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.

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  1. I was able to spend a year attending Saint Mary's Secondary School in Lusaka,Zambia through RYE. Looking back now my parents were so brave putting me on a plane and trusting my care to strangers for the next 12 months. I think I can count on my one hand the phone conversations we had. Yeah I missed my mum, and yeah it was difficult being emersed in a completely different culture. But I wouldn't trade it for the world; it was the greatest expirience of my life. It has made me more indepenent and out going and given me a different perspective. If my children ever asked to study abroad I wouldn't think twice about giving them the oportunity.

  2. I spent a year in France with thr RYE program as well. It was a wonderful oppertunity for myself as well as for my parents who had many oppertunities to interact with people from all over the world. My year overseas instilled many values in my life that I would not have gained in any other way. If and when I have children this is something I would hope that they would want to take part in.

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  3. I really really want to send my daughter abroad for a year… if she wants to of course… think it would be a fabulous experience for her.

    BTW where did the post on vegan formula go?

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    • I guess the vegan formula post was taken down. Perhaps it inspired too much drama ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    • The post was removed due to Stephanie's and my shared concerns that it was being interpreted as medical/nutritional advice.

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  4. My parents were Rotarians, so at many of the Rotary events I went to as a kid, the exchange students for their club were always around, and I got to meet people from around the world!

    I myself went on a Rotary summer exchange (I spent one month with a family in Finland, their daughter spent one month with my family). Again, we only paid for the plane ticket and the fee for the side trip to St. Petersburg. It was quite an experience!

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    • How did you only have to pay for the plane ticket and side trip?! There's got to be a catch! Haha

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      • There's no catch. Submit your application to a local Rotary club. You are responsible for a round trip open ended plane ticket, health insurance, spending money for a year, passport. Your host club will have requirements of you and your time. But they usually help out by paying for Rotary activities. Your family will host a student, for 3 months, while you are gone. You will need to also find 2 additional host families for the rest of their stay. I am on a Rotary District RYE committee as an outbound coordinator.

  5. A handful of the comments above remind me of something… My mom went to her high school reunion a little while back and had a chance to visit with her former prom date. He'd had kids, and my mom asked if they went on exchange. He said something like, "they never made it happen." Mom and I both could relate to that – we'd hosted students who didn't want to come, who were forced into it by parents who demanded they take advantage of the opportunity, and we'd shared our experience, in which I was the one who formally brought up the idea, although she had created the environment to bring me around to it.

    So, what would it take for you to know that your child was ready for something like this?

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    • If your kids is curious about the world in general and good at taking care of himself with stuff like laundry and tidiness at home, I'd say he's ready.

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      • Hmm… I don't know. Curiosity and the ability to take care of some household tasks are important, but kids as house guests also have to use better judgement than in their parents homes – they need both better manners and to be better at setting their limits.

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    • I'd say when they ask for it, absolutely. It's also my opinion on music and sports (both things I loved in my childhood but that my parents let me ask for when I wanted to do them).

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  6. I spent my junior year abroad in Germany with RYE. Apart from having my son it was easily the single greatest decision I have ever made. I was a giant wallflower my first two years of high school and throwing myself into another culture helped me discover myself like nothing else could have. I was the first student from my school to utilize RYE in over 15 years. They were at the point where the Rotary Club wasn't even seeking students anymore so I had to find them. I left home a shy 16 year old who spoke no German and came back fluent in two dialects, confident, and open about the world. I even had my first beer, my first kiss, and lost my virginity while abroad (all against the rules.) When my son turns 16 we are going to have a serious conversation about the pros and cons of youth exchange and I hope he chooses to enroll in the program like I did.

  7. So, how old do you think your kids need to be before you serve as a host family? I'd at least want them to be old enough to tell me if the exchange student were mean to them. Maybe elementary school age?

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    • In RYE at least, students are accepted after a rigorous process. I know they're teenagers, but I didn't meet any exchange students who were knowingly and gleefully unkind to children… But troubles do come up, and communication between students and their host families is really important.

