Audrey Love

Traveling overseas can be terrifying. Contrary to jet-setting movie montages, boarding a plane and flying across thousands of miles of open water or across unknown countries and continents can oftentimes feel overwhelming and leave your mind buzzing with a litany of questions and expectations and unknowns. But it can just as equally be the exact opposite — overwhelming in the best kind of way, with culture and newness, different foods and ways of life that begin as unknown but quickly become an adventure.

The La Grande Rotary Club has provided these opportunities for more than 65 high school students since the late 1920s, when the short-term Youth Exchange Program was established. The program grew to include long-term exchanges in 1972 when Rotary International officially adopted the program. Today, one to three students are actively participating in the program per year depending on the available number of host families, and the club is eager to expand the number of both students and hosts involved.

“Rotary itself is one of the few true exchange programs, meaning for every student we send out we receive a student in,” said Chris Taylor, Youth Exchange officer and Eastern Oregon Coordinator of District 5100, which stretches across the state to Portland and Salem and all the way up to the Washington border.

A “true” exchange takes place during the short-term program, which is non-academic, lasting between four to six weeks during the summer months. High school students ranging from freshmen to seniors are matched with an international family with a teenager similar in age and gender. One student will travel to the other student’s home abroad, and at the end of the first four to six weeks, both students will fly back to the states for an equal stay at the other’s home. Both students remain together for the entirety of both stays. To date, the La Grande Rotary Club has either sent or received students from Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic/Slovakia, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Switzerland, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and South Korea.

The long-term exchange program is academic, requiring students to have a 3.0 GPA or higher, remain abroad for a full academic year — roughly 10 to 11 months — and travel solo. Typically, students will arrive in August and remain until July of the following year, living with up to three host families three months at a time during their stay. Long-term exchange applicants must be entering into their sophomore year of high school, as training unfolds throughout that year, with the students leaving to study abroad their junior year.

“Our goal (is three host families) during the year instead of the traditional one, mainly because we feel that it gives the students a much better cross-section of the culture when they spend three and a half months with three different host families,” Taylor said. “It’s also a little easier on the host family, or if things aren’t perfect with your first host family, then in a month or so you’re going to be moving anyway. Especially in the U.S., the family dynamics are so much different. Parts of the culture they participate in are going to be different.”

See complete story in Monday's Observer