Why exchange? I was rushing myself into life. All too often young people are seen following the same path of high school, college, job, marriage, family. I wasn’t ready for that just yet; I have years ahead of me to go to university and follow that path. So, I thought, what’s 1 year in the span of 70 years?
If you’re anything like I was 2 years ago, that year is daunting, it’s not what you’ve been taught, it’s not following the path. Fast-forward to now and taking back one year of my life was hands down, the best decision of my life thus far, and will prove to be for many years to come. That one year of your life is travel, it’s immersing yourself into a new culture, it’s becoming a version of yourself that you never knew existed. Exchange is pushing the boundaries of everything you’ve been raised on and changing the way you see life. So, let’s start from the beginning.
I found out what country I would be going to at work on a busy Friday night. I opened up the email from my district and when I saw Australia lit up in bold text, I screamed, hugged my coworker, and cried. Australia was my #1 choice, but I would have been overjoyed with any country I was sent to, because YOU make your exchange year, not your country, not your host family, not your Rotary club. YOU decide to make this year the best of your life. I was taught this during one of the many prep camps you will attend before you leave (although it wasn’t until I was on the plane that I truly let the meaning of that sink in). I promise your district will not throw you in the deep end and say ‘swim’. Exchange prepares you for a life without a hand to hold, but they don’t let go of your hand without 100% certainty that you’re ready.
I was scheduled to leave for Aussie in July of 2020. Well, when August rolled around and I was still in Buffalo, New York, it was pretty hard. I was 2 months late for exchange due to Visa issues. Was it devastating? Yes of course, but do I wish it was different? Not for one moment. Something I didn’t realize until this moment is that those months were the beginning of my exchange, regardless of what country I was in. It was a loss of stability and confusion about the path I chose. That being said, I have had what I like to call a near perfect exchange year. That does not mean I haven’t been homesick countless times. It does not mean I haven’t been thrown one hurdle after another. It does not mean that exchange has been easy. It does however mean that despite every challenge, I have chosen to be the best version of myself.
8 months ago, I packed my bags, said goodbye to my family and friends, and left the comfort of my home of 18 wonderful years. I made myself two promises before I left, I promised to say ‘Yes’ to every opportunity, no matter how small or boring it would seem, and I promised to follow the advice given by my district, “It’s up to you, but it’s not about you”. That promise is what made my year pretty much perfect. I attended countless functions that I was not too thrilled about, but little did I know then that it’s the little things that turn exchange into the year of a lifetime. Saying yes to everything means meeting new people, and meeting new people means creating relationships, which leads to opportunity. One of the biggest opportunities I have been afforded was from attending a Rotary meeting for a club that wasn’t my own but was interested in getting to know exchange students. I was able to create a relationship with one of the members who worked with a youth leadership organization in Hobart, on a Tall Ship sailing vessel. As it turned out there was an open spot on their upcoming 10-day voyage around Tassie. After that voyage I became a volunteer deckhand aboard the ship, the Windeward Bound. Most recently I was able to crew a voyage to a place called Port Davey in Southwest National Park, Tasmania. Port Davey was on my bucket list, but I never thought I would get the chance to go there because you have to fly or sail in, and less than 10% of Tasmanians ever see it. One of the most pristine, untouched, magnificent places on this earth, and I get to say that I’ve been there. To add more to that, I get to say that I’ve sailed the Southern Ocean and the Roaring 40’s… on a Tall Ship no less. When I left for exchange, I never imagined becoming a crew member on a Tall Ship, but I chose to say yes to every opportunity, and you never know where that may lead.
On top of becoming a crew member aboard a Tall Ship, I have been Bush Walking in heaps of places around Tasmania, explored mainland Aussie, and I have also learned to surf! I was able to spend just about 2 months at my host family’s shack on the coast over the summer, surfing with my host dad nearly every morning. There was nothing quite like feeling the water on your fingertips and seeing the empty ocean at dawn. I learned the wave patterns, wind direction, how to spot the perfect wave, and just about everything else that goes along with getting on the board and riding the wave. Do you know why I was able to do that? Because I wasn’t afraid to say yes.
I could go on and on about my adventures, but the real joy is in the people… the culture. Exchange allows you to immerse yourself in a culture you don’t know, with people you don’t know. I grew up with four brothers, and I have gained 6 lifelong sisters. Sisters that helped shape who I am, and who will forever be part of my life. I now have 4 extra sets of parents who have loved me and taken me in as their own. And the friends, oh the friends you meet on exchange will be with you forever. The thing about leaving home is you get to reinvent yourself; you get to be whoever you want to be, and you get to pick the friends you want to surround yourself with. I have met so many mates who are uplifting, positive, and everything friendship is supposed to be. I play soccer here with girls who have become more like sisters to me now. The other exchange students in my district have become a second family. The great part about being in Australia is that I get to immerse myself in a culture focused around kindness. People stop and have a conversation with you on the street, help you with your groceries, and are just all around genuinely kind. You could find a mate surfing on the same beach and end up spending the day together. Australia is unique, just like any other country. On exchange you will discover new traditions, taste new foods (some good and some not so good), create a new style, and see the world from another point of view.
Adventure, friendship, family, culture, reinvention… that is why I chose Rotary Exchange. This year may come to an end, but the memories I’ve created are forever. You have the rest of your life to go to school, get a job, and start a family. So, take a risk, take the leap, take one year of your life to become a version of yourself you never knew existed. This world has so much more to offer. Explore the Earth, discover friendship, discover a new you. Just remember, YOU make it the best year of your life.