An AFS-USA host family. Courtesy AFS-USA.

It takes just one person to open your eyes to a new perspective and change your life forever. AFS-USA fosters those sorts of experiences by matching high school exchange students with host families around the world. 

It all started in 1915 with the founding of the American Ambulance Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps that evolved into a French-American fellowship program following World War I. More than a century later, AFS-USA is a recognized leader in intercultural exchange. Each year, they connect approximately 1,000 students with host families in the U.S. through semester and year-long programs, and 200 American students with school-year and summer study abroad opportunities. Illinois currently hosts 73 AFS students throughout the state, including 36 in the greater Chicago area while three Illinois students participate in AFS programs in Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. 

Inviting an international exchange student into your home is a fantastic way to forge new relationships and learn more about another culture while sharing what makes Chicagoland so special. AFS-USA Director of Marketing and External Communications, Julie Ball, describes it as “a true cultural exchange” that benefits students, host families, and communities alike as the students attend school and become a part of neighborhood life. 

For the children of host families, the experience can be especially positive. “Oftentimes we see host siblings being inspired to study abroad, or learn a new language, or do something in our community, which is part of our mission of creating a more just and peaceful world through cultural understanding,” she says. “All of a sudden they’re talking about the potential for positive change around the world.”

That said, you don’t have to have school-age kids to qualify as an AFS-USA host family. The organization encourages families of all sizes and walks of life to apply, and Ball says some of their most successful hosts have been couples without children and retirees. With local coordinators and 24/7 support from national staff, the organization is there for students and host families from day one, using their time-honed expertise to ensure great matches based on interests and personalities. They also have team members dedicated to school outreach and partnerships to support students’ success within their host schools.

Host families must provide students with three meals per day, a safe place to sleep and do homework, and transportation to and from school. All other expenses are at their discretion. 

Costs such as school enrollment and secondary insurance are provided by the students’ families or scholarship programs (a select number of students receive full merit-based scholarships awarded by the U.S. Department of State), and students bring spending money from home for recreation or other expenses. Due to the structure of student visas, families who host do so on a volunteer basis, though they receive tax deductions for every month the student is in their home. 

Lacey Bruce can attest to the AFS difference. In August 2021, she and her family were exploring possibilities to host a student the following school year. After speaking with AFS-USA team members, they became aware of a Swiss teenager seeking placement for the upcoming school term and made a game-time decision to invite him into their home. To hear her tell it, it was a match made in heaven.

“We credit AFS for matching us so well and giving us the opportunity to add to our family,” she says. “After such a positive host family experience, I am convinced everyone should try hosting a student to experience all of the joy, love, and laughter that we have. I then became a volunteer with AFS to try and give back to an organization that gave us so much.” 

With AFS-USA, that sort of experience is the rule, not the exception. “Our students stay in touch with their host families for years and years, lifetimes. So you’ll go to each other’s weddings and celebrations. It’s really powerful,” Ball says.

AFS-USA encourages people to apply to become host families and get involved with volunteer opportunities all year round. Heading into 2024, they are also fundraising for scholarships for American students wishing to study internationally. 

“We’re trying to make studying abroad more accessible across our organization to make it more representative of our US population,” Ball says. “We also have a new scholarships and aid process where we’ve removed the application fee for study abroad applicants and automatically give them scholarships if they demonstrate financial need.”

Interested in learning more? Visit to find out more about hosting, volunteering, and studying abroad with AFS-USA today.