Rotary is an organization well known in cities and towns throughout the world. Especially in my hometown of Melfort, our Rotary club has had an enormous impact, volunteering at almost every community event, organizing fundraisers, and having created the beautiful Rotary Park on the North side of the city. Many people are aware of these community aspects of Rotary, but surprisingly, the student exchange program Rotary offers is something that not many have heard about, especially to those in my age group.
So, as the first official post on my blog, I’m going to talk a little bit about the exchange program, and how I found out about/got involved with it!
A Rotary Exchange Student is first and foremost an ambassador for their country. On a long term exchange (a full academic year), the student travels abroad to another ‘district’ within a country chosen for them by Rotary. The student gets to submit country preferences but the ultimate decision is made by Rotary. On their year abroad, Exchange Students attend school, learn a new language, and stay with generally 2-3 host families. They are expected to take part in activities and volunteer work through their Host Rotary Club, and broaden their horizons by making new friends and learning about their new country. At the same time, they are sharing their experiences from their home country with others in order to build new connections and create a global understanding— an essential mission of Rotary International.
That’s the gist of what an exchange is all about through my own words, but if you are interested in learning more about the specifics, you can visit Rotary’s Site, which I’ve linked for your convenience 😉
Now, for my personal experience with Rotary.
I first learned of the Exchange program through my Mother, who had been an exchange student herself in Finland when she was younger. She was always telling us stories about her year and the people she met, and how the experience changed her life. Never having traveled out of Canada before, as a kid I always thought about how cool it would be to not only visit, but live in an entirely new place for a whole year. Because of that, the thought of going on an exchange had been poking at the back of my brain since I was very young; but it wasn’t until about 3 years ago that I really started considering it.
In grade 10, I got to know a wonderful person named Amber. She was the exchange student that year, having come from Belgium, and she completely sold the idea of going on exchange to me. She was involved in Drama with me, and several times after practice I picked her brain about the Exchange Program. As said before, she convinced me entirely. I could see that she was having an amazing time on exchange, and learning so much and making great friends. I knew just from getting to know her that I wanted to experience the same thing. And so I made the decision!
June 2018, I submitted my initial application papers to our local Rotary club. A month later I went in for my interview with the local Club representatives. After a very thorough meeting, getting all the information and answering questions regarding exchange, I was told I had been accepted by the Melfort Rotary Club! This was the first step in the process, and in the next few weeks I submitted my country preferences form and basic information. However, even though I had been accepted by the club, I still had yet to be approved by our Rotary District, which covers Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Northwest Ontario. At the end of August I had my district interview, which I was extremely nervous for but luckily went well. Then, in September, I got the official news: I was going on an exchange!
Then, the hard part. Living and attending school in a foreign country for a year comes with a lot, and I mean a lot, of paperwork. Add this to my Grade 12 classes and other activities, and I was absolutely swamped with things to get done. Luckily I had my Mom to help, but even with her assistance, and a bulletin board filled to the edges with ‘to-do’ cards, it was still overwhelming. After navigating a passport application, medical appointments, vaccinations and tests, and seemingly around 300 forms, we finally got it all worked out, and took the last recipe card off the to-do board. By that time, it was almost December, and we were able to enjoy our Christmas vacation form-free.
But I lied before, the hardest part wasn’t really the forms, it was what came after. You see, when I got accepted as an exchange student, I didn’t find out where I was going to be yet. Because an exchange (obviously) happens between two countries, there is a whole lot of work that goes on behind the scenes by the Rotary clubs, meaning it takes a while to actually pick the students’ countries. For me, that meant months of waiting. It was agonizing not knowing where I would be spending the next year of my life, but when I did find out, was it ever sweet.
As a quick side note, I forgot to mention that in January I had the amazing opportunity to meet the current Inbound exchange students in our District. They all came to Melfort for a Sports Weekend, and they immediately accepted me and Ethan (the other Outbound exchange student along with me, to France) into their group. Even though it was only for three days, I got to see and hear about their experiences, and I learned a lot about what to expect from exchange. I also made some truly amazing friends.
Then in February, the news came. I got the phone call one afternoon, and with my Mother jumping up and down beside me in anticipation, I was told I would be going to the Czech Republic. Wait, what? Doesn’t this blog say I’m going to Slovakia? Yes, it does, but I’ll explain.
As I was saying earlier, most countries are divided up into districts that students travel to. Canada, along with many other populous countries, has multiple districts within it that each send out and receive their own group of students every year. What I didn’t know though, was that Czech Republic is an exception to that fact. Since it is a somewhat smaller country with a population of only about 10 million, its district is actually combined with Slovakia— an even smaller country. Both countries together make up only one District, so when I was told I was placed in Czech Republic, that actually meant I was placed in District 2240, covering both countries.
I was about a month into learning Czech (the country’s language), when I got my first e-mail from my country correspondent, saying I would be staying in Slovakia! Not knowing initially that the district covered both countries, I was pretty shocked at first. I was very briefly upset that I had already put a lot of time into my Czech studies, but luckily I found out that Slovak is very similar and my basic knowledge would still apply.
After doing some research on the country that I know knew would be my home, I fell in love with it. I’ll make another post with some basic information about Slovakia, since not many people know about it, but when I first saw pictures and videos of the cities and landscape, I knew it was a hidden gem that I would love living in and exploring. I think some things happen for a reason, and I believe this switch of countries was one thing that was meant to be.
Since finding out where I was going, I had another opportunity to interact with the other Inbounds during a memorable ‘Winterfest’ in The Pas, Manitoba. Then, only a month later, we had our District Orientation Weekend in Russell, Manitoba, where we once again spent time with the Inbounds, and also met the other Outbounds from the district that would be leaving on their own exchanges in August as well. At the end of the weekend, we were presented with our maple-leaf-red blazers, an instantly recognizable item associated with exchange students (the red specifically for Canadians, of course).
Shortly after Russell, I got more news that I had been awaiting a long time for: my city placement within Slovakia! I would be spending my year in Banska Bystrica, a medium-sized city directly in the center of Slovakia. As with the country, I will have more information about it in my next post 😉
And now, the final months of my time in Canada. I have started booking flights, interacting with my first host family through e-mail, and have contacted and talked with some of the other exchange students that will be in Slovakia and Czechia with me during our year. In only a month and a half I will be on an airplane to Toronto, then to Vienna, and from there a car ride to my new (temporary) home in Slovakia.
Its been a long journey so far, but now is when it really begins.