By Xolisile Sithole, former Rotary Youth Exchange student to Canada
It has been more than eight years since I embarked on a Rotary Youth Exchange to Thunder Bay, Canada, from South Africa. In many ways, it still seems like yesterday. It was an incredibly big year for me, having finished high school and qualified for university, and It remains one of my most treasured memories.
Since I was little, I had always been involved with Rotary, as my mother was liaison of her school’s Interact club. Many Saturdays were spent volunteering, whether I wanted to or not. Despite that, I learned to love service and joined the Interact club in my high school. I invested time and poured my heart into the club and served as president my final year.
After high school, I did not want to go to university right away. But I needed to do something as my parents threatened to make me pay rent if I just stayed at home during my “gap year.” Luckily, our host club, the Rotary Club of Azalea, encouraged me to apply for a Rotary Youth Exchange.
Arriving in Canada
I knew deep down the opportunity was going to change my life. But even that was an understatement. I come from a humble family in South African and it was truly a gift that the Rotary Club of arranged to fund my travels.
From the first day I arrived in Canada, hosted by the Rotary Club of Lakehead, I knew it was going to be nothing like South Africa. I instantly noticed the cleanliness of the city. The people were so kind and welcoming. Canada has abundant beauty and the scenery is ever-changing. I loved the autumn leaves so much that my host sister framed them for me to take home. She went out of her way to make my experience there amazing, introducing me to all things Canadian and her own Ukrainian culture. We still keep in touch.
My experience with Rotary was equally unforgettable. I remember speaking at a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards event to a full house of Rotarians. I was so nervous, but the reception was so warm that the words practically flew out of my mouth. Every time I feel a little afraid, I think back to how I was able to speak to that full house.
Things had changed
I was a little anxious to return home. I had developed a routine in Canada and loved all my host families. But when I did, I discovered things had changed. I was drawn to a different kind of friend. My view of the world had expanded. And I know the time in Canada prepared me for the next step in my life.
A little more than a year ago, I moved to China to work as an English as a Second Language teacher. My youth exchange year taught me how to appreciate cultures that were different from my own. And I can move fearlessly in the world because I know that as a member of the Rotary family, I have family everywhere.
It is a privilege to be associated with Rotary and to know that I can continue to help people around the world. I encourage anyone who has a chance to apply for a Rotary Youth Exchange. If accepted, you will never be the same again.