Mia Henderson, 2019-20 Youth Exchange Student from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Madrid, Spain
When I was 16, Rotary offered me a chance to experience life beyond anything I had known before. After attending a meeting about Rotary Youth Exchange, I decided to apply to study in Spain.
It took months of hard work to prepare. But before I knew it, it was time to pack up my things and leave. I arrived for my 2019-20 exchange in an unfamiliar country, meeting people I didn’t know, who spoke a language I didn’t speak well. But even though this was my most difficult path yet, I was at peace.
When I count all the benefits of that year, one is at the top of the list. I made the most friends I’ve ever had in my life. And I mean real friends, ones I still call a year and a half later every week. Friends that I can sit in silence with and be content.
The second host family I stayed with on exchange has a daughter moving out to Georgia from Madrid to go to college, right next door. I plan to meet her at the airport and she will be staying with me until she gets settled on campus. I am lucky enough to have two more built-in families now.
Confidence and self esteem
Before my exchange, I faced internal struggles that revolved around eating, or more specifically not eating. By far the biggest struggle of my youth had been learning to love myself and the way I looked.
The culture in Spain is built around love and food. This extends even to those who are not part of the immediate family, something I never experienced in the US. Whether that be waking up to a big hug from my brand new host sister, or an invitation to a lovely dinner with my Rotary Club (Club Rotario de Tres Cantos, Madrid), Estaba feliz (I was happy!).
Being able to spend time with such caring people opened my eyes to my eating disorder. I honestly don’t know if I would have gained the self-confidence to beat the disorder had I not gone to Spain. Feeling that much kindness and genuine love in my life taught me there is so much more to the world than what you eat.
Some of my eating struggles related to my love of food. I’m a foodie at heart. Trying all these new and exciting foods in Spain taught me that behind every dish there’s a story, and I want to tell it. That’s when I really started focusing on my food blog and turning Spanish dishes into online-accessible healthy recipes.
My goal became to share flavors in a healthy way. Mia’s Low Carb Life has everything from sugar free Spanish turrón to whole roasted lamb straight from my first host mother’s kitchen! Cooking with my host families brought back the joy and confidence I once had in the kitchen, and their support brought back the confidence I used to have on the inside too.
I spent seven months in Spain before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Rotary recalled exchange students for their safety. My transition home was smooth but bittersweet, as I didn’t want to leave my host family. But short though it was, my exchange taught me how to be alone. I say this in the best possible way, because you really can’t be happy with others until you’ve found what makes you happy on the inside.
For me that was rekindling my love for food and sports where I could truly express myself in both activities. I gained the confidence to go back to weightlifting and even get the job of my dreams. I’m now head of the recipe team at a ketogenic food blog KetoConnect, cooking and writing every day. Without my exchange experience, I would not have had the confidence to pursue this job.
My advice to others considering Rotary Youth Exchange is to take the leap. I cannot say enough good things about the program, which changed my life and shaped who I am today.
Editor’s note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The RI Board has suspended in-person youth exchanges through June 2022. Virtual exchanges are an engaging alternative to in-person exchanges, providing young people a unique opportunity to meet and collaborate with people from other cultures and communities online. In-person exchanges resume July 2022. Learn more.