The Rotary Youth Exchange Program gives high school students the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture, language and customs of a foreign country by living overseas with a host family for nine months.
Over 8,000 high school students worldwide participate in the Rotary Youth Exchange program each year. About 20 participate through the local district of Rotary.
Bruce Barber, an ambassador for the Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary club, explained that the Youth Exchange attracts a very special breed of students.
“It’s students who have seen something in the world or in their lives that they want to explore.”
There are 60 Rotary Youth Exchange clubs in District 6970, which includes students from Jacksonville, Daytona and Gainesville.
The district has identified 56 high school sophomores and juniors who are interested in going overseas this year. Of those 56, they’ll interview 36 and only choose 20.
The exchange program also allows students from other countries to come here.
For example, 16-year-old Burak Ozcan came to Ponte Vedra from Turkey about two months ago. When he arrived he said it was like a dream. Ozcan will live with Mark and Sarah Gravelle for three months. This is the first of three host families he will have while he is in the United States.
So far, the exchange has proven exhilarating for Ozcan and he’s ecstatic about his stay with the Gravelles. “They have the best families in the world here,” he said.
He immediately became close with the Gravelles and described his relationship with the family as warm. The Gravelle’s 17-year-old son, Joe, is also a part of the Youth Exchange and left for Spain about one month ago.
“It’s really cool as parents because our kids brought us on this journey,” Sarah Gravelle said.
The cost to participate in the Youth Exchange is relatively low. Parents pay for transportation overseas. Host families pay for everything while the student lives with them but costs tend to even out because families that host students typically have a child who is living with a host family abroad. The club gives each student $75 every month.
Students usually get to choose the country they go to; however, the exchange administrators can only send out as many students as they take in from that country. This is why the interview process is extremely thorough. The club in Ponte Vedra will only send out two students this year.
Each student is asked the same set of 20 questions during the initial interview and receives a score from one to 10.
“All I try to do is pick up on their personality,” Barber said. “You just know that type of kid who’s special.”
Students with the highest scores go to St. Augustine for a day-long meeting where they are interviewed by four groups of six people.
The training process for those who are selected is even more extensive. All students going outbound from the district are brought together and learn what to expect. They are taught how to communicate and even start learning
“Some of them have gone and the host families don’t know one word of English,” Barber said. “A hug is about all they get.”
Barber explained that students typically have trouble learning the language before they leave but are pretty fluent when they return.
Although Ozcan studied English for 11 years in Turkey he has improved a lot since he’s arrived. He explained he is adjusting well so far and plans to try out for the basketball team at Ponte Vedra High School. Ozcan aspires to be a doctor like his mom and dad back home.
“It’s remarkable. You would not guess that he is only 16 years old,” Sarah Gravelle said.
When they return the students give an individual and a group presentation to the Rotary Club about what they experienced overseas.
“These are really growing years in their lives so when they give their annual presentation together that’s when you really get to know about their experiences,” Barber said.
“They all say they would go again and wouldn’t change the experience for anything in their lives.”
Families and students who are interested in participating in the Youth Exchange can find out more information and apply at www.ryeflorida.org.