Jenny (front row, far left) and husband Mike (top row, far right) with some of their scholarship students at the Speedwell Foundation’s annual picnic.
Jenny K. Messner credits the high school cultural exchange program of AFS with transforming her life. Living in Brazil for a year in the 1970s, Jenny learned a new culture, became fluent in Portuguese, and parlayed her language skills into a career in international finance. Then she found a way to help hundreds of other young American bilinguals-to-be follow in her path. But would she let her own daughter venture so far from home in today’s world? Hear Jenny’s story in Episode 34 of America the Bilingual.
A professional life in her adopted language leads to a philanthropic one
In Episode 34, Jenny shares how her year of language immersion in Sao Paolo set the direction for her professional life back in the States. She became one of the nearly one million Americans who speak Portuguese, although one of the few who learned it as a second language.
Even years after her time in Brazil, when Jenny and her husband, Mike, were both successful businesspeople, her Portuguese was as strong as ever. “I actually had a maid at one of my houses who would bring her Brazilian friends by just to hear me talk because they didn’t believe that I spoke Portuguese,” she says.
Jenny is such a staunch believer in the power of her AFS year to give American high school students other-culture, other-language wings that she and Mike started the Speedwell Foundation in support of it.
For students who otherwise could not have wings
They award AFS scholarships to qualified high school students from her local community in central Pennsylvania. Part of the selection process is based on financial need. Jenny says she would not have been able to go to Brazil without financial help from family friends.
“It’s been a labor of love from really humble beginnings. Both my husband and I had very little to begin with,” Jenny says of the foundation. “Thanks to his brilliance and a lot of hard work, we are able to give back now.”
They started giving back in 2007. “We gave one scholarship and then we gave more and more, and pretty soon we got it up to over 200,” Jenny says.
One of the Speedwell Foundation’s scholarship students in his AFS country.
Parents’ reluctance, and Jenny’s advice
But in recent years, fewer high school students and their parents have been seeking out such year-long programs. Jenny got a firsthand idea of why when her own daughter decided she wanted to be like Mom. It was a moment of truth for Jenny, and she offers parents some encouragement on how they can give their child the life-changing bilingual wings that AFS offers.
A young Jenny Messner with Brazilian soccer star Pelé during her 1970 AFS year abroad in Brazil
Hear the story
Listen on iTunes by clicking here: America the Bilingual by Steve Leveen on iTunes. Or on SoundCloud here. Steve comments on Twitter as well.
Want to host an international exchange student? “This Old House” can help
Staff members at “This Old House” reached out to us in 2023 with a helpful tip sheet they’ve prepared. Take a look:
The America the Bilingual podcast is part of the Lead with Languages campaign of ACTFL—The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Special thanks from Steve to Marlene Baker and the rest of the staff at AFS-USA.
This episode was written by Mim Harrison, the editorial and brand director of the America the Bilingual project, and produced by Fernando Hernández, who does the sound design and mixing as well. The associate producer is Beckie Rankin. Graphic arts are created by Carlos Plaza Design Studio. Meet the America the Bilingual team—including our bark-lingual mascot, Chet—here.
Support for the America the Bilingual project comes from the Levenger Foundation.
Music in this episode, “Quasi Motion” by Kevin MacLeod, was used with a Creative Commons Attribution License. Our thanks to Epidemic Sound for helping us make beautiful music together.