      My host families had kids ranging from 3 to 30. I had an easiest time relating to the 9 year-old, who understood enough to show me her culture. (Like when I was nine with Vicky :D) I think the three year olds got something out of me being around too.

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      • How did people who were up to 30 get involved in this program? I've wanted to be an exchange student since I was in 2nd grade, but I never did because of money. I wish I had known about this when I was younger. I went to the website, but it looked like the cut off age is 25. I'm 26. I would love if there was some way to be involved in this program or something similar.
        I don't have any kids yet, but I definitely hope that I can help them have this opportunity if and when I do.

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        • Oh, I meant that my host parents had children who were 3-30. RYE is for high school students only.

          There are a few other international opportunities through the Rotary foundation though (which means you can't be a Rotarian or a child of a Rotarian to take advantage of them). One is the Ambassadorial Scholarship where they send grad students to do extensive research in another country.

          The other that I know of is Rotex (I think that's what its called), where they trade professional people between clubs to give them an opportunity to see how certain kinds of work are done abroad.

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        • There's always the JET Program. Their cutoff is 40 if I remember correctly. The catch is it's only Japan and you have basically zero say in where they send you in Japan. I did it for 4 years and it was a great experience.

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    • We hosted a few exchange students when I was growing up (not RYE, but through the YMCA where my mom worked). The youngest I was was… eight, I think? Which would have made my brother six or seven. That worked out really well for us (and our exchange students were all really nice)!

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    • My family hosted an exchange student for a year when I was 5. I remember some things about that year, but remember more from her subsequent trips back to the US and ours to Sweden. Just because your kids don't remember every detail of the stay doesn't mean they won't have an awesome relationship with the student that lasts a long time. 20 years later and our student is still close to the family.

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  8. My family played host to MANY exchange students over the years. Before I was born, it was a rotating door of older foster kids, so my parents didn't bat an eye at exchange students. I was probably 10 when we started hosting German kids for about 6 weeks at a time. Then, when my brother went to Germany for a year, that family's son came to stay with us. My brother became fluent in the language and had an amazing experience there.

    When I was 14 we hosted a few different Brazilian students, and I had the opportunity to visit the country for 4 weeks as an exchange student before I even entered high school through a special journalism program.

    We had a wonderful girl from Japan stay with us for a year. We're still in contact and she wants to move back to the USA someday.

    My senior year of high school, we "rescued" an exchange student from Brazil from another family who was full of chaos/turmoil. He stayed with us for a full school year.

    We never had any serious issues with any of the exchange students and my brother and I both had incredible experiences. Either way, it's very rewarding!

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  9. My high school had several exchange students through Rotary, though I never took advantage of the opportunity to go abroad at that time. But as someone who works in international education now, I just wanted to say YAY for promoting international exchanges here! I think it's such a fantastic opportunity, and I really hope that my (yet-to-be-conceived) children will take advantage of opportunities like this!

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  10. I was a Rotary exchange student in Germany. OMG best year of my life. It definitely made me understand there was a great big world outside of my little rural town. This October my parents are going to Germany for the wedding of one of our past exchange students, we're all so excited!!

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  11. When I was 11, we hosted the chaperone for a summer exchange program from Japan for two weeks. (This was through 4-H on our end, a language program called Labo over there.) The following summer we hosted a girl my age for one month. Two more students came when I was in high school. Growing up in rural upstate New York, it was my first exposure to anyone not from America. I became interested in Japanese culture, which inspired me to study Japanese at college. I came to Yokohama on the JET Programme after graduation, stayed on after that ended, and six years later I'm still here. I met my husband here, too. Being a host sister all those years ago had a dramatic influence on my life. One of the schools where I work here often has Rotary students. I've taught students from Brazil, Sweden, France, and Germany. They've been fantastic. I'll definitely look into joining Rotary when I move back to the States this summer.

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  12. In Italy we have intercultura. It's very expensive unless you get one of the few scholarships but it's really awsome! We hosted a Japanese girl for one year and then my sister went to Australia for 3 months ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  13. This sounds incredible! I never did exchange (should have!), but my cousin went to Germany for a year through 4-H and my friend went to Ireland for a semester or a year.

