Rotary Youth Exchange to send 21 students abroad

Local students learn which country they’ll visit as part of 10-month foreign exchange program


Ponte Vedra High School junior Audrey Copeland walked to the front of the auditorium and accepted the small box placed into her hands by another student.

As she opened the box, Copeland’s eyes lit up and her face broke into a wide grin as she removed a small card bearing a green, white and red-striped flag.

“Italy!” she exclaimed.

Copeland was one of 21 high school students who learned last week which country they will visit next year through the Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) scholarship program. Selected through a rigorous application process, the students from across North Florida will spend 10 months living in another country and learning about its culture while fostering goodwill and understanding. Students are sponsored by local Rotary Clubs; in addition to Copeland, who is sponsored by Rotary of The Ponte Vedra Beach Club, Nease High School students Gabriela Gallardo and Grace Schneider will be sponsored by the Ponte Vedra Beach Sunset Club, while Ponte Vedra High School junior Nikki Packo will be sponsored by the Coastal St. Johns Rotary Club.

“Each year (Rotary) sends approximately 9,000 students around the world through the Rotary Youth Exchange program,” said Jeff Hart, RYE district chair for local Rotary District 6970. “The primary mission is to work for peace and understanding throughout the world, one exchange student at a time.”

The program also brings students from other countries to America. Currently, Hart said, 21 students from 19 different countries – or “inbounds” – are visiting the First Coast area, while 26 local outbound students are abroad in 16 countries.

Prior to departing on their international adventure, local students will participate in two, three-day orientations. Upon their return, the students will be honored at a welcome home banquet where they will share what they learned and experienced through their exchange.

“Rotary Youth Exchange is a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing experience,” said Paula Roderick, RYE outbound chair for District 6970. “It’s not where you go; it’s what you do with the opportunities you’re given.”

At the “big reveal” event held Dec. 14 at Westminster Woods in Mandarin, parents waited as anxiously as their children to learn which nation would be welcoming their son or daughter for the 2017-2018 school year.

“I wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘What have I done?’” confessed Stuart Harbison, mother of RYE student Will Harbison. A junior at Bishop Kenny High School, Harbison was one of the last students to receive his country assignment, waiting patiently as each student was called in random order to the front of the room to receive the small box bearing the flag of their host country. One by one, each student opened the box and announced their destination.



Finally, it was Harbison’s turn.

“Taiwan!” he said to loud applause from both his parents and the audience.

For some students, traveling abroad is a familiar experience. Steve Copeland, father of Audrey Copeland, noted that his daughter had visited many countries traveling with her family.

“She’s been away before – she’s very mature,” said Copeland, who attended the announcement with his wife, Jenny, and Audrey’s older sister, Grey.

Rotary officials acknowledged how important the support and involvement of parents is to the success of the exchange program.

“We’d like to thank you, Mom and Dad, for allowing your student to go on an exchange.” Hart said. “When they come home, you will be so amazed to see how they’ve grown and represented the U.S. as an ambassador for Rotary Youth Exchange.”

Audrey Copeland said she is looking forward to her 10-month sojourn in Italy, even though she will have to repeat her senior year when she returns.

“When I first heard about (RYE), I wasn’t really that interested – but it kept lingering in my mind until I decided to apply,” she said, adding that the experience was worth an additional year of school.

Fellow Ponte Vedra High School student Nikki Packo, who will visit Finland, agreed.

“What you get from it,” she said, “you can’t replace.”

RYE participants

Students who will participate in Rotary Youth Exchange during the 2017-2018 school year through Rotary District 6970 include: Gabriella Ashton, Pedro Menendez High School, who will visit Spain; Gage Ashton, Pedro Menendez, Taiwan; Anna Barrientos, P.K. Yonge (Gainesville), Germany; Silvia Barry, Santa Fe (Gainesville), France; Delaney Buckler, Fleming Island, Finland; Audrey Copeland, Ponte Vedra, Italy; Cynthia Dinh, University, South Korea; Vivianne Everington, Ridgeview, Sweden; Colson Fairchild, Pedro Menendez, Brazil; Gabriel Fox, Pedro Menendez, Denmark; Destiny Gabriel, Pedro Menendez, Poland; Gabriela Gallardo, Nease, Belgium; Sydney Garrison, St. Augustine, Norway; Will Harbison, Bishop Kenny, Taiwan; Will Hoover, Eastside (Gainesville), Hungary; Lauren Maines, Creekside, France; Nikki Packo, Ponte Vedra, Finland; Anne-Marie Rementer, Creekside, Thailand; Robert Ricard, St. Augustine, South Korea; James Gunnar Schmidt, Creekside, Brazil; and Grace Schneider, Nease, Croatia.