As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine July/August 2003
Give it a try. It will change your life in more ways than you can imagine!" said Amanda Weatherford, 18, when asked her advice for other teens considering participating in a youth exchange program. Weatherford recently spent an academic year as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Thailand.
Each year 34,000+ Rotary clubs worldwide sponsor thousands of visitors in 200+ countries. The clubs operate both in short-termseveral days to several weeksand long-term exchange programsusually an academic year.
Weatherford, a high-school graduate from Texas, said she chose a long-term program because, "I wanted to actually live as the people do and go to school just like a normal person of that country."
Carey Wickham, 16, who, like Weatherford, was also a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Thailand, echoed Weatherfords sentiment about the choice of a long-term program over a short-term program. "I figured that a short-term exchange would only give me a brief glimpse of the cultural aspects of another country, whereas a year would give me enough time to try to understand it as well as achieve a better grasp of the language," she explained.
While Rotary clubs do their best to grant a students first choice of where they want to live and study, sometimes students are placed in a very different country. Wickhams first choice was Thailand, and Weatherfords was Italy. "But now I am glad that I didnt go there!" said Weatherford.
Both young women described their experience in the homes and schools of Thais as life-changing. Wickham, a high-school junior in Washington, felt that the year was not only a time for her to better understand and to grow to love another culture but also to better understand herself.
"Its a life-changing year that I wouldnt trade for anything else in the world," she explained. "You meet people from so many places and it totally opens up the way you look at the world." Once a student makes the commitment to go overseas for a year Wickham advises that he or she really think about how the experience is a chance to get an inside look at another culture. "Dont bother to think about home," she recommended. "You can go back whenever you want, [but] your exchange is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
To learn more about Rotary or other youth exchange programs a good place to start is by talking with your schools guidance counselor, who can tell you about your schools involvement in youth exchangeeither by hosting international students or sending its students overseas. Your school may have established partnerships with youth exchange programs like Rotary and AFS or direct partnerships with schools abroad.
Another useful resource is the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET). It sets standards for and evaluates U.S.-based high school exchange programs and publishes the results of the evaluation process in its annual Advisory List. In addition, Internet education and travel databases like Goabroad.com, Studyabroad.com, and the Transitions Abroad High School Study Abroad and Teen Travel Overseas section have information on many types of high school exchange programs.
Include Your Parents
As you explore the possibilities of and the organizations involved in youth exchange, its important to include your parents in the process. Share with them not only your interest and reasons for wanting to go abroad but also the essential facts about the programs in which you are interested. Understand that it is difficult for parents to see a child leave home for a long period of timeespecially to a different country. Both you and they will want to take the time to fully understand and evaluate the chosen programs cost and features, reputation and references, and how well it addresses health and safety issues. Not only is this important to ensure that you have chosen the program that is best for you; it will reassure your parents that you will be cared for.
JENNIFER VIALE is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She holds a masters degree in International Education from the School for International Training.
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