AFS Intercultural Programs began as the American Ambulance Field Service (later known as the American Field Service or AFS), a voluntary ambulance and camion (truck) organization which emerged soon after the outbreak of World War I under the leadership of A. Piatt Andrew, a former director of the U.S. Mint. In April 1915 Andrew negotiated an agreement with the French military to have units of American ambulance drivers serve closer to the front lines of battle. The 2,500 AFS volunteers participated in every major French battle, carrying supplies and more than 500,000 casualties.

After the war ended, the AFS volunteers established an AFS Association to coordinate reunions and to administer the AFS Fellowships for French Universities program.  The AFS Fellowships program ultimately funded 222 students to travel to and from France for advanced graduate study by the time it was discontinued in 1952.

AFS was reactivated at the start of World War II by Stephen Galatti, who had been an AFS ambulance driver and Assistant Inspector General during World War I. By the end of the war, 2,196 volunteers served in France, North Africa, the Middle East, Italy, Germany, India, and Burma, carrying more than 700,000 casualties.

In 1946 AFS volunteers from both World Wars assembled in New York City to discuss the future of the organization. Under the leadership of Galatti, they launched a secondary school student exchange program that they hoped would maintain and strengthen the international friendships they fostered during their wartime humanitarian work. The first AFS secondary school students arrived in the U.S. in 1947 on a scholarship program. In 1950 the Americans Abroad (AA) Summer Program was initiated, allowing U.S. American high school students to go abroad through AFS, and by 1957 AA students had the option to spend several months abroad during the fall and attend foreign schools. In 1971, the AFS Multinational Program began, allowing students to travel to and from countries other than the United States. The AFS Programs continued to diversify over the years by adding community service projects and teacher exchange programs, and the number of participating countries rose steadily.

In February 1984 the Workshop on Intercultural Learning Content and Quality Standards affirmed AFS’s commitment to intercultural learning and formally defined its Educational Goals. These 16 Educational Goals continue to define the educational approach, guide ongoing practices, and set AFS apart as a unique educational program. Research efforts focusing on achieving a deeper understanding of the impact of exchange programs continued in the 21st century, from the cutting-edge Assessment of the Impact of the AFS Study Abroad Experience study in 2005, to the AFS Long Term Impact Study in 2006. Building on these research results, the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program launched in 2011.  The purpose of this multi-step training and assessment program is to enable volunteers and staff worldwide to better support AFS students, families, and schools in the learning process.  

Today, AFS is a global community of more than 50 partner organizations that support intercultural learning and promote active global citizenship education, primarily through exchange programs. AFS is dedicated to building an inclusive community of global citizens determined to build bridges among cultures as it moves into its second century.

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