When Lisa Iervolino's husband Tom was transferred to Germany in 1990, the couple took home an unexpected souvenir: a love of learning about other customs and ways of life.
"It was really eye-opening to learn about a whole new culture," said Lisa Iervolino, who grew up in Westchester County and has lived in Morris Township since the late 1990s.
When the couple returned, they were placed in Chicago. "After traveling all over the world, we felt very ordinary in the Midwest," Iervolino said. "We heard about the AFS (American Field Service) program and decided to get involved. We hosted a boy from France and within a few months, my husband received a job offer in New Jersey. So since most families in the U.S. move every three to five years, we told him that he was having a real American experience."
Since then, the Iervolinos have hosted a dozen students from France, Belgium, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Chile.
"It is by far the most rewarding thing we've ever done," said Iervolino, who noted that seeing our world through new eyes is a completely enlightening experience. "The observations they make are so refreshing and so funny. Even something like going out to a restaurant and ordering buffalo wings, which is common for us, will make them say, 'Buffalo have wings?' It's those kinds of things that become your inside joke for the rest of the year."
More than 60 countries participate in the AFS program, sending students between 15 and 18 years old. This year, 22-30 students are being hosted throughout New Jersey, with three in Morristown.
In exchange, the state has sent 30-50 students abroad, though the number often varies depending on economic conditions, Iervolino pointed out.
History of AFS
AFS began as a volunteer ambulance corps in 1914 during the first world war. In 1947, following World War II, the organization became interested in promoting peace by helping improve communications among countries.
"By talking and understanding one another, they believed the need for war was less likely," explained Iervolino.
Staying true to that belief, AFS has recently begun focusing on exchange programs with Muslim nations such as Indonesia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
Currently, Iervolino said the biggest challenge facing AFS is finding host families.
"Everyone is leading very busy lives," Iervolino said, "but it's just a lot of fun. They come in August for the school year, and a few come in January for the semester," Iervolino explained. "American students can go abroad with AFS for the school year, semester or a summer program."
Iervolino is such a proponent of the program that she has worked as a coordinator for the past eight years. Serving first as host coordinator, Iervolino currently acts as a support coordinator for the state-wide AFS program running orientations and assisting students and host families throughout the year.
Working with two others, Alison Colaluca, of Morristown, and Sue Fershing, of Livingston, whom Iervolino refers to as her "role model" because of her more-than 25 year commitment to the program, the three "all pitch in" to make sure everything runs smoothly, Iervolino said.
When helping families and students adjust to the changes that accompany living in a new culture, Iervolino falls back on the AFS mantra: "It's not good, it's not bad, it's just different."
From Fear to Fulfillment
Iervolino said at this time of the year, students are "on top of the world" and very proud of all they have overcome and accomplished in a new country.
She said many wish they could lead parallel lives because as eager as many of them are to return to family and friends, they don't want to leave their new homes.
"I tell everyone, this is not the end, this is just the beginning," said Iervolino, who keeps in close contact with 10 of the 12 students she and her husband have hosted. The couple recently returned from Belgium where they attended the wedding of their second exchange student.
"It's an extremely rewarding experience," she said. "It's a lifelong relationship. Even though you don't see them every day anymore, you watch them grow up, have a career, start a family. You helped develop that person. The exchange program is a huge part of who they become."
Iervolino said another wonderful aspect of being involved with AFS is watching students flourish and gain confidence in themselves during the course of the school year.
Nora Lahtee, of Thailand, participated in Caberet Night at Morristown High School and performed a song on her ukulele written by another Thai exchange student who studied in Italy.
Iervolino said the song dealt with the fears and struggles of adjusting to life in a new place but acknowledges that it is well-worth the effort.
"It gave me goose bumps," said Iervolino.
Iervolino said it takes students of a certain character to become involved in the exchange program and very often, those students become friends with each other while in their host country, something Iervolino calls "an extra bonus."