Michael Hugo Rosak - organiser, and beneficiary, of student exchange programme

Michael Hugo Rosak and his AFS-volunteer colleagues

At only 25, Michael Hugo Rosak may seem rather young to run the Czech branch of an international NGO. But Michael is well-qualified to head the Prague office of AFS, having himself taken part in its international student exchange programme while still at school. AFS stands for American Field Service, and was started during the First World War by Americans who preferred to provide back-up services rather than fight; their experiences in Europe convinced them of the value of spending time abroad. But when did AFS first come to this country? That was my opening question to Michael Hugo Rosak, in this edition of One on One.

"After World War Two we were one of the first countries that took part in the programme. Seven students from Czechoslovakia went to the US. One of them was Jaroslava Moserova, who was a senator and unfortunately passed away last year.

"For two years there were students being exchanged, but in 1948 that was stopped, for obvious reasons. We had to wait a long 40 years until we restarted the organisation - thanks to Jara Moserova, as well - in 1990.

"As a special partner organisation made up of volunteers, AFS Multicultural Programmes was established in 1996; we've only recently had the 10th anniversary."

I understand you bring foreign students here, and you send Czech students abroad. Tell us first about the foreign students that come here - how old are they, and where are they from generally?

"We have students from virtually all over the world. The programme is a high school programme, mainly, because that's about the age when a person gets the most out of the programme. They come from places like Thailand, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, US - pretty much, you name it."

How does it work with going to school here?

"The idea is that they all go to Czech school. It's a community-based programme. We place them with Czech host families, who are volunteers - wonderful volunteers - who then sign them up for local schools.

"So they go to a Czech school, they try to integrate with the local kids, and they try to learn Czech and understand the culture and the Czech way of living."

How is it for, I don't know, a 16-year-old Mexican going to school here, not speaking Czech? In practical terms, how does that work?

"Well, at times it can be boring, but it can be a lot of fun as well. The fact that they don't speak the language is a problem for about three months. Because with a young brain and an open mind students can actually get completely in depth in the culture, they can learn and pick up the language very quickly. The brain works that way.

"If they're completely surrounded by it, they can speak fairly good Czech within three months. Then integration is much easier. In the end they actually get a Czech school report with the grades from their teachers. It does work.

"And we hope that the schools benefit from this as well, because they get to expose their students to someone who comes with different cultural baggage."

Speaking about different cultural baggage, are there any countries from which people...would fit in more easily in the Czech Republic? Or other countries, other nations which might find it more difficult to get used to life here, in your experience?

"That's a very good question but at the same time I don't think it's so easy to stereotype like that. What is very special nowadays is that teenagers from all over the world are becoming more and more similar in a lot of ways - mainly in the ways that they're all teenagers.

"They do fit in, although language can be a huge obstacle for students that come from very far away. For example students from Spanish-speaking countries find it difficult to really immerse themselves with the Czech language. For them it is a third language they're learning, because they've all been doing English before - but that counts really for everyone.

"Most of them can manage really well, and I don't see it really as a...complication - the fact that they're from two different parts of the world and someone would find it easier to integrate."

Tell us about the students who go the other way, from the Czech Republic to other countries. How many go a year? And how do you select people?

"I was one of the students myself...We send I think about 45 to 50 students a year. It's not many, but we hope it could be more. When students sign up and they select a destination we try to explain to them that it is probably more interesting to go to a country like Thailand or Argentina, rather than to the US - which is what a lot of parents want these days.

"When we do get students who choose a destination like that we try to support them, we interview them, we run a series of orientation camps where we prepare them for the experience. All of this is run by volunteers.

"We try to really give them the idea that it's not going to be easy, but the benefit they're going to get from the experience is going to be enormous. As an organisation we really want to make it clear that we are trying to give them a unique cultural experience.

"We're not selling them a year of vacation abroad where everyone's going to smile and everyone's going to be happy.

"The growth that the student goes through is really special and most of them can evaluate the experience probably two years after the programme. Because that's when they come back to the Czech Republic and they're forced to see their world through new eyes and adapt to it in a new way, which rounds them off as more cosmopolitan people."

What age are they?

"Usually it's 17."

You mentioned that you yourself had been on this programme. Where did you go and how was it?

"I went to Hong Kong. I was actually 18 at that time. I chose to go there because I really wanted something different and special - and it was.

"I lived with a Chinese family who didn't speak any English. I went to a local school, which was an all boys school, so that was very different.

"I generally really enjoyed this...fact of humility that I had to learn, because I left [Prague] as a very smart boy (laughs). I came there and I couldn't read, I couldn't write, I didn't know anything about the history.

"This humility one gets to learn is actually what you really need. I would recommend to parents to try to look into an experience like this for their children, because now that military service is gone there's not that many experiences for young people to leave the family and actually go out and learn something about themselves.

"And that is just it, because you learn something about the world and about yourself as well."