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Leading Cultural Understanding and Peace Around the World – One Student at a Time

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Sandra Bullock, in the movie “Miss Congeniality,” was playing with her comment about “world peace,” but Rotarians are serious about the topic. Rotary International supports the concept that the foundation of success is in mutual cultural understanding and consideration for each person’s humanity.

Rotary Youth Exchange is just one program where this belief is put into practice. Change is effected through each student’s experience.

Youth Exchange Program

The Rotary Youth Exchange Program is an outreach of the U.S. Department of State’s foreign policy. The essence of success that the program has had lies in the fact that participants are all volunteers. Club and committee members spend hundreds of hours each year on behalf of the students.

Rotary International exchanged more than 7,800 students last year (2014–2015). That’s 7,800 multiplied by all of the family members involved, equaling more than 117,000 persons affected every year. Multiply that by the 86 years the program has been in existence — since 1929. Imagine the positive impact on millions of lives.

How does the program change the lives of the American and foreign children and families? It is simply through the immersion of the student in the new culture.

Every August, the program sends and receives students for the new school year. The students live with a local family and attend a local high school. They may live with more than one family, but they will remain in the same high school.

The uniqueness of Rotary’s program is that the multiple-family environment further challenges the students to accept change and to learn coping skills that emphasize mutual consideration and understanding. In all cases, the students return home with a new appreciation for what we have here in the USA, but also what our strengths and weaknesses are.

They are motivated to be a part of the next generation of leaders and to play a role in providing solutions for the problems we face. They realize that the problems are not isolated, but that there are global issues that need to be considered. They have become a part of the global community.

The Exchange Process

Here is how it works. Rotary districts and clubs around the world are certified through Rotary International. Once certified, they can contact and exchange students with any other certified district. Memoranda of agreement and exchange rules are agreed upon. District 7620 is only one of the 500 districts in the world that are authorized to exchange with each another.

Locally, Rotary District 7620 consists of 60 Rotary clubs in Central Maryland and Washington, D.C. Not all of the clubs are active in Youth Exchange every year. There is no requirement to participate. Frequently it is driven by the number and geographical location of the participant students.

The students and their families volunteer to join the program. Through a series of interviews, the students are selected. Upon selection, the students go through a training and orientation program from January through June of the year they will go abroad. These orientations provide cultural awareness and situational problem-solving exercises for both students and parents.

Students around the world are experiencing similar instruction for their study year abroad. Language is a large part of the preparation, which the students learn at their own pace.

Local Participation

In recent years, Ellicott City Rotary clubs have hosted and sponsored six students. Similarly, West Anne Arundel and the Parole Rotary clubs have hove hosted or sent more than 15. These local clubs represent the heart of Rotary. The belief is that attitudes and prejudice about America and other nations can be changed via these young adults.

How is success measured? Only through the words and actions of students and parents after the exchange. Following are two quotes from program participants, one a student, the other a host mother in Poland.

“It was so much more than I expected. I tried to keep my expectations low. I just knew it would be unforgettable. The experience was unforgettable [times] 10. It changed who I am, how I see the world, how I treat others, how grateful I am for life and everything around it, and also made me a lot more aware of the world around me.” (Kendal Karstens, student, Maryland to Germany)

“A year ago our ‘new American’ daughter Ashley showed us what the Thanksgiving Day is!! I must say that it is fantastic!! Remembering and being grateful for everything that happened last year!! We have a lot of things for which we should be thankful for, but most of all we want to be very grateful!! Definitely the dreams of our daughters have come true! We know that it has become so well thanks to you and your work that you put in organizing youth exchange. What’s more, you and your family welcomed her to your home!!! Please allow us to express our gratitude for everything you and your family have done for her. We know that she was very happy with you and that she treats you like her own family!!! And we could all the time be so calm because she was under your care and protection. (mother of Maria, student, Poland to Maryland; and host mom for Ashley, student, Illinois to Poland)

These experiences represent the value of people-to-people relationships. That is what Rotary Youth Exchange is about: making a difference, “one student at a time.”

Chris Perlick is the District 7620 Youth Exchange chair, and can be reached at cperlick@hotmail.com. He is a member of the Leonardtown Rotary club.