He was like a movie character but in real life: Unforgettable exchange intercultural year one of the Highlands teachers 

“The best part is that the host family just treats me like a child that moved very far away from home. I am lucky to say that I have my real family and an Australian family who love me just the way I am and have supported me my whole life. The best friends and the second family for our whole life!”

AFS is an intercultural program that helps students from different countries to know the new culture, customs, and traditions of a new world for them. Over 100,000 former AFS students live in the U.S. and today I would like to tell you about one of them. Kimberly W. Grillot is a US history teacher at Highlands High School, but not everyone knows that she was an exchange student when she was young. I decided to ask her some questions about her unforgettable experience. 

Grillot knew about the AFS program at school. My high school, Anderson High School in Cincinnati, had an extracurricular AFS club and I joined the club and met many exchange students from around the world.”

She just wanted to apply to be an exchange student for the summer but after Grillot applied, AFS offered her a 1-year exchange to Melbourne, Australia instead of a 3-month summer exchange. She talked with her parents about it, and they supported Grillot’s decision to go. “My parents were awesome about it!”

The most important thing for parents is the safety of their children. Grillot’s parents, of course, were nervous, but excited. What is interesting, Grillot’s father had a co-worker from Australia named Esta de Fossard (she was a famous Australian children’s book author). Esta assured Grillot’s parents she would be okay and that she would check in on her when she went back home to Australia to visit, which she did! 

Grillot said, “I think that made them feel a lot better about it so they let me go.”

The process to apply took Grillot 3 whole months. It consisted of a very long application, an essay from her and her parents, and 3 interviews for Grillot and her parents (school, the local Cincinnati AFS chapter, and the regional chapter). Also, all students who applied had to attend a Halloween costume party – AFS wanted to see their social interactions with other students they didn’t know – and apparently, they “ranked” them based on how outgoing they were. 

Grillot 1982 Australia

All AFS students are always excited to know their host parents. Grillot found them in December and left the US in January.  “I had 6 weeks’ notice. Around Christmas time, I received a lovely letter and photos from my host family – the Barnes family. I had a Mum and Dad, 2 brothers, and 1 sister. Plus, a menagerie of animals because my host father was like the movie character Dr. Doolittle – a huge animal lover! We had a cat, a dog, a rabbit, a talking cockatoo, 30 blue and yellow budgies, and 3 tanks full of fish!”

Barnes Family Australia 1982

Of course, it was difficult for Grillot to leave home, especially because of her biological father. “He had just had heart surgery and I was worried he would get sick again while I was gone. I thought about him every single day I was gone. But my parents wrote me weekly letters, this was before the internet and social media in 1982, and they called me on special occasions like my birthday and holidays.”

Before all AFS students begin their programs they always ask former students about their experience at school and some advice on how to make friends. It is the most important, exciting, but the most frightening part too. The first day at the Australian school Grillot was completely different from the US school. “I looked SO out of place! I wore the uniform I was supposed to wear but since we could wear makeup to school in the US, I had a little bit of makeup on and was told by the Headmistress of Girls Discipline I was NOT allowed to do that! I had to conform to the school uniform and dress code standards. So, I accidentally got in trouble the first day.”

USA AFS Friends 1982

Speaking about friends, “My first two friends were Pam and Astrid – they came up to me that very first day and introduced themselves and showed me around. And then the second day I met another close friend, Karen, and I am still in contact with the three of them to this day. But I was a “novelty” – people made fun of my American accent and teased me a lot. As time went on, I realized that was the way Australians show affection – they are very sarcastic and make fun of each other. So, I think they eventually accepted me”, said Grillot. 

The AFS program leaves a big imprint on the students’ lives. Grillot said that since the end of an exchange year she and her family love traveling. “My experience, made me want to travel and see more parts of the world. I backpacked through Europe in 1990 for 6 months. I have been to 13 foreign countries and have taken my husband and children to all 50 states and 5 foreign countries. I have seen many parts of the world and it helps me understand people and culture and politics which, I think, helps me be a better friend, teacher, spouse, parent, and citizen. It is one of the best things that ever happened to me!”

They are best friends and the second family of our whole life! Grillot said that still keeps in touch with them. Moreover, she took her husband and children to Australia 10 years ago – not to see the tourist sights but to meet all the people that she loves. It was a really special trip! “The best part is that the host family just treats me like a child that moved very far away from home. I am lucky to say that I have my real family and an Australian family who love me just the way I am and have supported me my whole life. One day, now that my children are adults, we will go back and see all the sights, especially the “outback” area.” 

Barnes Family Grandchildren 2011

Macleod High Friends 2011

Macleod High Friends 2011

Based on her experience, Grillot gave some advice to future AFS students, first of all, they should remember that it is a difficult process to go through, but it is so rewarding. “Sometimes you’ll feel homesick – that is natural. But if you know that it won’t be too long before you go back home, you can psych yourself up and embrace all the adventure”, she said. 

Grillot mentioned other AFS students. They should keep in touch with each other, especially if they live in the same area. Get together with them and share stories, compare experiences, and support one another through difficult times. “The year I went to Australia, there were 70 US students – 25 of us were in the same city/state and we got together every other month. It was really helpful, and I also made friends with the US students. And, my best friend, Mary from Milwaukee, was the matron of honor in my wedding and she is still one of my dearest friends today.”

Brisbane 2011

Sydney 2011

“AFS gave me the most incredible lifelong gift and I am very lucky and grateful!”