Sending our kid on exchange? What could we possibly be thinking?

Dear anonymous letter writer,

Your note made its way to a few of us this week:

Unsigned Letter


Rotary District

Re: Language Immersion Program

I was recently visiting in Pocatello ID when a discussion came up about your program. One of the women knew about it an (sic) you were sending a student to Belgium.

I could not believe it when I heard it and then on the 22nd more acts of terrorism in Belgium. This is like sending a young person into a war zone. Beligium (sic) is a breeding ground for terrorists. I do not understand how you can be sending anyone to Europe at this time. It may have been a great program at one time but definitely not now.

Are you going to be the one responsible when these young kids are blown up? Are you afraid of losing money? No amount is worth the price of a child. Please rethink where you are sending these kids.

Up in the top, right-hand corner there’s an additional Note: Maybe your local media would like to know about this.

I’m not a huge fan of open letters. I’d much prefer to respond to you in person. But since you didn’t share your name, you get this.

To be clear, I’m responding not as a Rotarian, or someone who has been involved in this exchange program for a number of years, but as a parent who is sending her kid on exchange in a few months.

I’m responding because what you’ve expressed is, I think, indicative of a line of questioning more than a few of our exchange parents have received from well-meaning friends and family. To wit: how can you be thinking of sending your kid to another country? Alone? Aren’t you worried? 

First of all, our local Rotary Exchange Program is sending not one but three teenagers to Belgium, along with twelve others to various other countries in Europe and South America and one really enthusiastic girl who’s learning Mandarin in preparation for her trip to Taiwan. My own son is studying Danish. He’ll spend a year in the picturesque town of Sønderborg.

And it’s not a “language immersion program” but an actual exchange, which means our family will shortly be hosting a child from Denmark. Your community will be welcoming one of three from Belgium.

Are you going to be the one responsible when these young kids are blown up?

… And have you stopped beating your wife? Hint: That’s what we call a loaded question. Yours tells me you’ve arrived at an erroneous conclusion by logical fallacy. I get what you’re asking, though, and will try to address your point. I don’t need you to elaborate on your domestic situation.

I’m sure all of us as exchange parents are aware of the recent terrorist attack on the airport in Brussels, including those of the girl from Pocatello, whose exchange you referenced.

Of course there are risks associated with travel. There are risks in sending our kid out the door at any time, including letting him ride his bike around the block solo, or sending him to school. The thought that something terrible might happen at any time is at the back of mind of every parent. As much as we’d like to wrap our kids in bubble wrap, to protect their every step, that would be a crappy way to parent and would run counter to growing a competent, capable person.

So, we do what we can to mitigate risk. We talk to our children ad nauseam about watching for traffic, about wearing a helmet. When our own son expressed interest in going on exchange, we looked at all aspects of the program, including evaluating the risk involved.

Rotary_flagsThe Rotary Youth Exchange Program works with thousands of volunteers and the appropriate government entities in each country to ensure all involved are properly vetted and trained. Hosts and counselors and anyone dealing with youth must fill out applications and submit to annual background checks, supply personal references, open their homes to inspection and regular check-ins. We’ve been host parents five times and have gone through the whole process – which is regularly updated – every year.

Can we guarantee terrorists will never strike, either overseas or here? The news media reminds us nearly daily we cannot. Nor can we guarantee, for that matter, there won’t be danger in our son’s path at any point of his day.

Sending a child to Belgium is not tantamount to sending her into a war zone. We may disagree on the definition of “war zone,” but there are people who choose to serve their country in such a way and your comparison, even in the interest of making a point, belittles their sacrifice.

And, speaking of your image of Belgium, imagine for a second, the impression left by a 30 second Google search on your lovely community. Is is an accurate picture? A flattering one? It does make me wonder what kinds of questions the families of exchange students slated to come here are getting right about now.

Are you afraid of losing money?

Again I’m speaking as a parent, but one who is involved enough with this program to know it’s not a profit-making venture. The Rotary program is one of the more affordable exchange options out there, and consequently, our students represent a broad socioeconomic swath from communities like yours and mine. Some of these kids are already well traveled. Some are getting their first passports. Some have never been on an airplane.

Some of these kids have parents who are struggling to figure out how to pay for college right now (ahem), and may or may not have broken the news to their little liebchen that his dreams of Stanford are out of the question unless he gets a seriously rockin’ scholarship.

These same parents are able to give their child the world through this program. As parents, we are fostering curiosity, courage, self esteem, resilience, fluency in a foreign language, perspective, compassion, empathy, leadership skills, not to mention an ability to count change in a foreign currency on the fly (who can’t do with a few more math skills, if we’re being honest?). If the child is a willing and enthusiastic participant, why not give such a gift?

