THE American Field Service (AFS) is an international exchange program founded in 1947 with the goal of building peace and nurturing respect and mutual understanding between cultures. The program has allowed more than 3,500 Costa Ricans to travel, live and study abroad in more than 50 countries (TT, April 15).This year, which marks AFS Costa Rica’s 50th anniversary, the organization has made its greatest effort in years to offer opportunities to students with limited financial resources to participate in the program. According to Rolando Araya, national director of AFS in Costa Rica, “The best way to celebrate (AFS’s 50th anniversary) was to offer scholarships.”Araya, who has been involved in AFS for 26 years, told The Tico Times that usually six to 10 scholarships are given annually, several of which are only partial scholarships. But this year, 15 full scholarships, worth more than $6,000 each and covering everything from English classes to an allowance for personal spending, have been awarded.SEVENTY-five schools throughout the country were invited to propose one academically outstanding student in economic need to participate in the program. Several rounds of interviews and exams narrowed the candidates down to 15 exceptional students, who were awarded full scholarships and the chance of a lifetime. “This is like a dream come true,” said Lizeth Rivera, 16, from Cartago, east of San José.The group consists of 10 female and five male high-school students, ages 15-18, who come from different parts of the country, from the northwestern province of Guanacaste to the Caribbean province of Limón. Nearly all of the students come from single-parent homes, have only one employed parent or hold down jobs to help support their families.“My parents are very happy and excited,” said María Angélica Madrigal, 16, also from Cartago. “I think they are very proud of me and feel as if all my efforts have been fruitful.”THE scholarships were provided by the Costa Rica-U.S. Foundation for Cooperation (CR-USA), a private, nonprofit organization that aims to promote international cooperation and mutual benefit between the people and governments of Costa Rica and the United States, primarily through the exchange of knowledge, ideas, specialized assistance and technical support.AFS proposed the idea of the scholarships to CR-USA, which agreed to finance the project.CR-USA Executive Director Herman Faith said that providing the scholarships was a good opportunity for a deserving group of Costa Rican students.“Without this opportunity, they would not be able to be exposed to a foreign culture and language,” Faith said. “We hope they will be good ambassadors of our country, and represent us with very high standards in everything they do.”“We believe that if we are doing this the right way, and they take the opportunity and develop their potential, they will become leaders in their communities and help (their communities) to do better in the future,” he added.THE students left yesterday for the United States – all of them on their first plane trip ever. They will live in different parts of the United States, from California to New York, with volunteer host families who receive no monetary payment for the students’ 11-month stays.“I want to thank (AFS and CR-USA), because this is an incredible and unique opportunity that is going to strengthen our personal growth and really help us in the future,” said José Villalobos, 16, from San José.For information on AFS or CR-USA, visit www.afs.org or www.cr-usa.org.