An AFS Enthusiast:
From Geneva to Berkeley and Beyond
August 2010 | Forty years after her AFS experience, Marianne Meyer-Ott continues to pursue the intercultural adventure — as so many Returnees do.
Born in French-speaking Geneva, she has lived all her married life in the Zurich area — where Swiss German is her family language, although she uses English, French and German with equal ease in both business and volunteer work. Her daughter Barbara spent her AFS year in Finland, and later lived in South America. Her son Stephan spent a year and a half as an gardener overseeing Spanish-speaking workers in the USA, followed by a season working in Canada. The Meyers are a multicultural family living in a country which prides itself on its long history of an intercultural confederation.
Switzerland — and Geneva in particular — also has a tradition of promoting social change with international repercussions, from Calvinism to the International Red Cross. But in 1969, when Marianne flew in from Geneva, she was to find that her staid native city paled in comparison with her dramatic new home in Berkeley, California. Her AFS host mother wouldn’t allow her to walk unaccompanied down Telegraph Avenue in broad daylight, even though Marianne had had no qualms about traversing Geneva in the middle of the night. Berkeley, and particularly the university, was in turmoil. Although boasting no John Calvins or Henry Dunants, it was well supplied with hippies and campus revolutionaries. This was the year following the People’s Park protest, a spillover from neighboring San Francisco’s Summer of Love.
Despite the background of dramatic calls for change, Marianne spent a relatively peaceful year at Berkeley High School. Her host father, after all, was a theoretical physicist at the university; a certain scientific detachment was the rule. At the same time, AFS was active in providing support to its charges. Meetings and orientations were held — including a picnic presided over by Berkeley professor Fred Balderston, an AFS driver from WW2.
Returning to Switzerland, Marianne then completed her secondary schooling, and turned to studies in chemistry, while throwing herself into volunteer work with the Geneva chapter of AFS Switzerland — of which she eventually became treasurer. She was now ready to begin the next chapter of her ongoing AFS experience: marriage to Kurt Meyer and a move to a new cultural environment: Thalwil.
Shifting her studies from chemistry to accounting in order to help manage her husband’s landscaping business, and raising a family did not prevent Marianne from continuing to “moonlight” for AFS — now as an all-rounder volunteer to the national office in Zurich. Eventually, she was elected to the national board — now one of the “old” members of a group traditionally made up of young university students.
In the meantime, over the two decades following Marianne’s experience in Berkeley, AFS itself struggled with its own version of social unrest, finally transforming itself from a network of strictly bilateral exchanges with the US to an confederation of international partner organizations, exchanging among themselves. The metamorphosis proved difficult: cool heads were needed to protect the AFS spirit from the side effects of a violent change of form.
Thus it was that, from 1991 to 1997, Marianne found herself sitting on the board of AFS International as they struggled with the aftermath of rapid transformation. During this time, she served in the Financial Working Group, on the Executive Committee, chairing the Program Committee and the Steering Committee for the AFS World Congress, held in Switzerland in 1993.
Change, but tradition! As a European, Marianne has long been a moving force in reminding AFS to keep sight of its past and its values, while shaping the forms of a new future. Beginning with its name, for which she helped create the AFS Foundation, based in Switzerland. Active in the affairs of AFS Archives, she has taken many steps to promote the value of AFS’s legacy which, at present, involves backing the efforts of the Foundation to create both a physical and a virtual AFS Museum.
It’s not that there has been nothing else to do! While ever working on behalf of AFS, Marianne has continued to manage the family business as well as several other small enterprises, and at the same time volunteering for various associations, in the past six years mostly for Spitex Thalwil, a community-based organization for home health care. A fine example of dedicated enthusiasm, recalling that of one of AFS’s first mæcenas, Swiss-American Edward J. de Coppet, of whom Henry Sleeper wrote: “From the moment of our first interview, it was apparent that rather than having to interest him in our behalf, we should have to strive well to maintain the level of his ambition for us.“
2010 AFS President’s Award Recipients Announced (AFS Janus – November 2010)
Marianne Meyer receives President’s Award
Tempi passati by Rahel Aschwanden, published in Across, AFS Switzerland’s Members Magazine 80/2011 (in German)
40 Years Volunteering for AFS,
an article (in German) by Oliver Lutz