Chief Meehan and family and Aleo . Photo: Courtesy AFS
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan (far right), his wife Becky and son Andrew, along with Elia Alberti from Italy, who stayed with them through the American Field Service program. Photo: Courtesy Meehan family

By Cassady Bogatin

“We aren’t just hosting an exchange student. We have another kid. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘him’ — we are a team, a family. That’s how it’s been from the very first day.”

Elia Alberti beams at these words from his host “father,” Berkeley Police Chief Mike Meehan, who is sitting at his family’s dining room table. It has been nearly nine months since a then-16-year-old Alberti stepped off the plane from Milan, frantically plugging “the airline lost my luggage” into Google Translate. Misplaced bags and a tenuous grasp of the English language were only the first adventures that Alberti and his host family would tackle during the year to follow.

Chief Meehan and his family were introduced to Alberti through the American Field Service, or AFS, an intercultural program that connects high-school students from all over the world with host families in other countries. The program has sent nine Berkeley High School students abroad this past year alone.

Originally founded as an ambulance corps during World War I, AFS has been sowing international seeds for over a century — today, its volunteer medics have been replaced by young globetrotters, aptly dubbed Peace Ambassadors, who are provided “learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to create a more just and peaceful world.” This mission is accomplished through an intricate network of supportive cast members, ranging from full-time coordinators to volunteer liaisons like Berkeley architect Michelle Bergtraun, a staunch supporter (and past beneficiary) of the unique opportunities offered by AFS:

“By going abroad in high school with AFS, you become the son or daughter of whoever is hosting you,” she said. “If the host family goes to visit grandma, you go to visit grandma with them. Truly, you become part the family – and once you are a member of the family for a year, you are part of it forever.”

These aren’t just empty words. Bergtraun, an Italian by birth, took advantage of AFS and spent a year of high school studying in the United States where she met her future husband. As a liaison for the program, she now helps prospective students find a place to live, and offers resources and support to their host families. Bergtraun’s positive experiences as both a Peace Ambassador and a host have made her a passionate advocate for the program; one of her sons will soon be returning from his own year in France, much to Bergtraun’s delight

“A year in high school is so important; when you are young, your time abroad becomes such a large part of who you are – you never lose it. You become the representative of your country, and you learn a lot about both the culture and yourself.”

Elia Alberti and Andrew Meehan during a spring break visit to Chicago. Photo: Courtesy Meehan family

Gabe Berman, a rising senior at Berkeley High who spent his sophomore year in the Netherlands courtesy of AFS, described the value of the program that allows you to dig deep: “In AFS we think of it like an iceberg: there are differences in the culture that are visual — how people dress, what they eat — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When you stay with a host family, you start to notice those things that are under the surface.”

The AFS website describes this proverbial glacier as a “titanic part” of the country that you can learn about if you live with people who are part of the culture: this includes everything from local conceptions of social mobility to subliminal body language. Berman’s time with the Dutch made him more aware of his own iceberg too: “We kind of define ourselves within our own culture — when you take yourself out of that, you really get to know yourself in a different way.”

For Alberti and the Meehan family, this iceberg is smothered in marinara sauce. Alberti was quick to point out the various ways his culture has been grossly re-appropriated within American culinary tradition

“Once they asked me to make meatball marinara. They say this is Italian, but this is not Italian. I am Italian, trust me. This is American.” He takes a deep breath and furrows his brow before continuing: “And then there is Papa John’s. Don’t get me started on Papa John’s. This pizza with pineapple is garbage; it is like a bad joke.”

Alberti, I am told by his host mother, Becky Meehan, has the un-American tendency of reaching for the oven before the microwave; she even had to buy him his own bottle of cooking wine. It is perhaps his passion for food that has earned Alberti such nicknames as ‘Bruschettino’, ‘Pocino’, and ‘Little Italy’— though it may have something to do with the fact that he stands a solid foot below his host brother, Andrew, who smiled when he said that, while Alberti is OK, “We would have preferred a quieter one.” The “brothers,” who first bonded over the Skyrim t-shirt that Andrew was wearing when they met, have plans to reconvene this summer in Italy.

Today, in a domestic political climate sometimes characterized by blatant xenophobia, intercultural initiatives like AFS are arguably more necessary than ever. The Berkeley High Peace Ambassadors have open minds, stamped passports and enlightened perspectives. They understand there is more than one way of looking at the world — these are soldiers whose weapon of choice is a journal and a home-cooked meal.

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