I spent my teens in the Rotary Youth Exchange program and it ROCKED

March 15 | Guest post by Liz Ohlhausen
Photo by Lasse Christensen, used with Creative Commons license.

My mom went to prom with a German exchange student in high school and fell in love with study abroad. She never did an exchange herself, but I grew up surrounded by friendly strangers. For me, it started with Vicky, when I was eight. Vicky and my mom were both in college. She only stayed with us for a few weeks, and she was Australian (and spoke English, like we do at home) so it was an easy first foray.

The next exchange student came my freshman year of high school. I don't remember much about him because I had the chicken pox the two weeks he was with us, but he was from Belgium, spoke Flemish, and was into fixing motorcycles. There were a string of short-term Belgians after that. The princesses who ran up the phone bills and taught me how to ski made a particular impression.

This program brought us to a meeting where we heard about a girl from Spain who needed a new host family. In the car on the way home, I asked my mom if she could stay with us this year so that I could go somewhere next year. I still remember my mom's reaction: cryptic. She gripped the wheel like she was mad, and spoke really cautiously. Looking back, I think she was stupid excited, but didn't want to get my hopes up.

One thing led to another, and two weeks before my sixteenth birthday I stepped off the plane in Tokyo. I lived with five different families that year. Meanwhile, my parents were hosting Rachel from Belgium (she spoke French). The next year, Daichi from Japan lived with us, and Rachel's sister visited for Christmas. The following year, my brother lived in Belgium down the street from Rachel's parents. To describe what this has meant for my life and family sounds trite; you can certainly imagine what an experience like this can do for a young person.

If you think exchange might be right for your family, I'd like to introduce you to the Rotary Youth Exchange program. This program is run by Rotarians, who are all volunteers. These people have incredibly generous spirits, and shared so much with me.

I applied through my local Rotary club, and I was accepted by a local Rotary club in Japan. The club in Japan also sent a girl to my district in Sacramento. This meant I moved into a pre-built community. Grown-ups who were not my host parents took an active interest in me, helped me resolve conflicts appropriately, and made a variety of cultural events and activities available to me.

At home, my parents, who were not Rotarians at the time, found themselves drawn into that community. My mom ended up becoming a Rotarian herself. I can see now the skills she learned volunteering with Rotary, and how that has helped her accelerate her career.

Unlike some other programs you might encounter when you do your research, RYE is a cultural exchange. This means that although they place the student in a school, and insist on "good" attendance, the courses probably won't translate back to the home high school. This was annoying to me at the time, but looking back I see what an opportunity it was: I took Japanese Anthropology, Japanese literature, and stone carving in high school.

A few other details about the program:

  • They don't worry about language skills. I had two years of Spanish, but I really wanted to go to Japan. Everyone involved was fine with that, and by the third month I was speaking, as they say onomatopoea-tically in Japanese, pera pera.
  • They intentionally move you through host families. This is atypical in many year-long programs, but RYE averages three families a student. They say this makes things a little easier for the family, but I saw that it also allowed the students to see more lifestyles, and it brings the local community together around the exchange student.
  • They walk both the teens and families through the typical emotional ride and teach them what to expect from culture shock.
  • Finally, students are formally assigned a counselor in the host Rotary club. This is someone who never serves as the students' host parent, usually works on the RYE committee, and serves as a sort of ombudsman in the event that there is a conflict between host family and student.

I want to point out that I think my parents wouldn't have thought they could afford this. Maybe that's what it was that night in the car that made my mom grip the wheel. In RYE, all the parents pay for is the plane ticket, and sometimes they offer scholarships if that's what's standing in the way. So, I'd just like to say, if this is something that's right for your kid, this is a way to get it done that doesn't involve mortgaging your house.