Three Springfield High School students are about to embark on a one-year experience that will have a lifelong impact. Mandy Lynn, Maia Ojugbele and Yasmin Martinez-Powell are Rotary Youth Exchange students who will soon leave behind the familiar to study abroad for the coming school year. These three 16-year-olds will become part of a local Rotary Club and live with a host family. Mandy and Yasmin are going to Japan, and Maia is headed to Taiwan.
While overseas, these young women will learn the culture and language of their host countries, attend school and live with families who may not speak English. It’s often harder for the parents of high school students to fathom their children being overseas for a year than for the students themselves. The application is a rigorous yearlong process, and Rotary helps both parents and students prepare for the journey.
Mandy, Maia, Yasmin and their parents recently attended the Rotary Youth Exchange Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Outbound students, inbound students from other countries who will soon return home after their year in the U.S. and “rebound” students who have returned home to the U.S. after a year abroad, all attend this conference. The energy and excitement among the 800 students is palpable, especially when they carry their respective flags representing the 44 countries with which Central States Rotary exchanges. Rotary International President Barry Rassin, who is from the Bahamas, spoke to the students and challenged each of them to Be the Inspiration, which is the theme for his year as president.
Barb Malany is a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise and a leader in the Rotary Youth Exchange Program for 30 years. She has personally hosted students from all over the world, helped students from here go abroad and has seen firsthand how the Rotary Youth Exchange Program transforms lives. She says, “When parents meet the students who have gone overseas for a year and returned, the comments include ‘best year of my life so far,’ ‘absolutely memorable,’ and ‘unforgettable.’ Students return more confident. In fact, many students get scholarships because they have taken this risk and have a better understanding of the international scene.”
Yasmin will attend Keio Girls Senior High School and live in Tokyo, Japan. “I’m interested in many things,” she says. “I like music and play four instruments and I also sing. I’m in my school’s all-girl choir.”
She continues, "I’m also interested in the arts and sports (tennis). Music and the arts in general are something my family has always liked. The main instrument I play, violin, started in second grade when my teacher asked if I was interested in learning. I’ve been playing the violin for nine years and was in the Sangamon Valley Youth Symphony for a while. When it comes to drawing, I do it whenever I can. If I have piece of paper and something to draw with, I’ll doodle."
Mandy also loves music. She performed at Carnegie Hall with other choirs around the nation and was in show choir. She will attend Naga High School in Wakayama, Japan. Mandy went to Japan with the Springfield Sister Cities Association program. She wants to learn the Japanese language better, make new friends and connections and bridge the gap between Japan and the U.S. Maia, who loves singing, dance and ice skating, will attend St. Francis Xavier High School in Taoyuan, Taiwan. While at the conference in Grand Rapids, Maia was chosen to sing the national anthem to the 1,000 students, parents and volunteers present. Maia says she has always been known for singing and has made people cry when she sings. She also participated in a 10-day foreign exchange program to Japan with the Sister Cities Association.
Students who have participated in the Rotary Youth Exchange Program routinely say the experience changed them. Abby, a student from Edwardsville who recently returned from a year in Poland, wrote this about her experience: “This past year in Poland has been amazing for me. I have really grown up and changed a lot this year. I am very grateful to have met so many nice and amazing people. I am so grateful that both of my host families became my actual families and that I got to be a part of their families, too.”
For every outbound student studying abroad, Rotarians must agree to host a student from another country.
This past year the Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise and Midtown Rotary Club hosted Mikael Muhli from Finland, who attended Springfield High School. Mikael lived with Brent Borah and his family for seven months. The Borahs have a 10-year-old boy and twin boys who are eight. “The interaction they’ve all had has been a joy to watch,” Borah says. “Initially, I thought we were hosting to help with Mikael’s experience in the U.S. What it really did is give my boys an experience they’d never had before which they will long remember.”
Beth Bellatti Allen participated in a Rotary Youth Exchange Program in 1988-1989, spending a year in Pamplona, Spain. Thirty years later, she still cites this experience as one of the best of her life. It opened her eyes and inspired her to want to learn about the rest of the world. “The Rotary Youth Exchange Program continues to be an advocate for tolerance and peace in a world where so many things around us challenge those ideals,” she says.
Karen Ackerman Witter is a freelance writer and retired from the state of Illinois. She received a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Wales in Bangor in 1976-1977. The year abroad was a life-changing experience, and she remains in contact with people she met over 40 years ago. She is immediate past president of the Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise.