San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Students Exchange 50 Years of Travels

WHEN Omar Gutiérrez responded to a newspaper ad morethan 45 years ago, he was trying to please his schoolteacher father,not trying to change his own life or those of thousands who followedin his footsteps.What followed opened Gutiérrez’s eyes to things he had neverseen – the inside of an airplane, snow, girls next to him in class,U.S.-style segregation and, most importantly, his own potential. Theexperience was nothing short of life-changing.Gutiérrez was one of the first participants in the American FieldService’s (AFS) student exchange program, now celebrating 50years in Costa Rica.“At that time it was like going to Mars; nobody went to theUnited States,” he said.GUTIÉRREZ, 63, remembers his year in Orchard Park, nearBuffalo, New York, as if he just returned, not like it was the first of– and inspiration for – many more trips all over the world in thepast 46 years.After flying to Florida, with stops in Grand Cayman and Cuba,Gutiérrez and his three Costa Rican companions, also part of thethird class of Costa Rica’s new AFS program, took a bus to NewYork.“The bus stopped in Richmond, Virginia. It was the first time Isaw white people in the front and black people in the back. I sat inthe middle,” he said. “I knew before that it happened like that, butit was shocking to see.”The year that followed included the kind of cultural exchangeand understanding between Gutiérrez and his U.S. community thathelps put a stop to behavior such as racism.“The experience was so fulfilling, it was necessary that otherpeople have it,” Gutiérrez said.When the 18-year-old returned to Costa Rica, he and fellowparticipant Ramón Chavarría went on a campaign to encourageother students to take advantage of the opportunity.Participation in the program skyrocketed. At the time, mostAFS students were able to go to the United States on scholarship.U.S. communities raised money to bring the students to theirtowns, explained AFS Costa Rica director Rolando Araya, whohimself lived for a year in Independence, Iowa, with AFS in 1975.WHILE Gutiérrez and Chavarría are credited with developingthe AFS program in Costa Rica, the organization’s roots here startedyears before.AFS began during World War I and II, when a group of youngmen from the United States offered their services as volunteerambulance drivers.Inspired by the experience and searching for peace, participantsdecided mutual understanding and respect between cultures could benurtured if young people were given the opportunity to live in differentcountries. In 1947, AFS began its student exchange programs.Eight years later, in 1955, the first two Costa Ricans – MaríaAntonieta González and Rafael Quesada, traveled to the UnitedStates under the program.Since then, the organization’s fundamental goal has alwaysbeen building peace.Asked how the Costa Rican program has been successful at thisin its 50 years, Araya said, “Well, we aren’t exactly in the streets protesting Iraq; what we do is open minds one by one.”Approximately 3,500 Costa Ricans have participated in the program,including people who have gone on to have leadership rolesin politics, science and culture, he continued.“One always knows one has to respect other cultures, but whenfaced with big cultural differences, that tolerance is tested,” said formerAFS participant Isela Rodríguez, adding that during her yearliving in Thailand, her respect and open-mindedness grew greatly.IT is not only the students who learn, but also the families andcommunities in which they live, explained former participantDaniel Redondo, who recently lived in Germany.“It allows communities to see a different culture,” he said. “Forexample, in La Cruz (Guanacaste), there was a Japanese student who,when he first got there, was ‘el chino’(‘the Chinese guy’) but by theend he was ‘el japonés’ (‘the Japanese guy’). It’s the little changes.”The upsurge of immigration in Costa Rica in recent years hasmade such lessons valuable, the former participants said.“When I came back, I realized the experience of theNicaraguans living here. Going to another country, you learn whatit is like to be an immigrant… and imagine doing it not by choice,when you are driven by need…”ARAYA laments that the cost of the program prevents mostyoung Costa Ricans from getting this lesson firsthand.Communities no longer raise money to bring foreign students, andscholarship funds are often limited.However, the AFS recently received funds from the U.S.Agency for International Development to allow 15 students to participateon scholarship.In addition, in recent years AFS has started sponsoring interculturaldiscussions, and in 2001 it helped bring the Anne Frankexhibit to Costa Rica.“Children are growing up in a Costa Rican society very differentfrom before,” Araya said, looking ahead to the organization’s future.“We at AFS want to find the educative role we can play in this.”

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