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Seeing the World

Rotary’s Youth Exchange Program participants have found lifelong benefits from being immersed in new cultures a world away from home.

If there is one thingthat international students learn from the Crystal Lake Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange program, it’s that cultural differences don’t really make that much of a difference when core, individual values are the same.

Youth Exchange Officer Karen Hutchings tends to agree with this ideology as she has witnessed the development of the exchange program for her more than 20 years as a Rotarian. Her drive and passion for the program is what has kept Rotary Club of Crystal Lake Dawnbreakers, a division of the Crystal Lake Rotary Club, involved in youth exchanges since Hutchings’ daughter first made an exchange trip of her own to Italy in 1990. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that Hutchings solidfied her commitment to the program and was officially named the program’s local officer.

Since then, Hutchings has really put the “youth” in Rotary Youth Exchange. Not only has she demonstrated her passion for the program and for traveling, but she has paired that enthusiasm with helping students learn about the program’s benefits. She has taken her daughter’s emotional and physical journey and that of several other students’ to the middle school platform. More recently, she’s made visits to Crystal Lake middle schools, including Hannah Beardsleyand Richard Bernotas middle schools, to jumpstart preteens into considering the possi-bility of taking advantage of learning a different language, fully immersing themselves in a foreign culture and building camaraderie with host families.

“I’ve had students come to me when they’re seniors saying, ‘It’s a great idea, I want to go.’ But by then it’s a little too late,” Hutchings said. This is where Hutchings’ middle school visits have become fruitful.

Helen Albright, a Crystal Lake Central High School senior, recently accompanied Hutchings on one of these visits. Although she will be making her first exchange trip in the upcoming school year, Albright is no stranger to this international program. She first learned about the Rotary exchange opportunity through Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, held annually in Wisconsin Dells by the regional Rotary district. Prior to this, Albright’s own family had hosted two students and found the experience to be rewarding. The interest in hosting students was sparked by Helen’s mother, Arianne Albright, who studied abroad in Germany as a college student. “It really is an amazing opportunity,” said Arianne, who has maintained across-the-pond contact with a family from Berlin.

Exchange Essentials

The exchange program is a nationwide program that was established in 1929 in Copenhagen, Demark, which sparked the beginning of several thousand educational and entertaining trips for students around the world. While close to 10,000 make the trek to a different country and its accompanying culture in a year, on the local front, the Dawnbreakers usually contribute one student each year to the annual number. Students ages 15 to 18 may either plan to stay in a host country for a short term or a long term. A short term lasts three to four months and a long term typically grants a student an entire school year or 11 months in another country. Hutchings assigns long-term students to three families during their cultural excursions.

“I assign a student to their new [usually their second] family at Christmastime,” she explains. “Everyone in the family becomes very close at that time.”

One of several benefits of a long-term visit is that students can build a strong relationship with their host families that often turn into lifelong bonds. Hutchings recalled a student from Brazil named Pri who explored the United States a couple years ago. Her time with her host family blossomed so that she will soon be returning to the United States to attend the wedding of a member of her American family.

“[The Dawnbreakers] can always tell it’s been a good exchange when a student says they don’t want to go home — and it’s usually the response we get,” Hutchings said.

Recent Excursions

Over the past school year, the Dawnbreakers facilitated an exchange that sent one Prairie Ridge High School student to Mercedes, Argentina, and accepted another from Lima, Peru. Riley Olsen, a recent graduate of Prairie Ridge, spent her 11-month excursion with two host families in Argentina. After a lengthy application and interview process with the Rotary Club and “plenty of paperwork,” Olsen was accepted into the program and left for South America in mid-August 2012. Although she had three years of high school Spanish under her belt, Olsen was unaware of the language barrier challenge that awaited her.

“My host family didn’t know any English so both of us constantly had our dictionaries out,” Olsen said. “I would say something wrong and they would laugh about it.”

Despite the initial choppy conversation, Olsen was grateful for her host family who warmly welcomed her the moment she landed in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.

“I cried the whole plane ride there, but as soon as I saw my host family with a huge sign and saw my little host sister, I thought ‘OK, I can do this!’” Olsen recalled.

In addition to gaining more Spanish language experience, Olsen feels that her time in Mercedes, Argentina, “definitely” prepared her for college as she had to navigate public transportation and learn to fend for herself. She plans on attending Harper College in Palatine and transferring to a larger university where she’s keeping international business as an option for her major.

Eva Ramos, Rotary’s exchange student from Lima, Peru, experienced many of the same situations as Olsen, which they were able to bond over at the annual Rotary Club Youth Exchange picnic in July. Learning the ins and outs of public transportation was similarly important to Ramos who “almost got lost in the airport” upon arrival. Bilingual from an early age, Ramos plans on attending her college years in the United States with the University of Missouri as her school of choice. She will major in industrial engineering.

It’s a Small World After All

In a time when young adults are becoming less enamored with current events and more attached to the latest technology fads, stepping outside comfort zones is proving to be challenging for teens. An exchange forces students to break out of a comfortable social and intellectual routine — and that’s a good thing.

Students often tend to feel more mature when returning from their host country. They become interested in “world events, politics and in-depth items that are controversial rather than the latest issue of People magazine,”said Hutchings, who likens these conversations to those held in the political atmosphere of the 1960s coffee houses.

One of the most beneficial aspects of an extended visit to another country is that visitors find that they judge citizens of the visited country (and their own country) less harshly.

“It’s so hard not to preconceive when meeting people so different from you,” Hutchings said regarding cultural diversity. “But everyone has the same goal in many ways. [They want to] be good people, to be successful. Parents want good health, safety and opportunity for their children and these themes are seen worldwide. When you think of it that way, some of these little differences about cultures don’t really make any difference at all.”

Who’s a Candidate for the Youth Exchange?

Are you …

  • A good student (top half of your class)?
  • Between 15-18 at the time of departure?
  • Studying a language?
  • Willing to learn a language and another culture?
  • Flexible, well-rounded and adventurous?
  • A good ambassador for your country, community, family and Rotary?

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