Exchange program provides opportunity for youth to see the world

·7 min read

Interested in travel, experiencing another culture and expanding your horizons? If you are a youth aged 15-18, the Kincardine Rotary Club wants to hear from you.

Marijke Hennink is the youth exchange officer for the Kincardine Rotary Club, as well as being involved with the district committee, #6330, that extends from Tobermory and across the border into Flint, Michigan. She has also experienced the exchange program first hand, having lived as an “outbound” youth in Mexico during 1996-97. She is passionate about the program and the opportunities it offers and feels privileged to offer the program to today’s youth.

“Rotary Youth Exchange isn’t just something that you do for a year,” said Hennink. “It is a life-changing decision that grows with you as you move through life. Making connections around the world with like-minded people sets you up for a lifetime of support and adventure. It begins as a simple application, then there are interviews and paperwork, training and preparations. Though one can try to imagine what their year might be like, you really can’t – each experience is so unique. However, it does promise to bring new experiences and opportunities to learn, develop and grow. You change, you grow, you learn so much more about yourself and others. You acquire a new language and build skills to navigate different cultures and the world around you. You experience life in a year. You will become a stronger, more independent, global citizen, with interest to continue to do good things and give back.”

The process starts with an application. Youth interested in finding out more about the program should visit https://rotary6330.org/sitepage/rotary-youth-exchange/rotary-youth-exchange to access the online form.

If the application is accepted, the student is first interviewed by the sponsoring Rotary Club, then by the District. The interview process is completed in November, so Hennink says it is crucial that students apply before the deadline of Sept. 30, 2021, in order to have time for the interviews and significant amount of paperwork to be completed.

What follows is a year of preparation and training for the accepted students. They are required to participate in online webinars, will be assigned homework and attend in-person meetings. The students will learn about the culture and language of their host country and “how to be good ambassadors for Rotary, the community and their home country,” said Hennink. She says while the training may seem extensive, it is an investment that pays off. Students enter their exchange better prepared for situations they may encounter and can more fully enjoy their experience.

Hennink estimates internationally, in the last year the program operated (the program was cut short in 2020 and cancelled in 2021 because of COVID) approximately 8,000 students took advantage of the program. This local district had 18 students participate. Her son, Martin Mendez Hennink, was on the exchange in Chile when he had to return to Canada because of the pandemic. Even in his shortened time abroad, he is enthusiastic about what the program had to offer.

“My exchange took me to La Serena, Chile,” said Mendez Hennink. “I met so many students from around the world and built strong friendships with those in my community. Going on exchange gave me the confidence to pursue post-secondary education in the United Kingdom. Even though my exchange had to end early due to the pandemic, I built new skills, made great connections and look forward to continuing my involvement with Rotary both locally and internationally.”

Kenzie Ford was in Japan on exchange when the pandemic required her return to Canada.

“Thanks to RYE (Rotary Youth Exchange) and Japan, I have become a better person in all ways,” said Ford. “I’m much more independent, trilingual, and I’ve realized that I want to go to university for music. Living with my amazing host families and away from my Canadian life let me explore my passions, and meet incredible people.”

The Rotary Club not only provides Canadian students the opportunity to travel to one of more than 40 host countries, but accepts students, or inbounds, from other countries, who wish to live in Canada for a year.

Shodai Kanda left his native Japan to spend a year in Kincardine before the pandemic required him to return home. He is the 49th student hosted by the Kincardine Rotary Club since 1985.

“I have never experienced like this exchange program in my life,” said Kanda. “All of it consists beneficial things to me. One thing is that I can become more confidence to speak in front of the people. When I was in Canada, making Canadian friends and communicating with Canadian people were harder. But, I had to talk with them. Because there’s no way but talk with them for improvement my English. So, I could have confidence. And, I’m not sure my English is better, but I believe it’s better. That’s all I can say. Thank you so much.”

Hennink says students coming to this area are placed with host families during their tenure in Canada. Host families can be from varying backgrounds, retired seniors, couples or families. It is important that host families welcome the students into their family and encourage them to take part in regular activities.

“You treat them like one of your own – like a member of the family,” said Hennink.

Hennink prefers that three or four host families are available for each student. The commitment does require some additional expense and time, and host families are not financially compensated for the time the student spends with them. By sharing the duties between several host families over the course of the year, this is minimized. It is also beneficial for the student, who then has the opportunity to see how different families live and experience their culture and traditions.

“It gives them greater insight into the culture, lifestyle and habits,” said Hennink. “It gives students that opportunity to experience real life.”

Hennink says all host families are carefully vetted and must provide background and security checks to ensure the safety of all involved.

“We are always looking for host families, whether it is for current or future years,” said Hennink. “If someone is thinking about it, or considering it for the future, we would love to speak with them to answer any questions they may have, discuss the program and ease their mind of any concerns. We could talk for hours on how great hosting an international exchange student can have! Host families are a crucial part of the program!”

“Becoming a host family can offer some of those same amazing opportunities and experiences. Welcoming a student into your home, your family and your daily life can expand your world just as much as it does theirs.”

Contact with exchange students doesn’t end when they board the plane to their new host country. Rotary groups, both at home and in the host country, provide ongoing support for students, many who are away from home for the first time. Exchange students have the opportunity to connect and share their stories with other students, including students who have previously returned from their own exchange, or “rebounds”, who offer perspective on their challenges and serve as mentors. This support network is trained to offer advice during times of homesickness, sadness during the holidays or if there is an emergency at home. A counsellor in the district will address these issues with students and help them develop coping mechanisms. It also supports students after they return from their exchange. A year away from home makes a big difference in the life of a young person.

“They change,”said Hennink. “They have a year of life experience and life is different than it was when they left.”

Students interested in becoming part of the program are invited to contact Hennink at marijke.hennink@rye6330.org, keeping in mind the Sept. 30 closing date for applications. Households interested in hosting a student can visit https://www.csrye.org/how-to-participate/hosting/ or email Hennink at the address above.

Tammy Schneider, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kincardine Independent

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