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Fostering peace, one student at a time
Sept. 15, 2014

After 12 years, Cokato-Dassel Rotary Club jumps back into youth exchange program

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

Promoting international peace and understanding one student at a time has been the goal of Rotary International’s Youth Exchange program, and, for the first time in 12 years, local Rotarians are once again joining that endeavor.

Rotary Youth Exchange began nearly a century ago, starting with European clubs in the wake of World War I.

“It was part of a larger movement that hoped to increase ties between cultures and nations – and that picked up momentum after World War II,” according to an article in the September edition of The Rotarian. The article continued saying the thought behind the exchange program is that it’s harder to hate someone you know.

Today, Rotary clubs across the world send roughly 8,000 students to more than 80 countries each year.

For the Cokato-Dassel Rotary, this is the first time in 12 years it has participated in the youth exchange program.

The club first participated in the program in the 1976-77 school year, with the late Russ Johnson as the club’s youth exchange officer.

The last year the club participated in the program was in 2001-2 when the late Rick Beckman was the youth exchange officer.

Locally, the program “fell by the wayside after the sad passing” of Beckman, a longtime Rotarian instrumental in the youth exchange program, said Kelly Babekuhl, the club’s public relations chair.

The program was revitalized last fall when the club was approached by Sheryl Wuollet, whose daughter Ella, was graduating and interested in spending a year in Finland.

Wuollet had heard from someone that Rotary had one of the best foreign exchange programs, and decided to look into it.

She connected with Rotarian Peter Bortnem, who looked into the process.

He found that the application and interview process had already taken place, but since there wasn’t an exchange student going to Finland from this particular Rotary district, Ella was given an opportunity to interview.

Ella was told that same day that she was accepted to the program and would be going to Finland for one year beginning in August.

While working with Ella, Bortnem was informed that a club sending a student abroad needs to receive a student during the same academic year.

“We weren’t expecting this, and probably weren’t prepared for this, but I’m thankful for the requirement,” Bortnem said. “As a result, our club decided to embrace the opportunity and commit ourselves to hosting a student in the 2014-15 year, and recommit ourselves to participating annually in this exciting program.”

With Ella as this year’s outbound student, Rotary welcomed Dahyeon “Chris” Kim from South Korea.

Kim arrived Aug. 25, and is spending the first three months with host parents and Rotarians Kelly Babekuhl and Kim Keithahn of Dassel.

This is the first of three host families Kim will live with during her stay in America.

Rotary prefers exchange students have the experience of living with two to four families, according to Al Gerdin, a member of the North Star Youth Exchange Program for District 5950 and 5960, which includes Cokato-Dassel.

“The student has a broader experience, since there are no two families alike,” Gerdin said, who had his first experience with Rotary Youth Exchange when his daughter was assigned to Brazil in 1975-76. It was at that time he learned about Rotary as a service organization and became a member.

This way, Kim will spend three major holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter – with a different family.

Kim’s other two host families include Tim and Mary Wheatley, and Gary and Jill Plowman, both of Cokato.

Each year, the district sends and receives 60 to 65 students through the program. This is different from other exchange programs, Gerdin said, in that other American-based organizations take in more students than they send out. With Rotary, it’s a one-to-one exchange.

Rotary is also different in how it prepares its students and families for the upcoming year.

The Wuollets, for example, had three orientation meetings, preparing them for what it would be like as an exchange student.

It was also suggested to Ella and her family to limit communication during the exchange so the student can really connect with their host family.

Though Ella’s mother, Sheryl, was very apprehensive at first, she knows her daughter is very independent, and the support through Rotary has been great, she said.

“They really prepared us for what was going to happen,” she said.

Benefits of an exchange experience

Gerdin highlighted a few of the benefits youth receive by participating in an international exchange program.

By being immersed in another country, students learn about the country’s government and customs, in addition to becoming fluent in the language.

Gerdin said that most students will test out of a language course after participating in an exchange program.

By living abroad, students become more independent, and good decision makers.

They will also become global thinkers.

When they return, “Their way of thinking is so different,” Gerdin said.

It exposes them to different career opportunities, as well. Gerdin noted that some students go on to work for the government, some choosing to work internationally with the US Embassy.

Ella’s perspective on the program

Ella is living in Espoo, Finland, which is the second-largest city in the country, located near the country’s capital city, Helsinki.

She chose Finland because she went to Salolampi, the Finnish Concordia Village Language camp for six summers.

Since her arrival in August, Ella has enjoyed experiencing many things, particularly public transportation. “I can literally go anywhere I want, even cities far away, by bus,” she commented.

Though she graduated last year for DC High School, Ella is attending the number-one ranked school in Finland

Ella is among 120 other youth exchange students in Finland, from countries all over the world. “It’s amazing,” she said.

As far as the Rotary organization, Ella said, it’s “awesome.”

“I’m so unbelievably thankful I heard about them, and thankful I got this opportunity,” Ella said.

Interested in being a host family or exchange student?

If anyone within the Dassel-Cokato School District is interested in being either a host family or youth exchange student, contact Peter Bortnem, the youth exchange officer at (320) 286-5529 or e-mail cdrotaryclub@gmail.com.

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