I have recently returned from an 11 month exchange in Mexico through the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. This experience is typically described as "the best year of your life." Though this may not be strictly true in my case, it is nonetheless not an exaggeration in the strength of feeling it conveys. You don't really realize what is going on on the other side when you see an Exchange Student in Cass City. It is something you really must experience for yourself. You see everything from a completely different angle, and in general, appreciate most things more.
Mexico is a beautiful country with delicious food and gracious people. I could write about the general differences I have observed between Americans and Mexicans,Instead, I would like to make a case for you and your children to go on exchange programs and to travel in general.
After being accepted into the Rotary Youth Exchange Program (don't worry, it is not difficult to get in), you go through several meetings during the course of the year prior to your exchange. These meetings put you together with the Inbounds (students here from other countries) here in your District, the Rebounds (students who have come back from exchange), and the Outbounds (students who will be on exchange all over the world when you are). The meetings are run by the excellent Rotary volunteer staff, who keep in contact with the Outbounds all year when they are on exchange and help with any problems that come up. The meetings offer training for both students and their parents, providing information and exercises that try to emulate the challenges you may face during your exchange. At one of these meetings, you have to rank the 40-some available host countries from first to last. Some time later, you will be assigned a host country and a host Rotary Club, where you will live and attend high school.
During your exchange year, you will live with three different host families, meet and befriend all the other exchange studentsin your district, and go on Rotary trips, an extremely economical way to see the most beautiful parts of the world, with friends. Almost every district or region offers a trip; some are more elaborate than others (Brazil's trip is nearly a month long) but all of them are extremely worthwhile, and they are quite affordable. It would be a shame to go on exchange and not take the trip, and the Host Rotary Club can and will almost always help kids with raising the money if they need it. Rotary Youth Exchange is , and the Rotarians are very gracious and enthusiastic people who can do incredible things.
The reasons why you should go on exchange are plentiful and convincing. The unexpected benefits, the surprises (a good friend you keep in contact with the rest of your life, a love of salsa music, or even the discovery of a sense of purpose; one girl, seeing the conditions of refugees from Burma in Thailand, has dedicated herself to working for the UN Refugee Agency and improving conditions for these people), are after all the best part of the exchange. Testimonials are the most direct evidence of the worth of the exchange year, but they depend on a trust, and an established relationship I unfortunately do not and couldn't really have with you, my unknown reader. So, I will try to articulate, as best I can, the value of travel and youth exchange in particular.
The first and simplest of these is merely that exchange, through Rotary in particular, is a great opportunity. It is one of the cheapest ways to travel (as little as $1,500 during the entire year; food and school are paid for by the host families and Rotary Clubs), it provides an indispensable immersion and intimacy with the culture that is impossible to find as a tourist, and is a fantastic educational deal; the traditional schooling you receive in your host country may not be worth anything at all (it wasn't in my case) but there are things you gain on exchange that can't be taught in a classroom. I believe that exchange is an essential component of a truly broad, modern, international education.
An exchange shows you directly that there really is a huge, wide world out there, something that is easy to forget in the complacent nose-to-the-ground routine of daily life. It shows you that other people do really view things in fundamentally different ways, and that, in most cases, there is no "right" or "wrong" to this. It teaches you not to reject or discredit things because they are foreign or seem "backwards." You come back from exchange seeing your culture and the world in a more objective light: you have no depth perception seeing with only one eye.
Exchange was an experience that helped me to mature and grow as a person. I am more comfortable talking to people and more outgoing and forward with them. Since I have been back, I have performed a marimba solo in front of 1200 people at the Rotary Central States Youth Exchange Conference, and given a presentation to the local Rotary club, saying most of the same things I am saying here. These are things I would have been nervous and uncomfortable doing before, but felt completely relaxed and normal now. On exchange, no one knows you. You have the chance to rebuild your character from scratch in a way that is not possible among people who have established preconceptions of you. You constantly have to explain who you are to curious people in your host country, and in answering them, you learn more about yourself. It is wonderful to have strangers genuinely interested in who you are and where you are from, and what things are like there. Finding people baffled by things you always took for granted in your own culture shows the significance of cultural differences as well as the potential for disparate behaviors and beliefs in human nature.
Now that you know why you should go on exchange, let me preempt your doubts and excuses. First of all, logistical concerns, regarding college admissions, regarding high school credits, regarding missing a year of anything, etc, should be dismissed out of hand. These things are not difficult to work out and are easily worth the trouble. The only other real objection that comes up is something we all feel, some more than others, and is essentially something we each need to overcome individually: laziness and fear of the unknown. I am pretty bad about this and was much worse as a child. My father made an implacable, titanic effort to destroy this in me, and it is because of him I went to Mexico.
Most of you, of course, will never have the opportunity to go on exchange. However, there are plenty of other ways to get involved and to become a part of the wonder that it is. Youth Exchange Officers (YEO) is always looking for host families to host Inbounds. Hosting an exchange student brings a new member into your family, and illustrates vividly the existence of the world outside. It provides a unique opportunity to look into another person's life and history, a history that is typically drastically different from those of the people around you. Each of the exchange students my family has hosted has given as much to us as we have to them. The same principle holds true for high school students: make a point of seeking out the exchange students in your school and talking to them. They are some of the most interesting people in school with you, if only because of their unique perspective and background (though typically not only for those reasons).
If I have piqued your interest about exchange, all you need to do to get started is get in touch with your local Rotary YEO. I would also love to talk to you and give you more information from my experience, and you should feel free to contact me. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. In Cass City, my mom, Debra Kranz, is the YEO, and you can reach her either by email at email@example.com or by calling us at home at 872-4215. Rotary Clubs typically have phone numbers listed in the beginning of the phone book, and if not, asking a few local businesspeople should find someone who can put you in touch with a Rotarian. More information is also available at the Central States Youth Exchange Website: www.csrye.org. If you are interested, the journal I kept of my personal experience on exchange in Mexico is available at adamjameskranz.blogspot.com.