If you follow me on Instagram or know me personally, you have probably heard me mention Rotary Youth Exchange. While it is a term and program that is so ingrained in my life, I understand that it may be ambiguous to others that are not as familiar with the organization. My goal in this post is to bring some clarity to what Rotary is and my role within it.
Rotary is an international community service organization that was started in 1905 by Paul Harris in Chicago, IL. The initial purpose was to bring together business and professional leaders to exchange ideas and form lifelong relationships. Today its' members connect through humanitarian services to advance goodwill, friendship, and world peace. Now there are over 35,000 clubs in more than 200 countries. The organization has the motto "Service Above Self." It focuses on many causes from fighting polio, supporting education, growing local economies, providing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene to third world countries, and (my favorite) youth exchange.
Rotary is divided up by districts, and within those districts, there are clubs. Some clubs are large with hundreds of members, and others have only a handful. Typically, clubs meet weekly for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Meetings in the USA begin with reciting the Rotary Four-Way Test and Pledge of Allegiance. After that, there is usually a guest speaker from a local business/charity and discussion about the annual community service projects in which the club is involved. If you are not sure if there is a Rotary Club in your area, take notice if there is a yellow rotary wheel as you enter the town or city limits. It could stand alone or be on a panel that advertises all the different organizations and clubs in the community, such as Lions, Free Masons, Order of the Eastern Star, Moose, etc. I travel a lot, and every time I see that yellow rotary wheel, I get a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that I have "Rotary family" or fellow Rotarians in that area. Everyone in Rotary is a volunteer, and the work we do is out of the goodness of our hearts.
As I said before, Rotary supports many different causes, but my passion and involvement are in the Youth Exchange Program. First, I will quickly review the path I took to get involved and then go on to explain what it is.
I first learned of Rotary when I was in middle school when my family hosted a student from Chile through the program. I became involved in Rotary when I applied to be an exchange student in 10th grade. My local club was only able to sponsor one student per year to participate in the program, so they went with another applicant who was a senior and encouraged me to reapply the following year. I did not want to go abroad during my senior year and learned that I would still be young enough when I graduated to go as a gap year. Therefore, I waited until my senior year to reapply, and I was accepted to go abroad the following summer. In 2002 I went on exchange in France to district 1790. It was a decision and opportunity that changed my life, as I stated on the home page of this blog. I will elaborate more on my personal exchange experiences in future posts as the purpose of this one is to bring light to the program and my role within it. Let me start with the year I came back from my exchange.
In high school, I had always thought I wanted to become a massage therapist. There were only a few schools in my state that had a massage program. Before going abroad, I was already accepted to my top choice and would have to move in just a few weeks after I returned home from France. I was interested in my Massage Therapy and Integrated Health major, but my focus had shifted, and all I wanted to do was to get back to France. I have since realized it is a prevalent sentiment for returning exchange students. So, after obtaining my Associate in Applied Science, I wanted to continue to earn my Bachelor's degree. For the next year or so, I worked and saved money so I could afford to go back to school. My AAS degree was specific to massage, so I attended another community college to fill in the missing credits that I needed before enrolling in a four-year school. While obtaining my second Associate's degree, one of my professors mentioned during a lecture that she was a Rotarian. My college was in a different area from where I grew up, so I fell out of contact with Rotary. This fact about my professor was such a happy surprise! After class, I told her that I had been an exchange student and asked her how I could get involved with the local Rotary. She periodically invited me to volunteer at her club's community events, and I was happy to do so. Later, she put me in contact with the Youth Exchange Chair, and he suggested I join Rotex. Rotex is the term used for alumni of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. When I went to my first event, I was so happy to meet others that understood what it was like not only to be an exchange student but what it is like to come home afterward and still have your heart in your host country. As a member of Rotex, I would help select and mentor future students chosen to go to France. Students from the USA that go to other countries are referred to as outbounds, while students coming into the USA from other countries are inbounds.
