By Marcellin Niset, Rotary Youth Exchange Student from Belgium to Alaska
The Italian-American author and actress Vanna Bonta wrote, “There’s no hospitality like understanding.” That quote stuck with me as a Rotary Youth Exchange student to Alaska in 2015-16. I arrived in Alaska, a wilderness filled with beauty and love, determined to make my exchange purposeful and beneficial for myself, my host community, and the world.
An exchange is not only about a student going abroad, it is about all the people that make this exchange possible, and the ones that are impacted, directly and indirectly.
I come from a small village in rural Belgium and the exchange is a unique chance to accomplish something bigger than myself. To be selected as an ambassador for Rotary and my country meant being the custodian of national values and beliefs.
Sometimes, the mission was easy. I brought happiness to people by making countless Belgian waffles. I presented facts about my homeland to my host club and community. But going deeper, and sharing what makes people from my country unique, explaining why we think and behave differently, without judging, is harder. There is not just one way to do things, and one way isn’t better than another, just different.
At my first orientation with the other exchange students in Alaska, our coordinator told us that the Rotary Youth Exchange motto was to “Make peace in the world, one student at a time.” I only understood the real meaning of this sentence later in my exchange.
On 22 March, Belgium became the target of a terrorist attack. I saw the last place I had been in my country, the airport, blown up by people who didn’t understand differences. I saw a symbol of globalization exploded and my beliefs harmed. I had a friend from France, two from Indonesia, one from Germany. All of them felt the weight of terrorism. It oppresses you, makes you fearful, sad, and angry.
How in a world interconnected, multicultural, and full of exchange students, can terrorist attacks still happen?
But then it suddenly made sense to me why I was on exchange at this time. I realized how I could explain the values my country stands for, and show how Rotary members and exchange students can work together to help solve the world’s problems. Rotary members already have a drive to change the world. Exchange students promote tolerance and respect.
Thanks to my exchange, I had the opportunity to share my values, my beliefs, my identity. I try to make the world stronger, one speech at a time, and am inspired to strive for greater things.
This is the power of Rotary Youth Exchange. And it can be the pride of Rotary, too.
Learn more about exchange opportunities through Rotary