By Derek Osborn, a member of the Rotaract Club of Norman, Oklahoma
I believe that everything Rotary does is important. However, I also believe that nothing is more important to Rotary’s future than the programs of New Generations. Encompassed by New Generations are all of Rotary’s programs for people under the age of 30. Interact is for students 12 to 18, Rotary Youth Exchange is for those 15 to 19, Rotaract is for individuals 18 to 30, and RYLA — Rotary Youth Leadership Awards — is for anyone 14 to 30 years old.
I have been fortunate enough to have known about and participated in Rotary for about 15 years. I was in elementary school when I got to participate in my first Rotary community service project, and it had a profound influence on me. When I started high school, the most exciting part was joining Interact. Put basically, Interact is the high school version of a Rotary club. Members meet regularly, they have community service projects, and they participate in international projects. For me, Interact was my first chance, without parental oversight, to feel that I could make a difference in my community and in the world. The plan for Interact clubs encourages that. They work autonomously but partner with local Rotary clubs to do great things in the world.
My next adventure with Rotary was RYLA. Every district does it differently, so I can only talk about my experience. For me, it was an intensive week of leadership training. Through my local Rotary district, I was given the tools I would need to be an integral member of society. In today’s age focused on technology, which often limits human interaction, we desperately need programs that focus on human skills. That is what RYLA provides. For Rotary, this is the perfect opportunity to introduce young people to what Rotary is, what Rotary does. It is a chance to tell this captive audience of interested youth about the scholarships, the travel opportunities, and the ability to do good in the world that Rotary offers them.
Interact and RYLA were both great experiences and they taught me so much. I have to say, though, that the program that made the biggest difference in my life was and is Youth Exchange. In August 2005, I got on an airplane and, as an 18-year-old student, flew to Istanbul, Turkey. I did not know anyone. I did not speak the language. The culture was vastly different from mine. But it was the most amazing thing to ever happen to me. Rotary sent me to another country, to learn another way of life, and to have my eyes opened to the world around me. While there, I made friends not only with Turkish people but also with other Rotary exchange students from around the world.
Youth Exchange is one of the best tools, if not the best, for cultural understanding. Every day through this program, young people are gaining life experiences and world understanding that will be with them for the rest of their lives. I have been back from Turkey for almost six years, but not a day goes by that I do not think of Turkey and the lessons I learned there.
Adapted from a speech delivered during the 2013 International Assembly in San Diego, California, USA.