By the time I finished my Bachelor's in International Business, I was 26. As the oldest Rotex in our district, I felt that the age gap between the new applicants and me was too large, and I was ready to make the step from Rotex to Rotarian. I wanted to be able to be more involved with the process of selecting and preparing the students sent abroad, especially to France. I joined my local Rotary club and stepped into an open Country Officer position for Poland.
As a country officer, I had a lot more responsibility than just giving input on if and where the applicants should get sent abroad. I would help facilitate the process for both the outbound and inbound. For every student we send out to a country, we accept one in exchange, hence Youth Exchange. Now I had to learn about J1 Visas, medical records, and background checks. I needed to guide students through the paperwork process, field questions from parents, build trust and relationships with my country counterparts, and handle any issues that may come up while the student was abroad in the most diplomatic way possible. Holding that position was great for learning the process, but I have been to Poland and did not feel like I could adequately prepare a student to go abroad there. The following year, the gentleman that had been the Country Officer for France was ready to pass on the title to me, and I was thrilled to take it! Since then, I have sent out ten students to France. I will write more about them in future posts as well.
In 2017 the executive committee invited me to become the Outbound Chair of the program. This position meant I would be responsible for training all students going abroad, in addition to my duties as Country Officer. I would also be leading all of the other Country Officers, which was a little intimidating to me since I was the youngest Rotarian on the committee at the time. The Rotary year begins in July, so I started as the Outbound Chair in the summer of 2018, right before the 2018-2019 class went abroad. The 2019-2020 class is the first group of outbounds that I was responsible for from the time they applied through their return. I made some changes to our interview process and the homework assigned to the newly selected outbounds. I also altered the outbound orientations they are required to attend in the months leading up to their exchange. So when all of my current outbounds return home, I will get to see the fruits of my labor!
Traditionally, in my district, this position has a two-year term, after which I would move on to become the Inbound Chair, and eventually, the Chair of the entire program. However, I have realized how much I enjoy this position and feel like I still have a lot to offer. So, I have decided to stay in this role a little while longer. I am preparing the future outbounds by applying what I have learned over the past year to create relevant homework and training. Things are always changing, so I value the feedback and suggestions of my current outbounds and Rotex. Although it is impossible to prepare anyone completely for what a year living abroad will be like, the orientations and homework enable our outbounds to start their exchange with the necessary tools to be successful. There is a myriad of things we cover from language prep to understanding the proper chain of command to follow in case they have a problem they are unable to navigate on their own. During this time, we get to know the students better and can pull someone from the program if we discover it may not be the best fit. We make sure outbounds understand our expectations of them as ambassadors of Rotary, the USA, their community, and family. We are very proud of our program and the young adults that complete it.
Once a student returns from exchange, we briefly refer to them as Rebounds. For the past four years, in early August, I host a Rebound Weekend at my house to get all the students together one last time before they go off to college, abroad again, or back to high school. It is an exceptional and crucial event that only the program Chairs and select Rotex attend. We do workshops with the Rebounds to help them process some of the unique feelings experienced when one lives abroad for an extended amount of time. It is probably my favorite part of the entire program because we get to see how much the students have changed and grown since we interviewed them almost 1.5 years prior. To end the weekend, we host a luncheon for the rebounds' families so they may reconnect and hear the stories of their time abroad.
If you or anyone you know is interested in learning more about becoming a Rotary Exchange Student, please click here.
Applications are accepted from May to October for the following school year. We conduct interviews over a weekend in November. The applicants are notified immediately on their acceptance to the program, but they are not given their country assignment until the first Outbound Orientation in January. Most applicants get chosen to go to one of their top three country preferences. However, due to ever-changing requirements by our country counterparts, and the fact we generally have only one opening per country available, it is impossible to ensure all applicants will get awarded their top choice. Depending on the country, outbounds will leave anytime between late July and early September. Candidates must be between the ages of 15-18 on the date of departure for their exchange.
Through the years, I have gotten to know so many wonderful Rotarians and Rotex from all over the world. The connections and friendships made through this program are lifelong, which is precisely what Paul Harris envisioned Rotary to be!
I hope this gives you some insight into my passion for Rotary and study abroad. Should you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below!