It takes a village to host an exchange student, but the work is worth it according to Keith Richardson of the Placerville Rotary Club. Richardson has been involved with the club’s Youth Exchange program for 20 years, as a counselor, a host and the father of three exchange students.
The Placerville Rotary Club sponsored two students this year: Reubem Mandelbaum Pugliesi from Sao Paulo, Brazil and Lauren Machetto from Toulouse, France. Lauren returned to France early in the school year as she developed a serious medical condition, but Reubem is doing well with his second family, Noreen and Charles Jones. The Cameron Park Rotary Club sponsored a student from Belgium.
The one year school exchange goes from August to the following June in the years before a student becomes 19. Students apply to their district Rotary Club in their own country the October before the year they want to go. In some countries the selection process is very competitive, with testing, interviews and an essay.
“I had to take about five tests and fill out many forms,” said Reubem.
Students are notified of their selection in November and from December to the following May, they participate in training — learning about how to deal with cultural and religious differences, how to pack and what to expect. About a month before the students leave, they are notified where they are going.
“We have a group of countries in Europe, South and Central America and Asia that we are set up to exchange with,” said Richardson.
The sponsoring club pays the processing fees and miscelleneous expenses and gives the student an allowance each month for spending money. Parents of the exchange students pay for medical insurance and airfare, and the host family picks up the tab for outings, as they would for their own children.
It isn’t a straight-across trade of a student from one country going to a country that is sending a student to their country. Host families may have a student from Brazil staying with them while a student from their Rotary district may go to Sweden.
The Rotary Club, parents of the student, host families and counselors all collaborate to make the one year exchange a positive experience for all concerned.
“Rotary Club exchanges are different from the private exchanges in that the student has a huge support system. Everyone in the club is there for them and helps out,” said Richardson. “It’s a great program and it fosters international good will. Students and families often form life-long relationships.”
Counselors are the first line of support if a student needs help and they are drawn from the Rotary club membership.
“I’m the go-between for the student, the host families and the Rotary Club,” said Richard Esposito, a first time counselor for the Placerville Rotary Club.”When students come here, there are a lot of emotions they go through.They’re excited about coming here; then they start to miss their families; and sometimes there are different expectations for family living than they are used to.”
Rules for the program are strict according to Richardson and Esposito.
“No drinking, driving, drugs or dating,” said Richardson.
No dating for a 16 year old?
“It’s a cultural exchange and we want them to meet a broad scope of people and friends, not limit themselves to a specific relationship, ” said Esposito.
Counselors do home visits, interview prospective host families and locate the host families for each student. They also meet with the students weekly and may take them on cultural field trips.
Host families and students
“It’s not wrong, it’s not right — it’s just different” is the mantra for exchange students and families. Dealing with different cultures and family expectations can be a challenge for both families and students.
Host families are volunteers. Most are not members of Rotary Club. Students spend three or four months with a family and then move to another family so as to get as much exposure to different perspectives in their exchange country as possible.
“Three months is very do-able and the Rotary Club walked us through everything, ” said Noreen Jones whose family is hosting Reubem in Camino. “They really prepare the out-bound children so well.”
The host family treats the exchange student as a member of the family and the Jones family has taken Reubem with them to San Francisco, the redwoods, Big Trees, Santa Cruz and Berkeley. He’s even been to a Raider’s game.
“The most fun was exposing Reubem to snowboarding,” said Noreen Jones. ” We all ski, but thought that snowboarding might be better for Reubem and watching his joy in it was really a highlight of his stay with us.”
Reubem will be going to live with a new family after the first of the year. He had a good idea of what to expect during his year since he and his mother had hosted three exchange students.
“I have three host brothers,” said Reubem. “Two from the United States and one from Thailand. All my cousins were exchange students and they had fun and learned a lot.”
Although Reubem speaks English well and was prepared for some of the differences in culture, he came from a city with a population of more than 10 million and life in a small town — a small town with snow — was an eye opener.
Moving from class to class for different subjects in high school was different, too, as in Brazil, the students stay in one room and the teachers rotate. He’s even learned to adapt to American punctuality.
Emmett Jones, son of Noreen and Charles, is now a senior at El Dorado High School. He was an out-bound exchange student to Belgium last year. He knew no French before he went, but managed to learn about French, German and Greek cultures and have a lot of fun.
“I know more now about what I want to do and what I don’t want to do,” said Jones, ” It helped mature me and I made some really good friends.”
One of Emmett’s host families from Belgium came to Camino last summer and stayed at the Jones’ home.
“It has to be something the student really wants to do,” said Noreen.” It can be rough, sometimes, being in a different country and missing your family and if it’s parent-driven and not the student’s idea, then the motivation to stick it out isn’t there.”
“Teaching teens that there are a lot of ways to do things in the world and by not judging and allowing yourself to experience, it opens you up. It totally changes a kid’s life and direction,” said Richardson, whose family has hosted nine students.”They learn a different language and the culture; they learn to look at the world differently, and on a personal level, a kid’s life gets totally turned upside-down as they are stripped of their culture and their language and then they have a chance to rebuild. They go away as kids, but return with an adult perspective and the realization that they have choices.”
“It’s the single thing that most affected my children — almost as much as college, ” said Richardson. “They returned with a different perspective about the world. They even watch the news differently now — not as people from Placerville, but as world members. During the summer, before the students return to their home countries, they often tour the U.S. as a group, an activity outside the Rotary Club exchange program.
“It really connects the world forever,” said Noreen.
“I recommend it, definitely,” said Reubem.
Host families for students are always needed and they do not need to have a child who has been an exchange student to participate.
For more information about participating in Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange program, either as a host or as a student, contact the Websites at placervillerotary.org, cameronparkrotary.org or rotary.org.