Each of these kids has chosen to participate in the program because they feel called to do something remarkable. This experience will likely change their lives.

And they will do great things for us as well. They will be ambassadors for our country around the world. They will show others that Americans can be curious instead of fearful, compassionate instead of bullying. They will challenge stereotypes by the examples they set. They will do so, not with anonymous letters, loaded with panicky assertions and vague threats, but with quiet resolve and the ability to humbly submit to a life that may be wholly outside their comfort zone.

They’ll return with an intense desire to share their experience, and likely with a healthy appetite for more travel. They’ll see their homes and their communities in new light. They’ll likely be slower to judge and quicker to empathize. They’ll have learned they can love more than they ever realized and that things that once made them fearful, aren’t so scary now.

"I personally think one of the coolest things about sending us outbounds out is that we are sharing our personal beliefs and cultures with other cultures. Another thing is that we are representing where we are from. I guarantee nobody knew of Idaho at all when I got here but now there are at least 30 students that could easily point it out on a map and tell a fact about it. students we aren't able to make these amazing cultural connections with other countries. Another reason we need more clubs to participate is because we need more exchange students in the world! A quote that I've learned from being on exchange that I believe is by Carl-Wilhem Stenhammer and is in the March 2005 issue of the Rotarian says that "My dream is for every 17 year old to be youth exchange student. If we could achieve this, there would be no more war." He also talks about the importance of more clubs getting involved if you would like to look at that. Me and my other exchange student friends won a competition with this quote and drawing of ours and were able to spray paint it on the John Lennon wall on Prague.
“I personally think one of the coolest things about sending us outbounds out is that we are sharing our personal beliefs and cultures with other cultures. Another thing is that we are representing where we are from. I guarantee nobody knew of Idaho at all when I got here but now there are at least 30 students that could easily point it out on a map and tell a fact about it.”
– Montana Novich, Rotary Youth Exchange student from Idaho Falls on exchange with Czech Republic.
Painting by Montana and fellow Rotary Youth Exchange students on the John Lennon wall on Prague inspired by Carl Wilhelm Stenhammer’s quote.

The Rotary Youth Exchange program encompasses 82 countries worldwide. From our little Idaho corner of the world, we send fifteen or sixteen kids to a dozen or so of these countries every year. Some are brilliant students. Some are gifted athletes. Some are community activists or school leaders. Others are kids who sit quietly in the middle of the classroom mostly hoping to avoid attention, wondering if they’ll ever have a moment to shine. All of them, and their counterparts who come here, will be ambassadors in their own way.

Former Rotary International president, Carl Wilhelm Stenhammer, said “If every 17 year-old student went on a Rotary Youth Exchange there would be no more war in the world.”

With that in mind, when you say you can’t understand why we’re participating in this program, I say I can’t understand how we could do otherwise. I encourage you to consider the possibility that remarkable things might happen for these young people about to embark on adventures that will change their lives.

It is through them, that remarkable things are likely in store for all of us as well.




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  1. Absolutely brilliant. What a positive response to a rather toxic letter. My son is about to leave for a three month internship in Kenya. While he\’s 20 and an adult, as his mother, I cannot IMAGINE telling him not to go. It\’s his life and I\’ve raised him to grasp at every opportunity that crosses his path. Lovely to read that you feel the same. Off to share.

  2. Hello, I am Cristian, an Italian student who went to Colorado D5440 last year. I loved your words, I didn\’t read the whole thing as I was in a hurry but I felt like leaving my thought. I am glad I found Rotary because I made it to America because of it, I couldn\’t afford any other program. Second of all, I will go to Denmark in August for university, hopefully. One of my options was Sonderborg but I ended up applying in a city nearby. Good luck you all! 🙂

  3. There are so many ignorant and close-minded people out there. It\’s astounding that this person felt he/she had the right to criticize your decision for your child. I am impressed by your calm and respectful response. I don\’t think I could have been so accommodating.
    Unfortunately, many more American children have been killed by attending school here, than getting hurt while on an exchange program.
    By this person\’s logic, shouldn\’t we be criticized for allowing our kids to go to class too?

  4. There is such fear being stirred up over travel. There are risks to everything in life. At some point you have to go outside, though. It\’s harder to stir up bigotry in a well traveled person, and harder to manipulate them into believing in the evil of the Other. A community that stays at home and never travels is an easily controlled community. I\’m so glad you\’re giving your kiddo a chance to travel and expand.