I cruised through the concourse of Amerstadam’s Schiphol International airport with the wheels of my travel worn carry-on humming behind me. I was returning home, to my beloved Southern Illinois, after spending my junior year of high school as a Rotary Youth Ambassador in the Slovak Republic. My cell phone emitted plaintive beeps, signaling its near death as I searched in vain for an empty outlet. I had just disembarked from my second flight and had two more to go before arriving in St. Louis. A charged phone meant hours of airport entertainment during my four hour layover, trading silly dog eared pictures with my friends via Snapchat and perusing the endless black hole known as Facebook.
Eleven months had passed since I had made this trip in reverse. They say that spending a year on student exchange changes you; “A Life in a Year”, not a year in your life, is a common phrase exclaimed by fellow exchange students. But, I think, in truth, exchange does not change your core being, it simply hones the strength and confidence that existed quietly beneath the surface. You do not magically become a different person during exchange, rather the person that you truly are emerges. Hidden within the depths of my sixteen year old self was an individual with the soul of an adventurer, the strength of warrior and the heart of a poet. On my peripheral edge, I understood those qualities existed in me, but it wasn't until my exchange year, that I grew into them with a confidence that no longer surprises me.
Eleven months ago — a lifetime before my exchange — walking alone through an unfamiliar airport with a dying cell phone battery would have caused surges of panic to roil inside my stomach. I had never traveled alone and rarely left the confines of my sleepy midwestern town. Now, I was traveling to an entirely different country — far from home — with a language in which I could barely say hello, in order to spend an entire year as a Rotary Youth Ambassador. The day I left for my exchange, late in the summer of 2016, was typical of a Southern Illinois August. Humidity clouded the air, along with my duel emotions of awe and apprehension. I was excited to spend the year abroad, but also overwhelmed with nervous energy. Yes, a dying cell phone, on that first day of my exchange, would have sent me into utter frenzy. What if I couldn't find my gate at the airport or missed my connecting flights? I was much less confident during my first time in the Amsterdam airport; yet, the past year of travelling through Europe and living away from home provided the sureness and self-reliance I needed to navigate not just the busy airport, but also all the curveballs life throws my way. I have learned that the journey itself can teach me just as much as the destination. My English teacher (shout out to Ms. Dullum at CCHS who is a fantastic teacher) warns of using colloquialisms — but as trite as it sounds, it really is the journey that allows you to understand your own strength. And the journey itself is the foundation that makes a high school exchange such a seminal moment in life.
How the Rotary Youth Exchange works
Every year, more than 8,000 high school students from more than 100 countries participate in Rotary Youth Exchange. The students become ambassadors for their home countries, learn a new language and become global citizens as they discover new cultures. Students live with host families and attend high school in their assigned country. The heart of Rotary exchange is to foster peace, one student at a time. After all, there is no better way to understand a culture than to live it. Rotary Youth Exchange is certified by the United States State Department and has been in operation since 1929. The program is supported by Rotary International, which has a global network of 1.2 million members, who are organized into local community clubs. In Southern Illinois alone, there are 49 Rotary clubs and thousands of Rotarians who strive to make their community and the world a better place through service. The Rotary district in Southern Illinois — which stretches from the Ohio River to the Mississippi and Mount Vernon to Cairo — typically sponsors eight local students each year. In return, high schools and host families throughout the region play host to eight international exchange students. Hosting a student from a foreign country is a great experience for families to learn about new cultures, however families are not required to host in order to be eligible for the Rotary program.
Rotary scholarship programs
Rotary exchange is a scholarship program, and as such, Rotary pays all school fees, provides housing and meals with local families and includes a small monthly stipend for students. Exchange students are responsible for travel costs, required visas, passport fees, insurance and optional expenses. Monetarily, the scholarship is valued at more than $24,000. In reality, it is priceless. Recent exchange students to and from Southern Illinois represent a diverse amount of countries including Australia, Brazil, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Poland, Spain, Slovakia and Thailand. In all, the Southern Illinois Rotary district (D6510), exchanges with more than 42 countries.
Introduction into my exchange
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My first introduction to Rotary was through their youth sponsored high school club — Interact. It was there that I met a Carbondale High School senior who had recently returned from her exchange in Japan. I was only a freshman, but I knew instantly that I wanted to become an exchange student. I applied for the program early in my sophomore year, carefully filling out paperwork and practicing for interviews. I wore a path in the tiles of my kitchen floor on notification day, nervously awaiting a phone call from Rotary’s district coordinator. My family jokes that I jumped ten feet in the air as the first beeps of the phone sounded. I probably did. My voice trembled as I answered the phone, but a smile soon pulled my lips as I heard the acceptance. I would spend my year in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia.
The country of choice
Rotary applicants do not choose a specific country, instead they list at least 12 of the 41 countries which the local district exchanges with, as possibilities on their application. I always knew my heart belonged to the ancient, time-worn streets of central Europe, so my application was filled with every European country possible. However, a multitude of countries, representing every continent except Antarctica, are available for students to list as choices. It is important to know that students do not pick their country assignments in Rotary. Rotary matches the student based on the student's preliminary list, available spaces and other factors. But I like to think that the students don't choose the country — the country finds them. I quickly fell in love with the beautiful mountains surrounding Slovakia, and the country easily became my second home. In a way, I think the higher beings in charge of country assignments within Rotary knew that Slovakia and I would be a perfect fit.
The magic of Slovakia
Before, during, and after exchange, Rotary members assist students through training on culture shock, homesickness, language acquisition, problem solving, re-entry shock and everything in between. My host country of Slovakia, was filled with the natural beauty of mountains and rivers, along with sleepy villages and big metropolitan cities. I learned how to snow ski, cycled through the countryside of Moravia, toured most of Europe from Paris to Barcelona, and Budapest to Rome. I took classes in physics, calculus and other typical high school classes.
Looking back at my year in Slovakia, though, it was the smaller moments that defined my exchange: the day I understood what the babushkas (grandmothers) were idly chatting about at market stalls or the time a classmate asked me about my parents and I had to question which ones, because my host family had become family. It's really in the little moments in which we truly live, learn and grow. Exchange taught me that important lesson.
Leaving Slovakia was much harder than arriving. I left behind friends and family, and part of my soul will forever be Slovak. I not only have memories that will last a lifetime, but experiences and language skills that will further my college and career plans in International Relations. I have returned to Southern Illinois for my senior year of high school, and through careful coordination with my school, will graduate with my classmates this spring. My exchange year is over, but it has given me lasting memories.
Youth Exchange has become something I am very passionate about. It teaches language skills, independence and both self and cultural awareness.