NorthfieldStrong: Youth Exchange

I've been a member of Northfield Rotary Club since 2017. A few months ago they put me in charge of the Youth Exchange program, one of the strongest passions of our local club.

Rotary Youth Exchange has taken over Northfield. In the last three years the Northfield Rotary Club has sent 39 high school students overseas for a year-long academic study. These exceptional young men and women lived with host families in the Faroe Islands, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Finland and many more countries, all returning with amazing stories of strength and struggle filled with cultural nuances. Listen and you'll hear not only stories of daily life but also a vision for a better way to a better world. This year we are sending 12 students on a life changing experience. In July we held a story sharing party with the returning outbound students and the soon-to-depart students; it was inspirational to hear the wisdom of these young people and their insights into communities, cultures and how to make friends on the first day of school (hint: complement their choice of shoes).

The flip side of sending students outbound is the wonderful obligation to host inbound students. Not all Rotary clubs around the world participate in youth exchange. In our local region there are 43 clubs that are hosting a total of 54 students this year. Most Rotary clubs are hosting one with a handful hosting two, and another club is hosting a nearly unheard of three. Northfield is hosting five.

The only way we can support so many students is our wonderful and generous host families. Each student is assigned 3 host families and they rotate every 3 months. The benefits of experiencing 3 different families far outweigh the inconveniences of moving and learning new household patterns. After all, the whole point is learning, and this triples it. Since 2016 our Rotary club has hosted 21 students with over 60 host families opening their homes and expanding our collective world.

Maintaining a robust youth exchange program has become our norm because of exceptional individual efforts over the years. Rotary provides a deep structure of support for the students that includes a one-to-one counselor program, a sort of buddy and advocate relationship that begins even before arrival at MSP in August. We also have country officers, youth protection officers, outbound student coordinators, dedicated correspondents, a host family coordinator, a youth exchange officer (yours truly) overseeing the entire program, and several key supporting members without whom, frankly, I’d have to do a lot more work.

Northfield Rotary is so very grateful to our host families. They give so much of themselves, sharing their lives and showing our community to strangers who soon become friends and life-long members of the family. The growth is striking from those first awkward moments and “first night” questions to the often tearful goodbye when the student moves to the next host family and ultimately back to the home country in the summer.

Hosting exchange students in the Northfield School District is just part of our culture. It may not be a question of if, but of when, you’ll find yourself hosting a student from Germany, Brazil, Hungary, Slovakia, or Paraguay.