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  14. Wow! When my life becomes less hectic, I am going to look into our local RYE. This is an answer to a lack of culture my kids are being exposed too.

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  15. We did a less formal exchange when I was in school. My grandparents lived in Brazil as a young couple, and a daughter of their friends there lived with us for a while in Orlando, FL. Then when I was in college, I went and stayed with her family in the Sao Paolo area for a little while. I loved having the girl live with us, although as a half-Portuguese elementary school kid, I could not get it through my head for many years that I was not Brazilian ๐Ÿ˜‰ Wishful thinking…

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  16. My hubby and I hosted a student for over a year before our first child was born. It was great and we loved every second of it. Being the youngest parents in the host group was hilarious but educational and we hosted an amazing student who we still keep in contact with who changed our lives. I ask everyone with a little spare space for a bed to host. It is great for your community and your soul.

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  17. I was on RYE to central India my junior year of high school. It was far and away a mind-blowing experience. My host family didn't change during the year, though I wanted it to at the time, because of my family's attitude that it would reflect poorly on them, but I still had an amazing time. It wasn't all easy by far, I cried a lot, and had fights with my host family (being a 15-year-old white woman in highly patriarchal India was HARD), but I came home speaking Hindi, knowing how to do henna tattoos, and having the cultural knowledge to follow news on South Asia.

    Also, no other youth exchange program that I've heard of sends to India, or many of the other places Rotary sends students.

  18. I spent a year in Belgium with AFS, another exchange organization. Like many others have said, it was absolutely one of the best decisions of my life. I left the US a super-shy 16 year old, but returned a confident 17 year old – fluent in Dutch, having fallen in love with my host family and Belgian friends. I'm actually still in very close contact with my host family – I'll be returning this summer for my host-sister's wedding. An incredible, life-changing experience.

  19. As a proud Rotarian (and offbeat mom, go figure!), I'm pleased to see RYE mentioned. Our club has hosted some great kids and although I haven't hosted, I've loved interacting with the students. Last year I took our swedish exchange student to her first bluegrass festival…

    Since becoming a Rotarian, I've thought about what a great resource Rotary is and its too bad my parents didn't know about it. I'm glad I may be in a position to offer the opportunity to my son when he's ready.

    Glad to see the positive impact in action here at Offbeat Mama!

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  20. I think it's important to note that not all exchanges go hunky dory if people are considering it. Definitely weigh the pros and cons! My grandparents were doing an exchange program and while their first girl was wonderful, the two subsequent high schoolers that came over were just rotten. Sadly my grandparents have discontinued hosting students because of those two.

  21. Great article! I only skimmed the comments, so sorry if I missed this information, or if someone else already asked it, but is Rotary queer friendly? Would they put an exchange student in a family with same-sex parents? I think it is something we'd love to do, but not sure if we'd make the cut…

    • Hi Eileen, I'd be really disappointed in Rotary if they discriminated in that way. According to their website, Rotary International seeks to "actively support member diversity."

      That said, every decision with RYE is made on a case-by-case basis by individuals. At best, this lets them consider the needs of all involved. The club I visited in Japan only had one woman member in 2001. In the Philippines, one club's membership seemed to only include descendants of the various colonial powers. So I would imagine you could expect different levels of friendliness.

      Since you're considering hosting, I hope you'll shop around, and not be discouraged if the first group you find doesn't fit your family's needs. I'm happy to put you in touch with my mom for more info about how to do this where you live. Send me an email at liz dot ohlhausen at gmail dot com. — Cheers.

  22. As a Rotarian, I say YES to this post. Thanks for the shout out. Three local clubs (including mine) are currently proud to host an RYE student from Sweden. Others may have mentioned this already in previous comments, but Rotary also offers an adult one-month version called Group Study Exchange. In June we'll have a group of about 20 Rotarians from India visiting Nebraska to learn about our culture, job shadowing and just socializing. For anyone interested, I would suggest contacting (and joining!) a local Rotary club. Here's a link for more info: http://www.rotary.org/en/ServiceAndFellowship/Fellowship/GroupStudyExchange/Pages/ridefault.aspx

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