A cultural divide exists in much of the world, whether through perceptions, beliefs, stereotypes or simple lack of knowledge. Helping bridge that divide are the excellent exchange student programs right here in Columbia that are organized through Rotary Exchange Program and Ayusa (formerly AYUSA, Academic Year in the USA). Both groups are committed to sharing new cultures and ways of life with students while opening them to different perspectives on parts of the world that are, literally, foreign to them.
For 75 years, Rotary Youth Exchange has connected families across the world. Close to 8,000 students in more than 80 countries participate in the Rotary’s short- and long-term programs each year. Ayusa has matched families with students for 30 years, placing 1,500 students across the United States on an annual basis. Both organizations place a strong emphasis on student safety and a dedication to providing the best possible experience for all participants.
“Exchange programs provide an optimal opportunity for Midlands’ families to offer students a chance to experience American life,” says Allen Roberson, Youth Exchange Officer of the Columbia Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange Committee. “In turn, families are rewarded and broadened by the opportunity, and they form wonderful relationships and bonds that last the rest of their lives.”
Diane Knetzer, regional director of Ayusa, says participating in an exchange program is an extraordinary expression of kindness by ordinary citizens. “Hosting an exchange student is an incredible opportunity to make a young person’s dreams come true, to be an answer to someone’s prayers, to learn about and appreciate a foreign language and culture, while also teaching about our own,” she says.
Last year, Constance Elkins and her family hosted Aqib Malik, an Ayusa YES scholar from Pakistan. “I always wanted to host an exchange student when I was younger and was determined to do so when I got married and had a family,” says Constance. “We thoroughly enjoyed being with Aqib, and he represented his country very well.” Being a representative of his country was extremely important to Aqib; he found the most rewarding part of the program to be when people said, after meeting him, that Pakistan was the type of country they would like to visit.
“There are many stereotypes or misconceptions about Pakistan, which include terrorism,” he says. “My aim was to show that there are good and bad people everywhere. Terrorists are not Muslims, and Muslims are not terrorists. I believe my mission was successful, as I am getting good responses from people who want to have me back.”
Aqib’s experience demonstrates that an exchange program isn’t just about opening up one’s house; it’s also about opening up one’s heart. “You have the opportunity to change a child’s life, but yours changes, too,” says Allison Ford, secretary/treasurer of Rotary’s District 7770 Youth Exchange committee and a Youth Exchange officer for the Lexington Rotary Club. The exchange also is extremely valuable to children in the host family because it teaches them first-hand about different cultures and diversity.
Zana and Carl Roberts made their decision to host an exchange student as a family, with input from Brenden and Grey, their children. Brenden referenced the Rotary’s motto of “Service Above Self,” and together the Robertses decided this would be a great opportunity to put that motto into action. They shared their hosting duties with two other families and were thrilled with their student, Jean-Baptiste “JB” Douchy, from Belgium. JB experienced many firsts during his visit to Columbia – iced tea, fried chicken and water skiing – all of which he loved. And JB taught the Roberts family a thing or two, as well, including an appreciation for rugby.
(L to R) JB Douchy, an exchange student from Belgium, with his host family, Zana, Grey and Brenden Roberts. Photo courtesy Carl Roberts.
“It was great to see how well JB fit in,” says Carl. “At one out of town rugby game on a particularly cold winter night, I noticed that about 20 of the fans in the stands were there because of him. Our sons liked to support him at games by painting a big ‘J’ and ‘B’ on their chests in school colors.”
While visiting South Carolina offers lifelong memories for students from other countries, Starling Eargle is walking in the shoes of other exchange students as a Rotary exchange student in Brazil this fall. “I am looking forward to being immersed in the Brazilian culture, as well as learning to speak Portuguese and play soccer,” says Starling. She will serve as an ambassador for the Lexington Rotary Club, taking a Lexington Rotary flag with her and bringing home a Brazilian Rotary flag.
