By Rotary International’s Youth Exchange and Youth Protection staff
As the world faces extraordinary challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Rotary Youth Exchange students worldwide are facing unique challenges of their own. Rotary International has been working in tandem with Youth Exchange club and district leaders to ensure that the health and safety of students remains the priority whether in their host country or returning home.
A dedication to safety includes providing emotional support to students who are going through a much different experience than they expected when they left for their exchange. We collected advice from two Youth Exchange leaders to assist anyone considering how to best support their exchange students during these extraordinary times.
Tom Overbaugh, past governor of District 7170, said when the district made the decision to send students home early, they realized they should arrange emotional support for the students. Some experience fear or disappointment about traveling and being quarantined. He shares the advice of the district’s Youth Protection Officer, Michele Hughes, a retired high school counselor.
- Heed the advice of your local government and health officials.
Many students returning home will be recommended to be home quarantined (possibly even in isolation from their family) for a 14-day period. This may be the greatest challenge for family members since our instinct, especially after a long period of separation, is to be physically close, not socially distant from, our family. However, the reality of potential exposure should be acknowledged, and the advice of local government and health experts should be heeded.
- Re-enroll students in their local school district.
For students returning early, parents should contact their local school district to re-enroll them and ask about the possibility of enrolling in semester courses (such as required government, economics, or health courses). Even an elective course can provide a sense of purpose. Many students are currently completing requirements online so there is good reason to include them. Participating in classes also gives them something important to focus on instead of dwelling on their sudden return.
- Talk to students about their exchange experience.
When students return, a group debriefing session should still be held as usual and as soon as possible. This gives students an opportunity to hear and support one another.It also gives the local Youth Exchange committee valuable information to learn from students about how they’re feeling.
- Recognize how students need to be supported.
While many of the students may need additional emotional support as a result of so much uncertainty, not all of them will need it in the same way. Many of the students may feel more comfortable reaching out to their school counselors. Some will appreciate being asked about their experience directly. Personally, I would have appreciated the opportunity to help a student/family transition back regardless of the circumstances, even if they were heading off to college upon their return.
Pat Carson, Rotary Youth Exchange Outbound Coordinator for District 5080, shared this advice:
- Our Youth Exchange committee has a mental health counselor who contacts each of our early return students to offer support, which has been especially important during the current crisis.
- We are also setting up a video conference call with all of our students who returned home early so they can share what they are experiencing and provide support for each other.
- It’s also important to provide support for our host families and students who are still being hosted by our district. Given that our inbound students can no longer meet in-person, we have set up video calls for them. After communicating with families and considering all of the information provided by government health authorities, some of our inbound exchange students’ parents chose for their children to remain on their exchange and shelter in place.
- Supporting host families is more important than ever. For example, I’m currently hosting a student who moved in with us one week before social distancing was put into effect. With no school or typical social activities, we are with each other 24/7. We’re finding new ways to stay engaged, practice language skills, and keep up with friends and family online. Many other host families may be experiencing similar circumstances. So be sure to check in on host families as often as you check on students.
Read more about how Rotary is responding to the impact of the global COVID-19 crisis, including recommendations for Rotary Youth Exchange.
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