When Gabriela Vessani was 12 years old, her mother took her to stay with friends in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, for the summer.
“I loved it, so when I heard about Rotary Youth Exchange, I knew that was something I wanted to do,” says Vessani, who is an Interactor from São Paulo.
This year, Vessani participated in the program. Hosted by the Rotary Club of Waterdown, Ontario, Canada, she stayed with four families, one of which included adopted children from different parts of the world.
“They had seven children, and it was crazy for me. But I loved it,” she says. “It was such a unique experience getting to know all of my host brothers and sisters, and learning about so many cultures.”
Vessani and 104 other Rotary Youth Exchange students visited Rotary World Headquarters in Evanston, Illinois, in July as part of a 31-day Discover America cross-country bus trip that was a finale to the exchange experience.
“This is the best program Rotary can be involved with, because Rotary is all about changing lives,” says Vessani.
Rotary Youth Exchange has been providing intercultural exchange opportunities for secondary school students ages 15-19 since the 1920s. Students become cultural ambassadors for up to a full academic year, and the host families can help build peace and international understanding, serving one of Rotary’s six areas of focus.
Mike Lubelfeld, an elementary school superintendent and member of the Rotary Club of Deerfield, Illinois, spent weeks making arrangements for his club to host its first exchange student in more than two decades. In August, Leo, a 17-year-old from Indonesia, was greeted at the airport by an enthusiastic welcome committee from the club.
“We have just started the process and, already, there is so much excitement,” says Lubelfeld. “Working with youth of the world is one of the best ways to ensure a better future. And for our club to be able to take part in this cultural exchange is a huge opportunity that will not only benefit Leo but our members as well.”
Varda Shah’s family was asked by a friend to host an exchange student two years ago in Mumbai. At first, family members were reluctant.
“We were like, he’s a boy, he’s German, I don’t know how this is going to work,” says Shah. “But we decided to take a chance, and I never would have thought I could grow so close to someone in three months. We still Skype and connect through social media constantly and are always in touch.”
Shah decided she wanted her own exchange experience. She stayed with three host families in New York, learning about camping, tailgating at sports events, and ice hockey. But the biggest change was to her self-confidence.
“Before, I would never be able to make a conversation with a person I didn’t know,” she says. “Now, I can proudly say it isn’t like that anymore. I can go up to people. I have become more open, more mature.”
Juliana Kinnl of Vienna decided to follow in her older sister’s footsteps and take part in a Rotary Youth Exchange. She was hosted by two families from the Rotary Club of Newtown, Pennsylvania, and says she learned to be more accepting of other people and their differences.
“Meeting exchange students from all over the world, I have grown to accept people for who they are and not to judge them because they are different,” says Kinnl. “I’ve also grown more confident in my own abilities and who I am.”
Minerva Lopez Martinez of Marcia, Spain, spent her exchange in Canada, hosted by the Rotary Club of Simcoe, Ontario. She said some of her friends at home chose not to pursue an exchange because they felt they would be losing a year of schoolwork. But she has a different perspective on that.
“You have your whole life to go to school and learn. You only have one opportunity for a youth exchange,” she says. “The reason I came on the exchange is that I can be shy, and I didn’t want to be like that anymore. Now, I am trying new things, talking to people I don’t know. It has changed me a lot.”