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June 21, 2018

10/10/2017 7:28:00 AM
Rotary Youth Exchange: Experience of a lifetime
Whether host family or student
Contributed photograph

2016-17 exchange student Kristian Kigen, from Norway, sports his Rotary Youth Exchange jacket, nearly completely concealed with experience buttons, when saying “until I see you again” to host parents Heather and Dennis Holmes of Arbor Vitae.
Contributed photograph

2016-17 exchange student Kristian Kigen, from Norway, sports his Rotary Youth Exchange jacket, nearly completely concealed with experience buttons, when saying “until I see you again” to host parents Heather and Dennis Holmes of Arbor Vitae.

Abbey McEnroe
Lakeland Times reporter

The Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) program began locally in 1977 and has sent more than 70 Lakeland Union High School students abroad since.

RYE sends high school-aged students to more than 40 countries around the world. The goal of the program is "to promote the advancement of international understanding, goodwill and peace at the person to person level."

Be a RYE student

Studying abroad is one of the largest decisions a student can make, and more often than not, the most life-changing decision a student will make.

RYE offers high school students between the ages of 15-and-a-half and 18-and-a-half an opportunity to experience unique cultures in a foreign country.

"I think it's a great opportunity, especially for young people to basically broaden their world views, learn to appreciate another culture," RYE counselor Anna Rosen expressed. "Really, the point of the program is to break down those cultural barriers, to try to move closer towards a goal of a world peace situation."

"It's not just an academic exchange," Rosen continued. "These kids come back and they learn a lot about life, they learn a lot about themselves, they become independent, they become confident. It's every bit a life education as much as it is an academic education."

While the 2018-2019 school year applications are closed, students can apply for a direct exchange.

A direct exchange is an exchange program that takes place for three weeks during the summer. A student will go abroad for three weeks and stay with a host family and after three weeks will come home with a member of the host family who will stay for three weeks.

Applications for a direct exchange are due before June 2018.

Typical recruitment for a year-long exchange program will happen in the last two weeks of September every year.

Be a host family

Being a host family provides the ability to experience new cultures without leaving the country.

However, even with the added cultural benefits of hosting a foreign exchange, many families are hesitant.

"It's hard to get families, I think maybe because of the unknown," Rosen explained. "A lot of times we have to send to Rotary International - we have to send saying we have a family waiting for this student before they'll even send the kid. Nobody wants to be the first family because you don't know what the kid's going to be like. So, it's hard, it's hard to get people."

Rotary suggests exchange students having three different host family experiences and more often than not there are either not enough families or some of the families are not assigned until after a student arrives.

Tami Schroeder, RYE officer since 2004, says she believes many families still hold misconceptions when it comes to what it means to host.

"I think that maybe people think it's going to be a financial burden or it's going to be a big, humongous change for their family," Schroeder began.

"I think it's a misconception because one the only thing that they have to provide financially is their room and board and food," Schroeder continued. That's all they're obligated to do. If they want to do more they can do more, but that's all that they're required to do."

As for the stress of welcoming a stranger into their family, Schroeder said while there are unknowns, 99 percent of experiences are positive between families and students.

"There's always the possibility that personalities aren't going to mix because you don't know that until they get here," Schroeder states. "But then we find a subtle way to just get them into a different house. Sometimes it's been the students sometimes it's been the family, but again you just don't know until they get here."

"We don't blame anybody because it's a personality conflict and so we just find something different," Schroeder continued.

While it can be difficult to find three host families for each foreign exchange student, Schroeder works tirelessly to make it a reality.

"If we can find three host families we will definitely put them in three homes, but sometimes we don't get all the people we need," Schroeder said. "The problem with that is the whole purpose of them being here is to find different cultures and different experiences and stuff like that and they don't get that so much with one family as they would with two or three because everybody's family is way different, their traditions, their everything. So if they could have more that would be terrific."

Although the unknowns can be a deterrent, Schroeder says the positive experiences for both the host family and student are worth it.

"(Hosts) learn so much about (students) culture and vice versa and it just opens their hearts and minds to a whole new world," Schroeder expressed. "One exchange student said, 'If everybody could be an exchange student there wouldn't be any wars' and that's the whole purpose of the program to get people to realize that these are real people and to show them that we're all the same if we just took the time to get to know each other."

"Dennis and I are so glad we were able to host," 2017 host mother Heather Holmes said. "Kristian blended right into our family, and was eager to teach us about his home country of Norway and his traditions, and learn about us too ... We miss him very much. Bringing him to the airport when it was time for him to return to Norway was difficult because he was our 'son.' We didn't say goodbye, we said 'until I see you again.'"

Upcoming events

Those who are interested in RYE can attend the Rotary Exchange Fall Conference at The Waters in Minocqua on Oct. 14.

The conference will feature forums and workshops on becoming a host family during the day and will feature a culture fair in the evening. The culture fair involves every foreign exchange student in northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan displaying their culture and traditions.

The next event is an international dinner at 6 p.m. on Oct, 25 at Chef Rene's.

The current exchange students provide Chef Rene with a traditional recipe from their home country that he interprets and serves to the attendees. Attendees will also get the chance to Skype with the outbound LUHS students and have a meet and greet with the current exchange students.

Those interested in becoming a host family are encouraged to attend these events. Contact Anna Rosen at amrosen@uwalumni.com if interested in attending an event or in becoming a host family.

Abbey McEnroe may be reached via email at amcenroe@lakelandtimes.com.

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