WESTFIELD — When Leticia Tavares, 16, first stepped off the plane in August to kick off her year as an exchange student in Westfield, her first impression of America (or at least of Newark Airport) was “well, this doesn’t look much like it does in the movies, does it?”
Ms. Tavares, of Brazil, is one of hundreds of students who will spend this school year abroad as part of Rotary International’s Eastern States Student Exchange. Each year, high-school students from around the world are given the once-in-a-lifetime chance to leave their homes behind and immerse themselves in the culture, lifestyles, languages and traditions of another country.
“When I first got here, it was a little scary,” Ms. Tavares admitted while chatting with The Westfield Leader over frozen drinks at Reves Smoothie Café last week. “I didn’t know anyone. I was worried that my English wasn’t good enough, or that I would get too homesick to want to stay. But I got lucky. My host family [the Wrights] made me feel so welcome that within just a few days, I knew I had made the right decision.”
According to information provided by Rotary International, a non-profit organization that specializes in humanitarian services, the Youth Exchange is an experiential program that provides students ages 15 to 18½ with the opportunity to study abroad while experiencing another culture, learning a new language and becoming a global citizen. Students who choose to participate in the program are placed with carefully-vetted host families who act as guardians, tour guides and friends to the young travelers throughout the course of their international experiences.
As part of this year’s Exchange, Ms. Tavares will spend the next six months as a student at Westfield High School. It has been a big adjustment, she said, but one she is slowly getting used to.
“I was so nervous about my first day, because in Brazil, we go to the same school with the same kids all the way from first grade to high school. It was such a big difference. I live in a large city, but our schools are pretty small. I have never seen so many kids in the same place at the same time before, and I wasn’t sure what to do at first,” she said, adding that all of her teachers went out of their way to make her feel at home. As for the student population, however, that took a little getting used to.
“I think the movies glamorize American schools too much. I thought that people would be rushing up to talk to me, but I realized that wasn’t how it really works. I had to learn to step out of my comfort zone a little and just go introduce myself,” she said. “I’m figuring it all out, now, though. Everyone is really friendly; it’s just a different kind of friendly than what I’m used to at home.”
Ms. Tavares will be staying with the Wright family here in Westfield for the remainder of her trip.
“I actually had the opportunity to participate in the Rotary Exchange when I was a kid, and it was one of the best experiences I have ever had,” said host parent and exchange liaison Mark Wright. “My family also hosted a number of different students when I was growing up, and it was such an incredible way to get to meet people that I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise.”
In addition to providing students and their host families with an invaluable experience, the Rotary Eastern States Student Exchange (ESSEX) prides itself on safety and responsible oversight. According to information provided by the organization, “Rotary is one of the safest high school exchange programs in the world.”
“Students are sponsored by a local Rotary club in the country they visit. The members of the club take great care to ensure the safety of the students. Every student is counseled before leaving on Exchange and is required to sign an agreement on avoiding dangerous situations, such as driving, drinking or using drugs,” the organization’s website states.
“I think that’s one of the most important aspects of this program,” Mr. Wright said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of scams out there, and when it comes to your child’s safety, you want to make sure you pick the right organization to partner with. Rotary has a tremendous reputation. My own daughter is looking forward to participating in the Exchange when she’s old enough, and I know without a doubt that she will be as safe as she would be here at home.”
In addition to a lengthy vetting process for host families, ESSEX monitors its participating countries carefully for signs of upheaval, the organization’s website states. Those countries deemed high risk are removed from the list for exchanges.
Students do not have to have a direct connection to Rotary to participate in the Exchange, Mr. Wright explained, adding that the program also is “incredibly affordable” given its offerings.
The Exchange also provides ample opportunities for its participants to meet and stay in touch with other students throughout the course of a designated year.
“I think that has been one of my favorite parts of the Exchange,” Ms. Tavares said. “It’s hard to explain how I’m feeling sometimes, and it’s great to know that I have access to other students who are also away from home for the first time. It’s nice to have someone to talk to who is having a similar experience to mine.”
So far, Ms. Tavares said, she and the Wrights have already visited New York, sampled the local cuisine and gone on several day trips throughout the area.
“[The Exchange] is planning a trip for the students to Hawaii next year,” she said, “which, obviously, I can’t wait to see. But what I’m most excited about is that [the Wrights and I] are going to go to Vermont over Christmas. I have never seen snow. I’m going to try skiing! Every day here is something different. It’s not always easy, but it’s an adventure, and it’s something everyone should do if they get the chance.”