ROTARY STUDENT EXCHANGE OFFERS ‘LIFE-CHANGING’ EXPERIENCES
Rotary International is hoping to foster peace and cultural understanding, one student at a time.
Its Youth International Exchange Program places students with host families in various countries, giving area kids the chance to experience the world beyond the Lowcountry’s beaches.
Bob DeValentino has been assisting students with their placements abroad through Rotary for about six years, sending students to places like France, Slovakia, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic and Peru; this year’s program has also placed Lowcountry kids with families in destinations like Sweden and Switzerland.
“We look for students who really want to gain knowledge of what the rest of the world is made of, a desire to have a learning experience and add to their education,” he said of the students who get the most out of the exchange program. “They should be interested in broadening their experiences and finding out what people are like in other parts of the world, living in families and getting involved in their culture and bringing that back here while bringing our culture to them.”
Caitlyn Campbell was one of those students ready to explore the world. Sent to Sardinia, Italy, by the Hilton Head Island Rotary club, she was a little older than the program’s typical participants, who range in age from 15 to 19. She joined the program during a “gap year” after high school and before college. She said she wanted to use the time to travel and grow up a little before enrolling at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, where today she has a 4.0 GPA — something she said might not have been possible if she hadn’t challenged herself during her Rotary travels.
“The amount of bravery to get on that plane and take off was amazing,” she said. “I didn’t know a lick of Italian, not even how to say thank you. That took a while. It was still structured enough so that my parents felt comfortable sending me away, but it was a great experience to go out on your own and learn about yourself. That’s exactly what I did.”
She has stayed in touch with her Italian host family and the friend she made while abroad, including her newfound best friend, a Canadian student participating in the international Rotary program. Caitlyn also has given several presentations to Hilton Head high school students about her stay, encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunities the Rotary exchange program offers.
That’s one way the Rotary expands its program — through word of mouth. When students are accepted into the exchange program, they’re asked to refer three Lowcountry families that might consider hosting an exchange student from another country.
Those students include Frederico Billy, who came to Hilton Head from Italy as part of the Rotary program. He is nearing the end of his yearlong stay on the island, and says that while spending a year away from home isn’t easy, it gives students like himself a sense of accomplishment and self-reliance.
“I am experiencing something that my friends and acquaintances back home are not,” he said. “They may go to school and go about their normal lives, but I’m doing something special and I will always have these memories.”
One of Frederico’s most memorable experiences while living in the Lowcountry was the USC football game he attended with his host family — his first exposure to American football.
Both Caitlyn and Frederico say their experiences in the Rotary exchange program were life-changing. The Hilton Head Island Rotary Club sees them both as success stories who have helped build a cultural bridge across continents. Rotarians hope the program grows as more students are able to talk about their positive experiences and share the value of studying abroad.
ABOUT THE ROTARY CLUB
The Hilton Head Island Rotary Club boasts more than 150 members who volunteer throughout the community, from ringing collection bells for the Salvation Army at Christmas to partnering with local first responders to teach safety to local preschool students. The club also raises money to help eradicate polio worldwide, a focus for the Rotary organization for 30 years.
For more information on the Hilton Head Rotary, go to www.hiltonheadrotary.org.