Experiences that take young people to places they have never seen are invaluable because of the culture they encounter and people they meet.
To that end, Red Deer Rotary clubs work with other Rotarians around the world to give youth a chance to see other cultures and experience things beyond the reach of most people.
Rotary International’s youth exchange program welcomes at least one youth to Red Deer every year, while also sending one local youth abroad.
“The idea is that by the end of the exchange they will have seen our culture from four different families’ perspective,” said David Oxley, chair of international projects for Red Deer’s Sunrise club.
The most recent youth to take part in the exchange through the downtown club’s (District Club 5360) program say the experience has been amazing and life-changing.
Last year, Red Deer’s Devin Oullette spent more than 10 months in Taiwan.
When he left in July, he wasn’t sure what to expect but after coming back he is sure that he wants to see more of the world, including going back to Asia.
“I’ve always been interested in travelling and having a new experience,” said the 19-year-old.
“One of the best parts about my experience was getting to meet other people from around the world that were also part of the exchange program. I made lasting relationships with them and can now say I know people from around the world.”
Oullette stayed with three different families in Taiwan. It gave him different perspectives on their culture and country, and helped to change his thinking on what he wants to do after finishing high school.
“I got to see the second largest building in the world, take part in Chinese New Year and see so many other great things,” said Oullette, who had to give up a year of high school for the trip.
He has no regrets and has plans to go back to Asia to teach English after finishing Grade 12 at Hunting Hills High School this year.
“It enhanced my want to see other places in the world. It has changed my thinking in where I want to go and what I want to do after high school.”
Blossom Liang, the inbound student for this year’s program, has also been having a great time learning the culture — and experiencing completely weather from what she is used to.
The 19-year-old from Taiwan got involved with the program because her father is a Rotarian.
“The weather is hard for the first little bit,” said Liang, who did study a little bit about Alberta before coming but wasn’t expecting to see as much snow.
“Where I come from it is kind of tropical and the first time for me was crazy. It is pretty cool to see now. Sometimes it’s cold but mostly it is really cool to see all the white and snow.”
A big change for Liang has been participating in many of the winter sports. She has enjoyed getting out skiing, skating, snowshoeing, curling, and one of her new favourites, hockey.
“These sports don’t exist at home. I like all of them and getting to try new things,” said Liang. “I kind of envy people here because they have so many choices for things to do.”
Liang said her group of exchange students has become really close because of the common bond of being in a far off place.
As part of the program, exchange students from different clubs attend meetings and discuss their home with different groups.
This gives the students a chance to teach people about their culture while working on life skills.
This also happens for Canadian students going abroad. The outbound student is expected to give a monthly report in writing to a councillor from their host country.
They also have many other Rotary commitments so it is less of a holiday and more about a learning experience.
Oxley said the youth seem to excel in that type of environment.
One of the other differences Liang has found through her experience is the hours of schooling.
At home she goes to class from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. In Canada she found a greatly reduced schedule.
“There is also so many more options to choose from,” said Liang.
“Back home, there is more of a focus on the core subjects.”
Liang arrived in Canada in September and plans to leave in August.
She feels her experience has given her a deeper understanding of Canadian culture. She added it hasn’t been about visiting every tourist site and more about connecting with the culture and people.
The program would not be successful without the support from local host families who provide an engaging experience for youth.
Liang is currently residing with Suzanne and Dave Harrop, then will soon move on to stay with Devin Oullette’s family. Suzanne Harrop said Liang is the third youth they have hosted since being a part of the program.
“It is fun to see how they grow,” said Harrop, who has hosted youth from Hungary and Switzerland previously.
“Our exchange student from Switzerland didn’t speak much English when she got here and at the beginning she was even a little embarrassed to speak because she had an accent. From when she first came to when she left, she had really grown. It is neat because you learn a little about someone else’s culture while they are learning about the way things are here.”
Rotary Club Downtown’s director of new generations and vocation, Hillary Boisjolie, said despite the attractions of the program, they don’t have a lot of youth who know about it and apply to take part.
But the club plans to include one more youth per year, to provide more opportunities.
Boisjolie said they have three to five host families but would like more so they can provide a broader experience for inbound students, and not rely so heavily on the same families every year.
Besides the educational component and learning about another culture, there is also a personal aspect that goes along with participating in the program.
“We have youth that have kept in touch with their host families,” said Boisjolie. “Years down the road, maybe their host family is invited to their wedding or they are going travelling and make it a point to go to the county their youth was from and visit them. There are some long-term relationships there.”