AFS-USA Project:Change Highlights Cultural Intrigue

Thursday, February 12, 2015

An 8th grade student at The Cranbury School in New Jersey received the biggest surprise of his life yesterday in front of hundreds of unsuspecting classmates. 14 year-old Sam Harshbarger, who serves as Student Council President, was making announcements at an all-school assembly Monday when an unexpected guest joined him on stage. Dr. Jorge Castro, President of the leading international education organization AFS-USA, stunned the entire audience by revealing that Sam had beaten out 500 students across the country – many as old as 18 – to win first place in a highly competitive national essay contest.  

Sam’s winning essay, which conveyed his passion for documenting and preserving dying cultures, so impressed judges and online voters that President Castro was moved to congratulate Sam in person. In front of Sam’s teachers, parents, classmates, and even the Deputy Mayor of Cranbury Township, who made a special appearance for the occasion, President Castro presented the young scholar with the contest’s Grand Prize – a full AFS-USA scholarship to pursue his passion abroad.

Yet, perhaps the biggest shock of all came when President Castro announced AFS-USA’s decision to give Sam’s social studies teacher, whom Sam identified as his inspiration, the opportunity to take this journey with him. Already moved to tears by Sam’s accomplishment, Sara Fernandez was overwhelmed by this unexpected gift.

“I am the proudest teacher ever right now…this day is amazing,” she stated, before emphasizing how important global issues are becoming to today’s youth. “All the students definitely understand that the world is smaller today than it was 10 years ago…But Sam really has a love of indigenous cultures - of reading about them and bringing them into the classroom, and that’s how he sets himself apart.”

This summer, Ms. Fernandez will get to accompany Sam and several other students on a two-week AFS Global Prep program in Russia to carry out Sam’s winning volunteer project idea - creating a website to document Russia’s diminishing indigenous cultures.

NSHSS Members – YOU can join Sam’s volunteer journey to Russia! Click here to learn how.

The annual essay contest, entitled AFS Project: Change, is designed to encourage 8th-12th grade students to learn about global issues and develop innovative volunteer project ideas that address one or more of those issues. Winners are awarded a full scholarship to participate in a 2-week AFS Global Prep program abroad, while one Grand Prize winner receives the opportunity to lead his or her own program and bring his or her volunteer idea to life.

Global Prep is AFS-USA’s newest intercultural exchange offering. These two-week programs are immersion-based experiences that provide students with an attractive alternative to longer-term study abroad programs without sacrificing many of the traditional benefits of educational exchange. Students can choose programs in more than 14 countries and opt for curriculum that meets their needs and interests, including studying wildlife conservation in Kenya, cultivating culinary interest in France, exploring sustainable technologies in Germany, and examining educational issues in India, among others. Most programs also emphasize community service.

Additional Information:

AFS Project: Change: Find contest details at:



AFS-USA, a non-profit organization, has been the leader in international student exchange for more than 65 years. Its mission is to enhance the global competency of US citizens through providing intercultural learning experiences for individuals, families, communities and schools. Each year, AFS-USA provides more than $3 million in scholarships and financial aid to US students, and it maintains a network of nearly 5,000 US volunteers who are instrumental to its work.