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August 22, 2013

Students travel overseas through exchange program

By Michelle Miller The Cooperstown Crier
Cooperstown Crier

---- — While most local students are preparing to head back to school, a few will be taking on a new experience by living in a different country.

Each year, more than 8,000 students participate in the Rotary Youth Exchange program worldwide, learning a new language and experiencing a new culture, through the efforts of Rotary volunteers around the globe. Students will live overseas with one to four host families, attend a local school and immerse themselves in a new culture.

As students are learning, they will also teach the people they meet about the U.S.

Doug Geertgens, chairman of the Cooperstown club, said the Rotary Youth Exchange District 7170 exchanges with about 20 countries each year.

“It varies from year to year,” he said. “For example, Switzerland was recently added as was Taiwan, and Peru was dropped. Australia will no longer be part of our exchange after this year.”

Cooperstown is just one club that makes up District 7170. Other area clubs include Richfield Springs/Cherry Valley-Springfield, Milford, Edmeston, Schenevus/Worcester, Morris and Oneonta.

Cooperstown will be hosting the fall inbound orientation program in early September. According to Geertgens, there will be 34 students in attendance, which means the district is sending 34 students abroad. Cooperstown will be sending five students.

One of those students is Caitlin Briggs, who will leave for Brazil on Aug. 26. Briggs said she has loved traveling ever since she was a little kid.

“My family would go on vacations throughout the year and I loved going to new places,” she said.

Over the last few years, Briggs said she has become very good friends with exchange students, inbound and outbound.

“I would spend hours listening to their stories and I no longer wanted to just sit and listen,” she said.

The 17-year-old sought to create her own memories and experiences. Briggs said she wanted to challenge herself and learn a new way of life as well as break the stereotypes people have of Americans.

“I don’t just want to live in Brazil, I want to become Brazilian,” she said.

“I want to learn about myself and get over my fears,” Briggs added.

According to Briggs, some of her biggest fears are homesickness, the airport/customs and learning the language.

“Almost every exchange student has homesickness at one point or another,” she said. “I will be missing my senior year with classmates I have had since preschool and kindergarten. I think it will be hard not to be there with them. The airport is one of my fears because I have flown multiple times, but never by myself. I am nervous I will miss flights and get lost in the airports. The language is one of my fears because my host parents do not speak English. I know I will slowly begin to learn the language once I get there, but for the first month it will be difficult and frustrating trying to communicate with family, teachers and classmates.”

Briggs said she has never left her family for so long having only gone on trips with extended family and friends for a couple weeks at a time.

Another Cooperstown student participating in the exchange program is Aisling McGoldrick. She left for Brazil on Aug. 17.

McGoldrick said she has wanted to be a Rotary exchange student since Geertgens talked to her class when she was in middle school.

“I love traveling, culture and language, and I recognize that being an exchange student will give me once in a lifetime opportunities that I would otherwise not be able to do,” she said. “Every second I give up in my high school, I know is completely worth it.

The 16-year-old wasn’t sure what country she wanted to visit at first, but said she became impressed by Brazil.

“I had never really thought about it, because I didn’t know what a unique and diversified country it is. The more I learned, the more it appealed to me,” she said.

The objective, according to McGoldrick, is to have a sense of belonging and a second home by the end of the experience.

“My goal is to always cherish the time I have in my 10 months, even when the times get tough,” she said. “Personally, I hope to grow as a person, with more confidence and a better sense of myself and what I want to do after high school. I also want to leave a bit of myself behind in Brazil.”

McGoldrick, who has only been away from her family for a couple weeks at a time, said her biggest fear is getting through the first few months before understanding the language. 

Geertgens, who has served as the chairman of the Cooperstown Club since 2004, said the personal growth that takes place in each student during their time of exchange is very rewarding to observe. 

“I tell the students not to have expectations because it is never going to be what they expect. It is always going to be different,” he said.

The best advice Geertgens said he can give to students is to be proactive and engage themselves in the new culture as much as possible. 

“I love to see their faces and listen to them as they talk about what wonderful experiences they had once they are back,” Geertgens said.

This will mark the first year graduated high schoolers from Cooperstown will not participate. According to Geertgens, there are very few countries that will accept students 18 or older and the district was finding it next to impossible to place students. However, he said there are now fewer restrictions when placing students. 

The official application process for students interested in participating in the program next year will being the first week of school when preliminary applications are given out. Students who complete the applications are then interviewed by a local committee of Rotary members and former exchange students. The local interview team recommends a select group of students to proceed to the district interviews in November. Students find out in December if they have been chosen. 

Geertgens said there is always a need for “good” host families. Without host families the program shrinks or has to be abandoned, he said. 

According to the district 7170 website, “the best host families are really just normal families and they don’t fall into any one, easy-to-define category.” 

The site says Rotary differs from many international exchange programs in that students generally live with two or more families during their exchange year. There is less of a commitment for host families because the typical length of stay is about three to four months instead of a full year. Families do not need to be affiliated with Rotary to host exchange students. For more information about becoming a host family, visit http://rotary-youth-exchange.com/host_families.php or contact Geertgens at Onthego54@aol.com.

* Editors note: The two girls interviewed for this article will be among local exchange students who have agreed to write monthly columns for the Crier. The columns will start appearing soon. If there are any other students who want to share their experiences with the community, contact Michelle Miller at mmiller@coopercrier.com.