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4: Zero Hunger and was awarded Honourable Mention at Global Goals Model United Nations 2018.

“I just attended Asia Youth International Model United Nations 2018 as part of the committee team in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I am a development committee member at Hunger Hurts Malaysia with a focus on helping homeless children at People’s Housing Projects and eradicating urban poverty.

“I also an ambassador at Institut Onn Jaafar Volunteer Centre in Chow Kit where we help the homeless,” he said.


Read more @

Comments are closed.