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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine March/April 2001
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Polenta and Plum Brandy

Rotary Fosters International Ties

I opened my email this spring to find the following message: “WANTED: Travelers for free tour of exotic country. Must be under 40. Apply immediately.” More spam? Sly recruiting by the Army?

Houston Rotary Clubs were seeking applicants for their annual Group Study Exchange (GSE). Across the globe, clubs annually select up to six local “young professionals” to participate in this 4-week program of cultural immersion. The aim of the educational program is to “further international understanding” and it is anything but a leisurely tour. Our team of two teachers, a technical writer, a petroleum marketing repesentative, and a psychologist spent two months preparing a presentation highlighting Houston’s economy and Lone Star culture. Then we presented it to our Romanian Rotary Club hosts.

Team members also researched the culture, history, and geography of destinations on our itinerary. Rotary provided language tapes, texts, and lessons. The club realizes that the more GSE participants know before they go, the more they’ll learn during the trip—which is fully funded by the clubs. All Rotary asks in return is that participants make themselves available to speak to local Rotary clubs about the trip upon their return and consider ways of continuing the exchange through service projects.

Our appetite was whetted when we met the Romanian team, whose arrival preceded our departure. After their month-long tour of universities, museums, NASA’s mission control, and a never-ending string of barbecues, they departed amidst tearful good-bye’s from host families and a “Ne vedem!” (See you soon) from us.

Once our plane touched down in Bucharest, we too had no free moments: daily itineraries included visits to high schools, universities, hospitals, large and small businesses, concerts, operas, monasteries, and historic sites. Each afternoon or evening there was an elaborate feast at a restaurant or a Rotarian’s country home, with heaps of Romanian polenta and meatballs and endless bottles of beer, wine, and Romania’s national home-brew, a plum brandy called tsuica.

“Vocational days” allow participants to spend several hours alongside their professional counterparts in the host country. Because they stay at host families’ homes, it gives participants the cultural exposure unattainable as mere tourist. Quite a few conversations stretched into the wee hours as our hosts asked questions about American life and regaled us with tales of life under Ceausescu.

Rotary was established in 1905 and today has some 1.2 million members. The stated mission of this business-oriented philanthropy is a combination of community service and international friendship. One of Rotary’s most visible achievements is the fight against polio with UNICEF and WHO, an effort that is expected to eliminate the disease by 2005. By then Rotary will have contributed $500 million and protected two billion children.

Rotary is also the world’s largest grantor of international scholarships: $26 million was distributed to 1200 recipients in 69 countries last year. In addition, 7,000 high school students from around the world participated in Rotary’s youth exchange program.

Regardless of where you live or what your age, with 29,000 clubs in more than 160 countries, it’s likely there’s a Rotary Club and an international experience waiting for you right around the corner.

For information on Rotary scholarships and or funding for development projects go to www.rotary.org.

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