By Shauna Ganes, District 5190 Rotary Public Image Chair
Imagine yourself as a 16-year-old, standing in a new country, surrounded by people who speak a different language and follow different customs. You’re nervous, but also excited. You’re about to embark on a journey that can shape how you see the world. Rotary Youth Exchange is Rotary International’s official exchange program for students ages 15-19, whom Rotary clubs and districts sponsor to spend anywhere from a week to a full academic year abroad. Rotary Youth Exchange is more than just a travel program; it’s a cultural immersion experience that helps students grow as young adults, develop compassion and appreciation for others, and experience the world in a new way.
For me, Rotary Youth Exchange is the shining jewel in the crown of Rotary youth programs. As Rotary members, when we work closely within our own tight-knit communities, we can forget about the impact we and Rotary have globally.
Maybe Rotary Youth Exchange isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Rotary’s global impact. And I don’t blame you—most Rotary members don’t have much contact with the traveling students, or context for the worlds that are transformed through the exchange experience.
The students embarking on an exchange are seen as ambassadors of their home countries, making valuable connections with other countries and cultures. In short: Rotary Youth Exchange builds peace one young person at a time.
There is no substitute for venturing out into the world to see how others live. It broadens the horizons of students and those who support and facilitate their exchange experiences, impacting them in ways they couldn’t have imagined.
Whether a student has a lot of travel experience or very little, comes from a big city or a humble village, this exchange program offers growth opportunities at every turn.
Our district is part of a short-term exchange program where two students are paired together from different parts of the world. The inbound student, the one traveling to the United States, comes to live with their American counterpart for three weeks. Then they switch roles and travel back to the inbound student’s home country. They get another three weeks together, where the American student experiences a new culture, language, and family in return.
A recent conversation with two students on a short-term youth exchange program exemplified the invaluable experience offered by this program.
The students expressed time and again how they had grown as young adults and felt so much more compassion for others, appreciation for their homes and families, and excitement to see more of the world. One of the most touching comments was when they noticed how people are people, no matter where you go. Teens experience the same insecurity, emotion, confusion, and can be overwhelmed with life, whether they’re in Lille, France, or Truckee, United States.
Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Surely a strong statement, but truly, when one is given the time and makes an effort to engage with people who are different, the world can cease to be a sea of strangers and become a community filled with friends.
Knowing District 5190 has a long history of supporting Rotary Youth Exchange makes me proud to be a part of this dynamic group, whose members do what they can to build peace and global citizenship.
The next time your club president, youth services chair, or Rotary Youth Exchange chair makes a request to help support an inbound or outbound student, raise your hand and get engaged. Even a small gesture, such as hosting exchange students for a festive meal or culturally relevant outing, will surely change your life for the better and contribute to the student’s exchange adventure.
In the words of our district and international leaders: Create Hope in the World and lead with Rotary from the heart.
Curious about Rotary Youth Exchange? Visit Rotary.org for an introduction to the program or learn about how you can support your district’s existing program.