Posted by Ed Fink on Feb 16, 2024
Over decades, the Rotary Club of Madison West Middleton and its two predecessor clubs hosted many Rotary Youth Exchange Students and sponsored others to study abroad. Some of our members had long tenure as Youth Exchange Officers, including Mary Feldt, Connie Smith, Dan Fose, Susan Titus and this writer, to name a few. Unfortunately, this program is missing from our current portfolio of activities. We wish to bring it back, and seek new members willing to become involved, so we can offer the opportunity of Rotary Youth Exchange to more area high school students. Duties include finding potential outbounds from local high schools and families for those coming our way.
Here is how it works. Students apply, are interviewed and selected by their sending Rotary Districts. The same process happens across the world. Currently, the Central States Rotary Clubs have exchange opportunities with 40 other countries. From the Rotary Youth Exchange Handbook, we are told: ”Living in a foreign country is a powerful way to gain global understanding and promote peace. Through Youth Exchange, students learn a new language, discover different cultures and customs, and make friendships that last a lifetime. The objectives of the Rotary Youth Exchange program include:
• Instilling international understanding and goodwill in students
• Creating positive change by empowering youth
• Making lasting connections for host clubs, host families, communities, and the students involved”
Typically, when a student arrives here or goes abroad, they are assigned three families, spending one third of the year living as a member of each, while attending the same school over the course of their year. The families are screened before being allowed to host a student. The student is assigned to a Rotary Club and the hosting club selects the families, makes sure all is going well for the student, host families and in the school. The receiving club also makes sure Rotarians are taking responsibility for offering social and other opportunities for the students they are hosting. Of course, each Rotary Exchange Student’s experiences are unique, though similarly structured.
My wife and I have hosted three students, girls from Australia, Belgium and Zimbabwe. Each experience for student and host family requires a bit of adjustment, along with a few challenges. On one of her first days in the U.S., Australian “daughter” Joanne and I were walking down the street, when I recognized a high school boy coming our way. When I introduced Joanne to him, I offered that she was Australian. As the conversation began, the boy paused and asked her why she wasn’t using one of those books.” She looked a bit flummoxed. Then I realized he was talking about one of those (insert the foreign language) to English translations. We all had a good laugh, when I told him her native language was English, the same as his. It was a very small moment of international understanding!
Away from her home country, our student from Zimbabwe, had to deal with a very difficult situation. She received word from her parents about their family farm, a commercial rose growing operation, being taken away by their government. Mugabe was seizing properties and re-assigning the land to non-white countrymen. Her family’s farm had been taken away. A tough situation for this child, who would not be able to return to her childhood home, upon the completion of her exchange. It was an emotionally troubling moment for her, so far from home. Her parents, upon losing their land and livelihood moved to South Africa. Many years later, she returned to Zimbabwe and is raising her family there. Our club has hosted many, many students over the years. We Rotarians remember many of these young people, and are only too happy to get news of them. Here is a glimpse of a few of them, then and now.
Victoria Luperi (Argentina) came to this country as a Rotary Exchange Student from Argentina. She attended Edgewood High School, where she performed with Dennis McKinley’s band. After high school, Victoria came back to the States and graduated from the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, whereafter she began her career as a professional musician. Since 2016, Victoria has served as associate principal clarinet and principal E-flat clarinet of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Previously, Victoria held the position of principal clarinet with the Fort Worth and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestras. Victoria has a resume of musical achievements that would fill several pages. She has soloed in numerous venues and taught at a number of universities. Victoria is married to conductor Andrés Franco. Rumi (Japan), was placed with three families in Reedsburg, where she attended school. She was an energetic, outgoing young woman. She made friends easily. On graduation day, Rumi and other students were seated in folding chairs on the gym floor at Reedsburg High School. My wife and I were seated in the bleachers. When they called Rumi’s row of students to come forward for their diplomas, the graduates all stood, and as she arose, Rumi removed her graduation robe to reveal a golden Kimono! Lots of laughs and smiles. The announcer didn’t miss a beat. “And coming the farthest for graduation, Rumi!” She received a large round of applause. A fun, smart and funny kid, a popular young lady with her classmates. Rumi later returned to the United States and graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Rumi is now married with a daughter, living in Japan, where her career has been in banking. When Rumi learned I was writing this article, she had a couple stories to share:
One night, Rumi made a Japanese dish, i.e. Oyakodon, a combination of rice, chicken and eggs for her host family. Tasting the dish, she recalls her host mother politely commenting, “I have never tasted this before, but it’s delicious.” However, her three host sisters were making funny faces, “as if I was making something dangerous.” Humorous moments were never lost on Runi, language differences aside.
The connection to Rotary never leaves Rumi. For this article, she wrote: “In general, Rotary exchange program is a one-year program but it didn’t finish in one year for me. One of those host sisters, who didn’t know much about Japan, went to the university and she studied Japanese. The story didn’t end there. She went to Japan to study, married with a nice Japanese man and now she lives in Japan with three children. My host parents come to Japan to visit her every once in a while, and they know Japan more than me now.”
