Vantage Point from an Rotary Exchange Mom

Written by: Melissa Nelson

I am the mother of three 18-year-olds.  No, I am not the mother of triplets.  I do have twins, however, but it is so much bigger, and I think better, than that.  Having three teens is a challenge many may share with me, but this is what it looks like at my house.

Just last week, I counseled my son about classes to take in the fall at the University of South Carolina.  I packed up my daughter from the University of Florida and brought her home for a few weeks.  I took my 3rd child, also a daughter, prom shopping.   Good news, we successfully found a beautiful dress without breaking budget.   Along with all that, I ferried an assortment of girlies from one slumber party to the next.  To top it all off, I cried while watching the Fault in Our Stars with an assortment of kids.

This doesn’t sound atypical, however here is my twist.  My son is 5,000 miles away.  We have a four-way family conversation using What’s App to talk.   The prom shopping was with my Finnish daughter.  It is her first and last prom in the United States. The girls boo-hooing with me during the sad parts of the movie we watched were from US, Finland, Taiwan, and Belgium.  John Green has fans all over the world.

This is my life these days.  I am mother to inbound exchange student, Annika from Finland.  I am mother to an outbound exchange student to Chile, my son Max.  This is on top of my regular role as mother of twins, Max and McKenna.  Although McKenna is not inbound or outbound, her life is wrapped up in this as well.

As a mother, I have always referred to the kids that have surrounded my two as mine.  It is an understatement to say I feel a deep maternal connection.  Because of Rotary and RYE, this group has expanded to an international experience. Now, I do the following:

  • Happily receive enthusiastic kisses on both cheeks from Maximiliano who is at Nease High School.
  • Emotionally wept for Max’s best friend Henri from Germany when his father passed away and he was thousands of miles from home and I had not met the son or the father.
  • Inefficiently text often with my Max’s current host mom in Spanish.
  • Successfully taught a girl who speaks Mandarin Chinese that is okay that my cat, a Manx, doesn’t have a tail. (I had to promise we didn’t do it.)

Now I completely understand why founder of the Rotary Youth Exchange thought embracing the exchange concept could lead to a world without war.  Rotary has great programs and does great things, but RYE is transformative.

In my professional life, I speak a lot about outcomes, not output.  A+ B might equal C, but it isn’t about the numbers.  Are lives changed?  That is a question I am forced to ask and answer every day.  Looking at RYE the same way, I can confirm that Youth Exchange does not just change the life of the student; it changes the life of all those involved.

Let me share an example.  My son Max is avidly interested in politics and in the 2016 election he casts his first presidential election ballot.  Because of RYE, he isn’t just talking with us and following national media here in the US, nor is he only influenced international media.  He is engaged in dinner-table discussions that inject him with a global perspective.  He is getting to see and feel first-hand the way other countries are watching our election unfold.   This is not just influencing his opinion, but mine and those he is interacting with.    I can honestly say that I have never looked at an election from the vantage point I have this past year.  We are educating each other.

As Rotarians, we should be heavily invested in this program as advocates, educators and supporters.   Max has had the opportunity through his monthly newspaper column to share his experiences with a broad audience.  Think about how many people have learned about Rotary and RYE from this column.   Now, multiply that by the number of students, and their facebook posts and blogs and go the next step, this is globally.    This is a tremendous voice for the Rotary mission, service above self.

For fairly new Rotarians like me, I didn’t know how the process worked before experiencing baptism by fire.   District 6970 and Florida RYE do it right.  We focus on selection and preparation.  That is spot on because it is needed.

Knowing my son, I just knew Max would be selected.  When he was a little boy, I used to say I would send Max down the Nile, by himself in a canoe.  He would make friends with friends along the way, learn the language and the culture.  Quite honestly, I knew, even at age 10, he would have been up to it.  Over his childhood, he has had many years of Spanish.  He loves language.  He loves culture.  He loves geography, history and politics.  I knew he would love this experience.  That being said, I still did not fully know what that meant.

These are the basics.  The sequence is simple:

  • Rotary does school presentations
  • There are informational Parent Meetings
  • The Application is extensive
  • Home Interviews are conducted with both students and parents
  • Calculated Panel Interviews are serious and well planned
  • In past years, our district has culled hundreds of applications down to about 25 that are finally selected
  • The Great Country Reveal in December matches candidates with countries
  • Then the preparation really starts for both kids and parents:  Retreats at Lake Yale, Language Camp, homework, language study.

During the process, candidates hear stories like ours.  I am able to share that both my kids were book fluent with years of study of language but both describe the exchange process as swimming upstream.  Surprisingly, it is just as hard when you know more language.  Why? because when people think you understand, they talk faster.  The kids learn it isn’t just oranges to oranges.  It’s the nuances that are so hard to grasp.  My son will forever remember translating Yahwa to drunken Jesus.  My daughter, Annika, struggled requesting a weekend carrier.  We called it an overnight bag.  She points out that she is thinking in English now, but translating to Finnish, forgetting the word because she has not used it recenctly and then is still trying to translate back.

More than just language, Rotary helps the kids with the tools that are needed.  They think about what it takes to fit in and prepare for that experience.  Think about it this way, Max is always struggling to blend in.  He was immediately named, the Blonde Green Gringo that speaks Spanish.  For him, it was unexpected that in addition to the rare green eyes, he is the tallest.  This has led many marriage proposals from the preteen girls at his school.

Last, but not least, is the development of self-sufficiency and global awareness.  This is where the beauty really starts to unfold.  When it comes to being an exchange student, it is a strange mix of relying on others and relying on yourself to reach this state.

First, there is a surge of cultural understanding.   The kids quickly learn it is more than how you hold your silverware or deal with a lack of, or how you kiss or don’t kiss everyone hello.   There are surprises where you least expect it.

For example, how do you respond when you learn that South Americans don’t appreciate that U.S. residents think of themselves as the only Americans when there are Americans from North, Central and South America.  Canadians are Americans and Dominicans are Americans, you get the idea.

Thanks to RYE, I can add these things to my list on unexpected gifts to be grateful for:

  • My daughter McKenna has added a new continent to her travels, stayed in the home of a Chilean Family and hiked the Andes, and confidently heads out alone on her own European adventure this summer.
  • My Finnish daughter has conquered her fears and just won Ms. Congeniality at Creekside along with Ms. Photogenic – 2 of 4 crowns even though she was not eligible to win the pageant.  We showed them!
  • As for Max, he is a smart boy with lots of opportunity, but RYE sealed the deal.  It isn’t just that he was accepted into the University of South Carolina, which is ranked first in public schools for International Business.  And it isn’t just that we love the scholarship dollars and that he is part of the Honors College, the RYE gift is that he was selected for a highly competitive program 20 students from US – 20 from South America.  As part of his studies, he is headed back to Chile for a year!

Before my introduction to RYE, I can assure you that I would not have imagined any of this.  I would not have visited, and fallen in love, with Chile.  I would not have imagined welcoming and mothering a child from Finland.  I would not have realized that Rotary is really changing the world one student at a time.


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