A Saguaro High School junior and other Valley teens are learning to put service above others while experiencing the world.
They are part of Rotary International District 5495’s Youth Exchange program, which gives teens an opportunity to build peace and foster lifelong relationships with people around the globe.
Isabel Rennie and the other students are overseas immersing themselves in a new culture, overcoming language barriers and learning to become independent leaders for their communities upon their return home.
District 5495 – which covers the northern half of Arizona – partners with other international Rotary Clubs and is sending Valley youth to places like throughout Europe, South America and Asia.
When asked to describe their experience in one word, exchange graduates use words such as “unbelievable”, “amazing”, “astounding” and “exciting.”
Isabel said she “knew for sure I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country because that was what I had been learning in school for 10 years.”
She admits it was still a tough decision deciding on exactly which Spanish-speaking country she wanted to ultimate study and live abroad.
However, Isabel chose Chile because she loves “South America and the people are always so warm and friendly.” She said it is vastly different than her home in Scottsdale.
Isabel recalled she was busy with preparations leading up to her departure that it was not until she was driving to Los Angeles to pick-up her student visa before it dawned on her just how excited and nervous she was “to be away for a whole year!”
But she said she is adjusting well, although she noted, “The Spanish we’ve learned in school is very different than the Spanish used elsewhere.”
Isabel said it’s particularly so in Chile because “there are lots of phrases and words which are unique to just Chile.”
But, despite some minor dialect changes, she is enjoying the experience of learning and using Chile Spanish correctly.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of her time abroad is how everyone is “interested in your story” and they “ask me questions about my life back in my home country and are genuinely interested in getting to know me.”
Isabel wasn’t experiencing any signs of homesickness until her first nephew was born the first week of September.
“I am sad I won’t be able to meet him until I get back, but my family sends me lots of pictures to keep me updated,” she said.
But Isabel hopes the Rotary Youth Exchange program will nourish independent confidence in her to “step outside my comfort zone to experience life in a different way.”
When asked what her advice would be to future Rotary Youth exchange teens she said:
“Say ‘yes’ to everything and be open to new experiences because if you want to truly experience everything your host country has to offer, you have to be willing to go outside your comfort zone to experience those things.”
The Rotary Youth Exchange program sends high school candidates 15-to 18 on an ambassador-like exchange experience to one of 27 possible countries.
Donna Goetzenberger, a former exchange student herself who is outbound chair for the Rotary program, said the selection process may be rigorous, but ultimately it’s an enriching experience for teens because they mature into independent, globally-minded men and women of the future.
Students are selected based on interviews, courage, adaptability, grades and/or achievements, school and recommendations as well as interests in world affairs, cultures and languages.
She encourages teens to not allow grades to be the deciding factor though students should be prepared to speak about their grades and classes they have taken.
“We want to remind today’s youth about just how vitally important and powerful it is to have our future industry leaders – whether lawyers, bankers, journalists, or some other professional career - respect our international communities, for the benefit of our future as a community, state and nation,” Goetzenberger said.
“Universities look favorably on the exchange experience, as evident by unusual maturity and drive in a college applicant,” Goetzenberger said, adding teens should “go, experience the world, take a gap year and come back with a new perspective.
“Who knows? It might end up changing which career you come back to study at a university, but you just won’t know until you go.”
“Ultimately our Youth Exchange graduates return with a sense of self-confidence making them better equipped to handle college and life in our local, state, national and global communities,” said Goetzenberger. “These are the youth we want leading the charge of our tomorrow.”
The Rotary International exchange program began 90 years ago in Copenhagen when just a handful of students traveled abroad. During the 70s, it was formalized into its current form
District 5495 Inbound Chairwoman, Machel Considine encourages Scottsdale youth to take a gap year between high school and college “to appreciate and understand another culture, become fluent in another language, develop lifelong international friendships and (learn to) make independent decisions.”
The various Rotary clubs provide a stipend to cover all school fees, a monthly stipend as well as a students’ room and board.
Families are responsible for round-trip airfare, medical insurance, travel documents like passports and any additional spending money to cover extra traveling a student wishes to experience above what the program already provides.
District 5495 invests nine-months in preparing each student for his or her academic year abroad.
Students who are selected attend Rotary meetings, receive counsel and support from Rotary Club members and participate in club activities.
“The Youth Exchange program is affordable to students of all backgrounds and economic means,” Goetzenberger said. “We want to make sure every student interested in studying abroad has the opportunity to do so.”
Applicants must be in their freshman, sophomore or junior year at time of application and willing to immerse themselves in a new culture for an entire academic year.
They must have demonstrated leadership skills I school and their community, prepare to reside with two or three families when they’re abroad, be comfortable with limited contact with their family and friends back home and be prepared to learn the language and make new friends.
The program is open to both Rotary members and non-members.
The deadline to apply for the next full-year program is June 30 and Feb. 28 is the deadline to apply for a shorter summer program.
Apply at rye5495.org/about.html.