The first thing you noticed at the Rotary Youth Conference held Saturday at the community centre might have been the many bright blazers, all festooned with myriad pins and buttons from around the world.
They were being worn by the exchange students, both inbound and outbound, who attended the event, the first of its kind hosted by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Rotary Club.
Victoria Sawicki of St. Catharines, a Governor Simcoe Secondary School student who spent last year in France, was wearing a red blazer covered with so many pins that its weight sets off the seatbelt alarm in the car if she lays it on the open passenger seat, she said.
“Being Canadian, I get a red blazer,” said Sawicki. “All the exchange students trade pins. Most of them represent people I met, and things I have done. It gets heavy with every memory, and every time you’ve changed as a person.
“When you see someone who has a full Rotary blazer, you know they went, as a youth, alone to a new country, and you know that person is going to be one of the strongest people mentally you will ever meet.”
Sawicki, indeed, comes across as a young lady with an incredible amount of strength and self-confidence. It’s a trait that was evident amongst all the vest-wearing youth attending the conference.
Patricia Murenbeeld, NOTL Rotary’s Youth Committee Chair, says the purpose of Saturday’s conference was to celebrate the youth, and to have a dialogue with them. “That’s how we get our program feedback,” she said, “how we integrate Rotary Clubs that are supporting youth programs, and enhancing what we are doing and trying to make them better.”
The NOTL club hosted the conference for Rotary District 7090, which encompasses the Niagara Region, the Hamilton/Brantford area, and Western New York. Murenbeeld is also the district vice-chair for their Northern Europe Youth Exchange program. The long-time Rotary member says about 150 youth, involved with Rotary through a number of different programs, were in attendance.
Guest speakers encouraged participants to get involved in service projects in their communities, while smaller sessions focused on mentoring, social event planning and youth exchange officer training.
Eighteen current inbound exchange students took part in the day’s event, all visiting District 7090 Rotary Clubs from other countries.
Other young people in attendance were involved in shorter summer exchanges, while others were members of Rotary Interact Clubs at various schools. These clubs build leadership skills for students aged 12-18, while helping them learn about the world through service projects and activities.
As well, there were university-aged students and young professionals in attendance, all members of Rotaract Clubs. Some of these Rotaract members were invited to pitch their program ideas to the local clubs in hopes of getting funding support for projects they want to complete.
Murenbeeld said two young doctors from Japan, currently working and studying in Toronto on Rotary International Scholarships, came to talk about the research projects they are able to work on thanks to Rotary sponsorship.
Their work, in antibiotic resistance and 3-D printing of organs for transplants, relates to disease prevention and treatment, one of the six areas of focus for Rotary International. The other five areas are peace and conflict resolution, water and sanitation, maternal and child health, basic education and literacy, and economic and community development.
It’s clear many of the youth who choose to do an exchange have the potential to make a significant impact in these areas of focus in the future.
Murenbeeld, who was an exchange student herself about 40 years ago, has hosted more than a dozen international students over the 20-plus years she has been a Rotary member. She is proud to have worked with so many of them as they began their development as future leaders.
“What you see, and what you hear from them, is that Rotary pushes them out of their comfort zone. When they come back, they are a new person, stronger and more capable, and they keep doing those things as they move forward in life.”
Each of these exchange students has to have courage, especially those who spend a full year away from their families and friends. But the Rotary Clubs become their families, in a way, while away from home.
Eighteen-year-old Frida Nielsen, of Hofors, Sweden, is currently living with a St. Catharines family while being sponsored by the NOTL Rotary Club. Like Sawicki, Nielsen is a confident, well-spoken young woman, who describes herself as very independent.
This independence has given her the ability to push aside the feelings of homesickness that set in a couple of weeks after her arrival in Canada Aug. 14.
But Nielsen says events such as Saturday’s conference and a first-day picnic with her host club have made her feel welcome.
“Rotary is this unique community,” she says. “They support you so much. I go to meetings every week with my Rotary Club. I have this big, big family with so many different people.”
She also credits her fellow students at Laura Secord Secondary School for accepting her so quickly. “When I walked in,” says Nielsen, “my teachers introduced me as an exchange student, and suddenly I had all these people talking to me and taking me to lunch.”
She realizes she has put her life back in Sweden on hold. She knows that life has moved on, and when she returns to school at home, she may have to try to fit in with a new group of peers.
But Nielsen took on this challenge because she wanted to prove to herself she could do it. After completing university in Sweden, she plans to move to another country, and she wanted to have this experience to test her ability to “make it” without her family at her side.
Originally, Nielsen was hoping to spend a year in Australia, but when that fell through, she jumped at the chance to come to Canada.
“I had to decide between Canada and the U.S. We hear about the U.S. all the time in Sweden on the news. We don’t hear much about Canada, so I was curious to see what the country was all about. The only thing I knew was hockey. So I wanted to get here and see.”
About the differences between Canada and Sweden, Nielsen points out the welcoming, open-minded nature of the people she has met. She has had to adjust to a different school system, and was a little flabbergasted that milk is sold in bags here.
But Nielsen is also excited that it’s not just Canadian culture that she will learn about while staying in Niagara. She has already made connections with other exchange students from Australia, Brazil, Spain and France, through the various Rotary Clubs in the District 7090 area.
Murenbeeld says these youth programs help to accelerate the maturation process, as students develop tolerance toward other lifestyles, cultures and personalities. There are lifelong benefits for participants, and the friendships formed can last a lifetime.
Besides gathering students currently involved in Rotary programs, building interest amongst young people about the possibilities of a future exchange was also one of the goals. And Murenbeeld says there is always a need for new host families to keep the program going smoothly.
The Rotary Club of Niagara-on-the-Lake is currently accepting applications for youth interested in their international exchange program, as well as host families to support visiting students. For information, contact Patricia at firstname.lastname@example.org.