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    Posted March 17, 2014 by
    Perth, Western Australia, Australia
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Why study abroad? Ask Michelle Obama

    An Aussie Girl Connects with the World through Student Exchange

    My name is Anne Last and I am 53 years old. I live in Perth, Western Australia. In July 1978 I set out on an adventure that would change my life. I was an AFS exchange student in Wisconsin for one year. I attended Cedarburg High School as a senior and I loved every minute.

    That experience still reverberates through every single day of my life more than 35 years later. I have American friends all over the USA, plus there was a strong contingent of AFS students from all over the world also hosted in the Milwaukee area in 1978-79.

    I am still in touch with many of them and in fact we have a reunion every few years of those of us hosted in the Milwaukee area. The most recent was in January this year in Holland – see the attached picture (I’m on the far right) – when 8 of us got together in Groningen in early 2014. Whenever we reunite it’s like we’re 17 years old again and we can conquer the world! We’re already planning the next reunion in Chile in 2016.

    I am still in very close touch with my wonderful American family – the Kennedys. I was maid of honour at the wedding of my host sister Denise, and she came out to Australia for mine. Her sons have also spent a semester at school in Australia, continuing the tradition.

    My brother was also an AFS exchange student and has a similar relationship with his delightful host family in Carpinteria California. Later this year, my husband and I are meeting up with my brother and his wife, plus my brother’s host brother and his wife in Italy. Those connections just keep on keeping on.

    Over a number of years, my family in my home town Adelaide, South Australia hosted 7 students as well as sending me and my brother overseas. One of our students was a Japanese boy, initially a somewhat challenging thought for my parents who were brought up in the shadow of the Second World War, but Shinji won us all over and smashed those stereotypes. Having someone living under your roof from a completely different culture will do that.

    We also hosted 3 American girls – one of whom came out to Australia to surprise my mother on her 80th birthday last year – plus an American boy, a German boy and a Brazilian girl. We had our own little United Nations happening year after year.

    Many of the students hosted in the Milwaukee area were hosted to a meal at the home of Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Junior in 1979. To this day I (and others in our group) regularly correspond with him and I like to think it helps him in his deliberations as an American legislator to have that international input.

    There were two Iranian girls on AFS exchange in the Milwaukee area in our year, and the Iranian Revolution happened towards the end of our stay there. So instead of seeing Iran as a faceless nation in turmoil, each of us had two faces to put with that country. AFS has a tagline –‘turning places into people’ – and it really does. Again it breaks down those stereotypes and makes you realise that they’re people just like us.

    The Iranian story didn’t end there. One of our chaperones in the States was an American called Gretchen and her cousin was one of the American hostages taken in Iran. For all of us it gave another perspective to what would otherwise have been a completely hateful story. We had that human connection that only happened because we had met people from another land.

    I firmly believe that if every student had the opportunity to travel overseas when they are young and impressionable, we really could achieve that elusive world peace, or at least move a long way towards it.

    Living in another country gives you the time and perspective to see how other people really are, and to realise that as much as there may be outward differences, in many ways we are all just the same and want the same things.

    I cherish the many friendships I have made through my AFS experience. Through the wonders of modern social media I keep in touch with many of them and hear about their daily lives in different parts of the world.

    My AFS experience changed my life forever. I grew up, I started looking outward and I became intensely interested in my world and the people who inhabit it. I like to think it gave me empathy and compassion, but I know for sure it gave me a unique insight into so many different lives and a thirst to truly understand my fellow human being.

    I am a zealot when it comes to trying to convince young people to give it a go. They may think that with social media and 24/7 news they are connected to the world, but the only way to truly connect with people from another culture and learn their way of life is to live amongst them.

    Even if you don’t publish my story, it has been a wonderful experience to document the many ways in which my student exchange experience has opened my eyes and moulded my life. I have only touched the surface in this document – student exchange is the gift that keeps on giving. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reflect on how lucky I have been to study abroad.

    PS - I have many many more pictures if required.
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