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Youth Exchange

Coping with the unexpected: Rotary Youth Exchange and COVID-19

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Rotary’s Youth Exchange program in unprecedented ways. We talked about it with RI Director James Anthony “Tony” Black, who served as chair of the Youth Exchange committee and as its director liaison.

Rotary Youth Exchange participants often have to cope with unexpected challenges. How have students, clubs, and districts been handling the pandemic?

The Rotary Youth Exchange community has done outstanding work keeping students and program volunteers engaged. We’ve seen students connecting virtually through video challenges and attending club meetings online. Virtual exchanges can serve as an engaging alternative to in-person exchanges, providing young people the opportunity to engage and collaborate with people from other cultures and communities through technology. Some districts are even planning virtual exchanges for 2020-21. Clubs and districts are working hard to keep students safe and connected with Rotary and their communities.

How did Rotary support students who had to come home early?

Returning home, even after a successful exchange, can be difficult for students and their families. Imagine the added challenges of returning home earlier than expected, and of experiencing reverse culture shock in the midst of a global pandemic. Rotary leaders recognized the need to provide students with additional emotional support and found innovative ways to do that. For example, some districts arranged video calls so that students could maintain the relationships they had developed while on exchange, or set up group conference calls so that students could share what they experienced and provide support to one another. Some even arranged for mental health counselors to offer support to students.

What about the students who had to shelter in place while abroad?

For students who remained on exchange, the effect of COVID-19 on their experience was equally unexpected and challenging. But even without the typical social activities, districts found ways to keep students engaged, to help them practice their language skills, and to stay connected. Students even developed creative social media campaigns to promote safe social distancing in their host communities with the help of volunteers.

Is there any lesson from the past that could help chart the way forward for the Rotary Youth Exchange program in a world changed by COVID-19?

It’s important to realize that this is not the first time that international exchange programs have been challenged by an international crisis, and most study abroad programs have historically rebounded very quickly. In the 2020-21 year, COVID-19 may close some doors temporarily, but we know that with any challenge comes great opportunity. A pause could provide a chance for clubs and districts to strengthen their programs and to find new, innovative ways to engage young people with Rotary. I have no doubt the program will come out of this challenge even stronger.

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• This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.