“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Kyla Perry. “I come from a close-knit family, so at the beginning it was very hard to be so far away.”
In late August, Vernon secondary school graduate Kyla Perry returned from her year in Belgium as a Rotary exchange student sponsored by Vernon’s Kalamalka Rotary club. “I knew I had to learn to be independent, so for the first four months I texted with my family, but no FaceTime. It would have been too hard to see their faces and hear their voices.”
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, N.Y. 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.
The first exchange was held in 1959 when Joe Rogers, a 15-year old from Scottsbluff, Neb., arrived in Myrtleford, Australia. At the same time two Australian students, Nick Rutherford and Norm Jordon, arrived in Scottsbluff and Grand Lake, Colo.
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.
Perry lived with three different families during her time away as a Grade 12 student at L’Institute de Saint Marie, a K to 12 school smaller than VSS. For the first four months, she stayed with the Dupont family, taking the place of their daughter Aglae, who was on exchange in Grand Prairie, Alta.
“They are now like part of my family,” says Perry, adding that the Duponts lived a distance from the school so she had to get up at 5 a.m. every day to get the bus.
Next she stayed in a small town with the Bastin family where she was driven to school.
“They had three young children so I got to be the big sister and had a chance to learn lots of French at home and on family vacations in the French Alps and on ski holidays.”
Third was the Nervon family.
“They lived in the city. Their daughter was away at university so I took her place. I was close to school so could walk and spend lots of time with the stay-at-home mom. She taught me a lot about the local culture.”
Each family had a dog: “I’m a runner so I got to see all of each location, running with the dogs.”
During the year, Perry visited 12 different countries. The most meaningful trip was to Germany. While Perry was away her grandfather died, and she got the chance to meet his family and visit his childhood home in Germany as well as reconnect with a cousin she had met briefly years before.
“It was a fun year. The countries in Europe are so small,” she says. “At the first home I stayed, Luxembourg was practically in the backyard. So travelling was easy. The most fun was the grad trip to Poland. I met my new best friend, Rachel, who helped me with my French.”
Every weekend, Perry would meet up with other exchange students from all over the globe.
“I had to create a family and support system of my own,” she says. “If you take risks, big changes can take place. I learned so much. I learned it is important to be conscious of other cultures, to not believe our culture is the only norm. Otherwise issues occur, like racism and inequality.”
Her taste in music has blossomed, as well. Now she regularly tunes in to podcasts in French and Spanish to help with pronunciation and idioms.
Kyla has returned to Vernon a more confident young woman.
“I’m more outgoing now,” she says. “I had to make a presentation in French to my sponsoring Rotary Club, RC Attert-Sure et Semois and also to the grad class.”
Currently in first-year arts at UBCO, Perry plans to major in political science, with a view to law school in the future. She also puts in up to 16 hours a week as a Blenz barista.
Kalamalka Rotary past-president Brian Reid is a big fan of the program.
“The Rotary exchange program is undoubtedly the most remarkable experience that can be given to augment a young person’s life,” he says. “They leave a child from the local community and come back a citizen of the world, ready to share and give back tenfold.”