“Whenever I cook “Oyakodon”, I think of the whole magic of Rotary Exchange program, which changed not only my life but also my host family’s life. Tim, from South Africa, took to the snow and cold like a native, participating, in and enjoying winter activities. Some of us thought Tim looked a bit like, the then young, actor Michael J. Fox. When it was time for Tim to return home, a group of Rotarians and host families were present at the airport. The crowd was quickly swelled by an unbelievably large crowd of weeping and sniffling high school girls. I’ve been to several of these good-bye moments, but none more emotionally charged. Today, Tim is a chartered accountant, living in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and children. From heart throb to accountant!
Joannah Tozer (Australia), originally from the country’s Blue Mountains, sent a couple e-mails with the following updates, after we contacted her following an online search to find her: “I am indeed the 17-year-old who had the most amazing year in Middleton, Wisconsin in 1991. To sum up the past thirty years. After my year abroad, I did a few things at home, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I ended up going back to the USA to work as a summer counsellor for 3 summers at a camp for kids and adults with disabilities I was in San Jose California. I then did some other travels and went to England and worked as a Nanny before getting into university to study occupational therapy. I worked in hospitals in New South Wales and Victoria before getting my MBA and moving into management. I currently manage pediatric rehabilitation services across Victoria. So, we work with kids and their families who have had major trauma from road accidents etc. We also see kids who have had long illnesses back on their feet. The team I have spans over 8 sites and includes 150 health professionals. I have recently just got my Doctor of Business Administration. I also work with other states to improve their pediatric health services.”
Amanda (Australia) attended Verona Area High School and enjoyed playing basketball. As an adult, she became the controller of Mazda in her country. Anna Metta was an athletic young woman from Denmark. She told me she was trying out for the softball team at Madison Memorial. I applauded her interest in a game she never played, and cautioned her that the roster competition would include girls who had played the game for several years. Fortunately, in Coach Pat Joyce, she encountered a fine teacher of the game, who found a place for her on the squad. She loved every minute of it! Before leaving the States, she purchased an extra glove, so she could teach her sister the game. Today, Anna Metta is an architect and married with a child.
My fellow Madison West Middleton Rotarian Dan Fose was also both a host parent and Youth Exchange Officer. These are some of Dan’s recollections as a host parent.
“Daniela (Venezuela) - We brought her skiing to Powderhorn in the UP. She had never seen snow before, let alone gone skiing. The look of wonderment and sheer exhilaration as she made it down the Bunny Hill for the 1st time was absolutely priceless! Akina (Japan)- She and her fellow Japanese exchange student, Yoshi, were completely smitten with anything Halloween. At the time, Halloween was virtually unknown to the Japanese. They were so taken in by the ghouls, goblins, witches and ghost stories that they couldn’t get enough! Add the costumes, pumpkins and decorations and they were on Cloud 9. I took them Trick-Or- Treating with our younger kids and they made memories of a lifetime. Interestingly, we recently returned from an extended trip throughout Japan and SE Asia and there were Halloween decorations EVERYWHERE! Marilia (Brazil) - She was a very social being, always organizing get-togethers. One night, we hosted a sleepover (or stay up as I call them) of the large Latino contingent from that year. In addition to having a blast, they had a fascinating discussion about the distinct differences in how each spoke Spanish (Portuguese in Marilia’s case). She became a leading member of the Memorial HS Cheer Team and just got married in May. Danuta (Netherlands) - Extremely intelligent and high-spirited, Danuta led the Memorial HS Debate team to the WI state finals! Being from the flatlands of Holland she biked everywhere. On our ride home from picking her up at the airport she exclaimed ‘You’ve got mountains here!’ as we drove up the hill by Crestwood Elementary. We showed her some bigger ‘mountains’ when we later visited Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks as well as the Hoover Dam. Goodness (Nigeria) - While having a confident and robust personality, she always slept with the light on. This stems from having thugs break into the family’s home one night which traumatized her and her four sisters. Goodness was in awe of our area’s natural beauty. She would often ask to pull over so she could soak in and/or take pictures of the corn fields and rural landscapes. She said she had never seen so many beautiful shades of green.”
Unique Outbound - I couldn’t close this article without reflecting on a local high school girl, who came from difficult circumstances, but with an unusually magnetic personality, one that drew people to her. Her exchange was to Brazil. When she returned from overseas, she started her family before going on to college. Many years later, she reappeared with an e-mail, asking if we remembered her. She informed us, she was now married with two children and would graduate from medical school at the end of the semester. In a subsequent presentation, she told us how Rotary Youth Exchange had helped propel her to succeed. She did mention, however, one of her host families in Brazil had servants. She confessed to identifying more with the help than her host family. In the tradition of Rotary, her “Service Above Self” is now serving her patients.
[Rotarian Dan Fose was a significant contributor to this article].