Guest Column: Exchange programs can be eye-opening and empowering

With my wife, Melanie, and my daughter Mairi, I was at the gate waiting for Mairi’s departure to Germany. She had waited for this day for five years and had worked toward it for two or three. Mairi remained calm. My feelings were closer to dread. It was the first time one of my children was moving away, and it didn’t seem natural to me. 

Mairi was just 15 and a sophomore at Greenport High School. She was going to live for a year in Germany, near the old border between East and West. She would be away for a year as an exchange student and it was difficult for me, but not for her.

Mairi had a wonderful year. She met new friends, traveled and learned to speak German. We followed her on Facebook, emailed, of course, and Skyped from time to time. What was unexpected was that her wonderful experience turned into ours. We welcomed a girl from Germany to come live with us for half a year. Tomke became a part of our family; we attended her sporting events, concerts and whatever else she was doing; we took her to New York, Boston, Niagara Falls and rafting in the Genesee River. When her parents came to visit, we showed them the North Fork. It was a wonderful hosting experience and we have repeated it three times.

We believe in the experience of youth exchange. It is eye-opening and empowering. Mairi participated in the program run by Rotary International. As a prospective host family, we were vetted thoroughly, our home was visited and we were finally approved. It comforted me to know that the same precautions were in place for my daughter overseas.

The following year, Mairi was back in Greenport speaking German with her mother, and her friend was overseas in Russia in the same program. We were asked if we would host Iza from Poland. We jumped at the chance. (If your child goes out you are expected to host, or find a family that will, and one or two others. Most Rotary Youth Exchange students will have several host families.) I particularly enjoyed bringing Iza with me to the Polish market in River-head. The vendors would speak to her in Polish and switch to English for me.

The following year, my daughter Catie went to Brazil as a Rotary YE student and in exchange we received Ana, also from Brazil. Ana and Mairi became very close. As an example of how Ana was hosted not just by us, but also by the entire school community , she was chosen by her Green-port classmates to be homecoming queen. While here, she learned some of our customs and shared some of hers with us. Ana’s English skills grew and Catie learned Portuguese while living in Brazil.

We are currently hosting Adeline, from Belgium. She can speak French with my wife. She is making the most of her time here, playing two varsity sports, performing in the school musical (as a French girl) and singing in the chorus. She will move to Orient shortly for the remainder of her exchange.

I like the way it sounds to have different languages spoken in my house. I am the only one who is limited to English. My oldest daughter, Erin, is currently spending a college semester in Barcelona, Spain, and learning to speak Spanish. Mairi is back on exchange, this time to Ecuador, and is also learning Spanish.

The kids who participate in youth exchange are very brave. At age 16 or 17, they move thousands of miles away from home to live with another family. They do chores and they make friends. They are not guests so much as members of the family. I don’t like having them away but the relationships they’ve made as individuals, and for us as a family, are priceless. Several months ago, the first student we hosted, now a young adult, visited us at Thanksgiving. It was nice to have her back. I walked around Providence, R.I., and Greenport with Tomke, Addie and Catie, all of whom were exchange students at one time or another. It struck me that I had three daughters with me again. It wasn’t the three I started with, but it was my three.

When Iza’s first host father handed me her suitcase as she moved into my home, he jokingly said, “It’s a girl.” I knew what he meant. I was getting a new daughter, even though this one was already 16. As a result of hosting students through Rotary Youth Exchange, my family is larger than it ever would have been, and we have family and friends in Europe and South America. As my mother wrote in a note to the rest of the family about the latest addition: “She’s lovely, as they all have been.”

The author is a high school science teacher who lives in Greenport. He is also a Greenport school board member.