Around here, autumn means a welcome return of the back to school routine, and maybe a little chill in the morning air. For our family, it also means a couple of weeks of repeated trips to the airport to welcome foreign exchange students.
Participating in the Rotary Youth Exchange program is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a Rotarian. It gives us an opportunity to get to know students from across the globe, inviting them into our homes and clubs, learning about their cultures and traditions.
The Rotary program is a true one-on-one exchange: for every student we welcome here, we send a student on exchange. With their service, our host families and clubs, counselors, committee members, and other volunteers make life-changing opportunities available to local students every year.
By staying involved with the program, our returning students (we call them rebounds) enhance the exchange program. Their involvement is critical. They know first-hand what it means to be an exchange student, and provide insight into our interview, training, and orientation processes.
They’re also just plain fun to be around.
Recently a group of rebounds joined Rotarian volunteers and current exchange students in the mountains of Central Idaho for our annual orientation weekend. We asked them to share a little bit about their own exchange experiences.
What are you thinking as you watch these new students embarking on their exchange year?
“Everything is happening so fast for them right now,” Brock said. He’s recently returned from a year in France. “They’re probably not taking everything in, their heads are still spinning.”
Jack said he was jealous, thinking of all the things they’d experience in the coming year. He recently returned from his exchange in Denmark.
“I’m excited for them,” he said, nodding with everyone else in the group. “This is just the very beginning.”
How have you changed since you were in their shoes?
“I look at them and I just see little babies,” Tessa said. She returned from Spain a year ago. “I don’t know how you guys let me into the program, I was so introverted. The amount of growth I went through was just ridiculous.”
Megan, who traveled to Argentina three years ago, agreed.
“I don’t think a single one of us can say we left and came back the same person.”
“You’re still the same person, but your personality expands,” Tessa clarified, and Megan laughed.
“Okay, yeah. I had so many people telling me I was going to be a different person, and I was all ‘But I like me.’”
“You just grow up so much through this experience,” Jack said.
“And you appreciate things so much more,” Taylor said. Two years ago, she was starting her exchange in France. “You appreciate your parents …”
“You appreciate dryers,” Tessa chimed in. And then everyone started talking at once.
“My clothes were always so stiff.”
“My host mom ironed my underwear.”
“I had a maid at each of my host families. It was kind of weird.”
“Me too! And if I made my own bed, the maid would remake it.”
“None of my host siblings had any chores, they didn’t know how to do laundry. They’d never make it on their own.”
“My host siblings were in college and my host mom would drive an hour each way to do their laundry.”
Okay, hang on, besides having dryers and knowing how to do laundry, were there other things you appreciated about the United States after exchange?
“I appreciate our education system in America,” Emma said. “Here, you don’t have to choose a path that dictates your career when you’re fourteen.” Emma spent her exchange year in Belgium. Other members in the group noted similarities in their respective countries.
“In Spain it’s ninth grade,” Tessa said.
“Same in France,” Brock said, “you pick a track (in school) and you stay there.”
“I knew one person who tried to switch (tracks) in Argentina and it was ridiculously complicated,” she said. “He was put back years in school, and then his friends shunned him.”
So, the flexibility of our education system is a good thing. But in other areas, the students wondered if there are too many options available to Americans.
“The sheer amount of choices available in everything is crazy here,” Megan said.
“In France, you go to a restaurant, there may be three things on the menu,” Brock said.
Did you bring anything back with you? Any new traditions or attitudes?
“I’m trying to incorporate the siesta into my life,” Tessa said. “I each lunch and relax, but then my sister is always poking me, ‘Let’s go do something.’”
“’Do something productive.’” Emma said, making a face. “That’s what my dad says. I say ‘Really? I just want to chill.’”
“I like to take the time now to just make a cup of coffee and sit and enjoy it,” Brock said.
“I realize I like my time alone, and I like my piece and quiet,” Jack said. “I love being social, but I need to set time aside to be by myself.”
“On exchange I learned how to be social and be with people, but also how to be alone and not be lonely,” Tessa said.
How do you think your future is different because of your exchange?
“I will travel the world,” Gabi said (she checked Argentina off that list with her exchange last year).
And then, again, everyone started talking at once.
“There goes all my money.”
“I can couch surf across France.”
Couch surfing, huh? I seem to remember some of these kids a year ago freaking out because they weren’t sure they’d be able to find their way around a strange school. Now they’re talking about backpacking across Europe, or picking avocados in Chile for a summer.
But that’s part of the change in mentality that can happen when you’ve been through exchange, Brock said.
“Everything that used to sound crazy, sounds a lot less crazy now.”
Emma agreed. “Suddenly half-assed plans sound like really good plans.”
“Before (my exchange) I was going to be a doctor,” Tessa said, “but now I’m a global studies major.”
Megan’s plan for her future has changed as well.
“I’ve wanted to study theater since I was six, and I stick by that,” she said. “But now I’m writing a grant for a project that addresses mental health and healing through theater. We’re going to travel across Europe to do programs. I have horrible anxiety, it’s crippling some days. Through theater, I’ve been able to make life happen, I want to take that to places where they don’t have a good approach to mental health.”
What is the value of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program to Idaho?
“I really gained an appreciation for the plight of people coming to America, as immigrants,” Taylor said.
“That’s the gist of Rotary isn’t it?” Emma asked. “Understanding? World peace? You’re raising a whole new generation. There’s that guy who said it: ‘if every 17 year-old went on exchange, there would be no more war.’ Well, he’s right.”
For the record, ‘that guy’ is former Rotary International President Carl Wilhelm Stenhammar, who said: “my dream is for every 17 year-old to become a Youth Exchange Student. If we could achieve this there would be no more wars.”
And yes, he’s right.
If you live in Southern Idaho and are interested in the Rotary Youth Exchange program, we’re taking applications for outbound students for the 2018-2019 school year through October, 2017. You must be between the ages of 15 and 18 by August 2018. For more information, visit our District 5400 Youth Exchange website.