Excitement, trepidation as plans made to study abroad

Posted: Monday, January 31, 2011

You see them in the hallways. In the classroom. They're from distant lands, and may or may not have a weird accent. They're foreign exchange students, and up until last year, I only just thought of what it would be like to step into their cultured shoes, and go on exchange myself. The thought has now turned into a reality.

I'm bound for Denmark this summer as an exchange student, for one academic year with Rotary Youth Exchange. Am I excited? Yes. Am I scared? You know I am. Do I have a wide array of emotions and feelings concerning going and living in a foreign country for a year? Check box for all, please. As you can imagine, I was elated to find out I was going on foreign exchange. But as the initial excitement died down, the thought really hit me: Oh man, I'm really going to be an exchange student. I've made a huge commitment.

I will have to deal with homesickness, adapt to a new culture, and learn a foreign language. It's been made extremely clear to me that studying abroad isn't easy, and that it's a challenge unique in itself, but to me, that's the beauty of it. I've always loved to be challenged, and I love the idea of seeing and being part of a different culture. Foreign exchange will give me the opportunity to see the world from another point of view. I'll make friends who I'll never forget. I'll be exposed to ideas and values that are glaringly different from my own country's, and possibly gain 15-20 pounds as a result of overindulging in foreign cuisine.

So let's backtrack a little. How did I become an exchange student?

The Rotary Youth Exchange program on the Kenai Peninsula starts recruiting sophomores from all the peninsula schools as possible candidates for foreign exchange. Rotary Youth Exchange is one of the programs, including Rotaract and RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards), that's part of Rotary International, a non-profit organization that provides service, promotes goodwill, and supports the eradication of polio from around the world. As a freshman in high school, I went to a youth exchange recruitment meeting at my school, just to see what Rotary was like, and I was immediately drawn into the idea of being an exchange student, because of the amazing opportunities and experiences that become open to you.

At the beginning of my sophomore school year, I went to another exchange meeting at my school, sent in my application, and had an interview with three Rotarians. Shortly after that, I was accepted to be an exchange student. Rotary chooses your host country for you, based on your preferences, and just recently, I went to Rotary's Winter Orientation in Juneau to be assigned my host country. Denmark was my third choice, after Germany and Brazil, because I had always been interested in Scandinavia and its culture, and I'm still reeling from being selected to go there.

There are dozens of other programs out there, including YFU (Youth For Understanding) and AFS (American Field Service), and even more opportunities to study abroad, for anyone interested.

Because after all, the world is a smaller place then it seems.

This column is the opinion of Catherine Wolk, a sophomore at Skyview High School.

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