Conversations with Ebbe Skovdal, Corporate Secretary of AFS International

Interviewed by Ridhima Chabbra, Manager,  Educational Relationships & Program Innovation

Brief Bio: AFS student from Denmark to the US; served as volunteer, host family, and in various positions with AFS in Denmark, AFS USA and AFS International; involved in the startup of AFS programs in India since 2004. President for iDIMENSIONS, a business coaching company. M.A. in History & B.A. in Religion and History. Married to Gwen; two sons (Finn and Jonas); lives in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia.

How do you feel that AFS as an organization can contribute to fostering intercultural competence around the world especially during these times of uncertainty?

The same way we have always done it, through providing intercultural exchange opportunities for longer or shorter periods of time for as many people as possible and by strengthening orientation programs for everybody involved. Our focus is to not only  to make an exchange student interculturally competent but all stakeholders associated with AFS including host families, volunteers,  host schools and other institutions, etc.

Education has always been the key to expanding the vision of people. How do you feel intercultural learning incorporated within the educational framework to help in broadening the overall learning process for individuals?

Experiencing something that’s different like another culture is always an eye opening experience that helps you broaden your potential. Being able not only to deal with diversity in our daily lives but to take advantage of it for better outcomes and solutions is going to be a critical competency for everybody in the future. Becoming interculturally competent is a key requirement in our globalized world. Across all professions, whether the sciences, the arts, public policy or otherwise global competencies are as essential as STEM skills. That’s why AFS supports key education goals for the 21st century beyond intercultural competence, including critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, innovation, collaboration, communication, empathy, flexibility, and teamwork. AFS has a critical role here going forward.

What initiatives has AFS undertaken to shape the international education worldwide? How do you think these initiatives have been helpful to Indian Schools, Educators & Students? 

AFS was the first organization exchanging high school age students 70 years ago when the Ambulance Drivers started the exchange programs in 1947 right after the end of of World War II. We have shown the power of intercultural exchange again and again. We have shown the way for many other organizations. Today, governments of various countries and leading international organizations support us and recognize the value of Intercultural Learning, e.g. AFS has been granted consultative partner status by UNESCO. I would also like to mention that AFS celebrated its 100th anniversary by holding two international symposiums at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in November 2014. The AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium: Learning to Live Together—from Ideas to Action and the 100 Years Young! Youth Symposium addressed the critical challenges, concerns, opportunities and debates surrounding global citizenship education. Starting with these milestone events, in our second century of service, AFS Intercultural Programs’ aim is not only to transform tens of thousands of lives each year through our international exchange and host family programs that span 99 countries, but also to truly make intercultural learning opportunities and global citizenship education more accessible, relevant and actionable for all people worldwide, both in and outside of the classroom.

Any suggestions as to how the intercultural learning can be given due importance/ awareness in lesser explored areas so as to reach out for more openness and awareness in obtaining intercultural learning.

Intercultural learning is a vital part of the global education agenda and the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 which calls for ensuring inclusive and quality education for all and promoting lifelong learning. It is essential that while we work towards our mission, we aim to make all our efforts broadly available in our local realities and around the world. It is equally important that we clearly make the connections between our efforts to provide people with intercultural learning opportunities and the 21st century skills that all educational systems around the world are aiming to deliver. Intercultural learning is not a nice-to-have privilege but a core competency that all learners need in our world today. The current world climate actually calls for an even more urgent need for the global skills that we help develop through intercultural learning.

This is a key thing being explored by AFS. We need a global strategy but as the realities vary by country the global efforts needs to be combined with national, regional and local strategies, e.g. AFS India has to identify how best to do this in India. One important key to success will be to get the education systems involved in a major way. All of us have to be advocates for this on a daily basis.

During Ebbe’s time in India with board members

Schools are important partners in growth of AFS programs. How has AFS involved schools in country to make them strong partners? What are some kinds of activities that AFS has been doing to improve school relationships, and can be an example for others in the field of Global Education? 

Over the years AFS has had a good relationship with schools around the world and received a lot of support from them, otherwise we couldn’t have placed our students in the schools for a semester or year. However, there is so much more we can do, starting with making them equal partners in the exchange, rather than just helping us with a placement for our students. This will involve actively engaging the schools and listening to their needs and finding additional to make exchange opportunities available for their teachers and administrators.Many initiatives have been taken to make schools more involved with AFS not only through programs but ICL (intercultural learning) Trainings, Expert Meets and seminars. To bring the school fraternity together AFS India has also introduced regional exchange programs amongst their partner schools.

We have some good tools to help us with our outreach to school, e.g., the Educator & School Relations handbook which provides a framework and best practices for AFS organizations on how to partner with schools. We have also created the position of Educator & School Relations Responsible which is a volunteer or staff member in every AFS organization dedicated to maintaining and establishing partnerships with schools and other and educational organizations (like ministries of Education and UNESCO offices). This increases our visibility as an educational organization promoting intercultural learning.

Volunteers are the pillars when it comes to the functioning of AFS. What can more initiatives be brought forth to garner motivation amongst the volunteers?

Our volunteers are most certainly critical to the success and functioning of AFS. In my experience, the most important thing we can do to further the motivation amongst the volunteers is to match our volunteers to responsibilities and tasks they are interested in taking on and then provide orientation and training in how to do it. This means we need to take the time to do talk to the volunteers about this and also follow up with them on a regular basis to discuss how they are doing.

How has the AFS experienced/helped you?

I can’t imagine my life without it! Not the easiest thing that happened to me, but definitely the best! On an AFS experience you get to know yourself better and you learn about other people. Over time you also learn a lot about how other people perceive and experience you, which initially you (Photo Above: With IND staffers) may not pay a lot of attention to as an exchange student. This is a very important ability for any future professional and personal relationships (I am still working on it).  I learned about it firsthand through an article my host father, who was a journalist, wrote a couple of years after the family had hosted me. I had a great year, but it appeared that it took my family some time to get used to me and to understand me and the way I reacted to what was happening around me. Several examples were given in the article, things that had never occurred to me, but I was heartened to read “At the close of Ebbe’s visit with us, we were sure that we had gained a son when we said our good-byes.” Now many years later I can certainly confirm that as my host family had gained a new son, I gained a new family for life!

AFS added a totally new dimension to my life. I feel very privileged.