Michelle Eargle, Starling’s mother, has traveled often in her life and passed on that desire to her daughter. “Starling understands how important a globalized view of the world is, especially today when we are no longer localized to one area,” she says. Michelle sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her daughter. “I think as our kids really get to see beyond themselves, they will be able to grasp the opportunities available to them outside of their communities.”
This concept was certainly true for JB. “Before coming to Columbia, I was just done with high school, and I didn’t really know what to do with my life,” he says. “I just wanted to have fun with my friends in college. When I came back, I had figured out a real project with my life, and I made the decision to leave Belgium to study in a really good French university. I don’t think I could have made this decision without having this year to mature.”
Kathy Decho has hosted students from Morocco, France and Sweden, providing her family with a wealth of experience in other cultures. “I’ve always been interested in different cultures. I love to travel and to meet people from all around the world,” she says. The relationships Kathy has formed and the connections she has made with her exchange students and their families have been extremely valuable. Kathy advises giving students time to process when they arrive, as being immersed in a new culture and a new school can be overwhelming. “Students usually arrive about a week before school begins, but it’s amazing how quickly they pick things up,” she adds.
(L to R) Allen, Olivia and Kathy Decho with Emeline, an exchange student from France, at Chimney Rock. Photo courtesy Kathy Decho.
The keys to successful exchange relationships are open communication and setting expectations at the outset. “Establish communication quickly and understand from the beginning that there will be cultural misunderstandings,” says John Keegan, who hosted an Ayusa CBYX scholarship from Germany. “You can’t keep up the walls you keep up when a guest is in your house. It’s more like, ‘This is who we are, and we have to love each other for who we are.’” The appreciation for direct communication is certainly a positive outcome of hosting an exchange student.
For John, experiencing other cultures and religions is a valuable part of the exchange program. Instead of looking for an exchange student who will be just like one’s own child, he recommends finding someone who is a challenge to, but not a conflict with, some of one’s own beliefs. These interactions have had lasting impacts on the families involved, allowing them to better understand different cultures and beliefs. “You will have some culture clashes, but instead of getting upset about it, you use it as an opportunity to communicate and better understand each other,” agrees Constance.
For Starling, going to Brazil is a key step in helping her become a better communicator. She will share her own culture with the other exchange students visiting Brazil, as they have opportunities to come together to share ideas and build a sense of community. The students exchange pins that they proudly wear on the Rotary-issued blue blazer – a sign of their representation of the club. “I want to be more open-minded and gain a better perspective about the world around me by getting to know a lot of different people from many different places across the world,” she says.
The exchange program is an educational endeavor for all parties. “Our experience of seeing JB’s view broadened our perspective,” says Carl. “We took him kayaking down the Saluda River. When we got to the old bridge abutments near the zoo, I explained that they were built before the Civil War. I thought he would be impressed with how old they were, but he didn’t seem to be. We later learned that his house in Belgium is 300 years old, and his church is considerably older. He has a different perspective on what an old structure is.”
Host families do not get paid to host students and should be prepared to treat the student as they would their own children. While students come with their own spending money, Constance was quick to point out that it is important to treat the students as family. “We looked at it as if this was our child, and we were going to take full care of him,” she says. “If we went to dinner or to the movies, we paid for everyone – we certainly didn’t expect for Aqib to pay for himself.” Adds John, “You do have to consider it as an expense – through time, money and emotions – but it’s a blessing from God that puts these people in your lives.”
It’s also an opportunity for perceptions to be changed – for the student and the family – all from the comforts of their own homes. “Exchange programs allow people to have a positive impact on issues happening around the world,” says Diane. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to share America as we know it, instead of as it may be presented by foreign media or press, to open up new possibilities, to transform a student’s life and future and the way their family, friends and others in their country will think and feel about us for years to come. It’s a way to help change the world and make it a better place.”
It’s what everyone involved in exchange programs seeks to do: better themselves, share of themselves and depart more mindful, knowledgeable, accepting and knowing. “All great things in life come from work and sacrifice and, from my own experience, I can tell you that it is worth every minute,” Allison says. A new member to call family isn’t a bad outcome either.