COLUMN: Student exchange in the time of COVID-19

Recently returned Vernon student shares insights of adventures in Brazil and her back to school plan

Patti Shales Lefkos

Special from the Kalamalka Rotary Club

What’s it like to be a Rotary exchange student during the onset of a global pandemic? Cyan Ross-Van Mierlo was scheduled to leave Brazil in early July after several months in quarantine with her second host family in Sao Paulo. “I miss my family and friends,” Ross-Van Mierlo wrote in her blog on day 95 of quarantine. “But the next flight is August 2, so that’s when I’ll be leaving.”

The Rotary Youth Exchange Program, once known as “Rotary Student Exchange,” has become one of Rotary’s most respected and valuable programs. The first exchanges, two-week stints during school holidays, were arranged in 1927 by Rotary Clubs in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The long-term Rotary Exchange Program as we know it now had its origin at an international assembly of Rotary Governors, held at Lake Placid, New York in 1958. Harley Shaver, a past Rotary Governor of Nebraska, asked those present to go home and consider a new idea. The proposed exchange would enable students to spend a year in a different country, in a new culture, while going to school. Joe Bradbury, an incoming Rotary Governor from Australia, accepted the challenge. Work was done at the assembly to develop the framework of the new program.

Today 8,000 to 9,000 short and long-term exchanges occur each year, allowing the opportunity for students to develop international friendships and learn about and appreciate different cultures.

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Ross-Van Mierlo spent the first four months of her exchange year in Iguape, a city smaller than Vernon. “Everyone at my school was friendly and patient,” she says. Her lack of understanding of the national language, Portuguese, wasn’t the only source of culture shock. The school day ran from 7:30 a.m. to 12:50 p.m., after which she went home to the main meal of the day, every day, of rice, beans and meat. The next meal was usually a sandwich or pizza served between 9 and 11 p.m.. The mom and pre-teen siblings in the home were busy with their own schedules, so Ross-Van Mierlo hung out with the grandmother and two housekeepers to practice her Portuguese. However, in no time she was engaged in surfing, beauty pageant and modeling training and learning to make brigadeiro, the decadent traditional Brazilian fudge ball dessert.

Her second host family was based in Sao Paulo, a city of 12 million, rich in architectural traditions and cultural institutions. “My life changed so drastically from the laid back beaches in Iguape to the bustling metro of Sao Paulo. I am lucky to have been able to become part of two drastically different cultures in Brazil, which is something not many exchange students get to experience. A very Brazilian thing to do is to hang out at malls. It was a great way to see what middle class to upper class Brazilians look like and do, sort of like a cultural anthropology adventure.” This time treated more as a part of her host family, Ross-Van Mierlo enjoyed her new school and the excitement of Carnival festival in February, celebrated with a week of parades and samba dancing.

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Perhaps the highlight of her year was spending time with the 40 other Rotary exchange students representing 16 different countries, most living in the Sao Paulo area. “I am naturally shy and introverted, but being on exchange has made me so much less shy because I know I will have a much better experience if I get as far out of my comfort zone as possible and talk to everybody I can.”

Ross-Van Mierlo, who finally flew home on August 2 (her 19th birthday) spent the next two weeks in quarantine at home reflecting on her experience. “The hardest part of my exchange year was learning to speak Portuguese and accepting that you cannot learn a language overnight. My favourite part of the exchange was making friends from all over the world. Most important was to put myself out there in any situation and always say yes to new experiences.”

Her next new experience will be starting medical science studies at Dalhousie University in September. Sadly, due to current circumstances she will not be heading to Halifax, N.S. “You can catch me studying online at home in my basement here in Vernon.”

Due to COVID-19, applications for student exchange are postponed until 2021.


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