BROOKSVILLE – As the school year winds down until the fall, most teenagers look forward to long, hot summer days. But for international students like Matilda Kristensen, the end of the semester means she’ll be leaving Florida for her native Odense, Denmark, after 10 months of not only living in America, but becoming a little American herself.
“I dress American now,” Kristensen jokes with her friend, Gabriella DiSanza, a recent graduate of Citrus High School. In August, DiSanza is heading off for her own Danish adventure, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Inverness.
“Unlike most exchange programs, we truly do swap students, so if we take one from your country, you take one from our country,” said Douglas Lobel, chair of Rotary District 6950, which includes Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
Lobel explained that the Rotary Youth Exchange is a “cultural exchange” more than anything, where students “immerse” themselves in culture and society, and often have their calendars booked with excursions that are both fun an educational. In the past year, Kristensen has learned about physics at Disney World, Florida flora and fauna at Sea Camp on Big Pine Key and Tahitians in Hawaii. Along the way, she acquired the taste of fast food – especially Taco Bell – and started wearing cowboy boots.
Lobel, who has served as chair for the past three years, said the number of students who want to spend a year going to school in another country is increasing. To meet the demand, Lobel is spreading the word about the benefits of hosting a Rotary student, since an Ecuadorian exchange student needs two host families from November to February, and another from February to June.
Students often stay with multiple families to get a better understanding of the culture and a broader experience, Lobel said.
Interested families must live in the Hernando High School district, or be willing to drive the student to and from school.
“They don’t have to be a Rotarian,” Lobel said, though exchange students are required to help out with club activities.
Lobel said retirees often make great host parents because they have more time to spend with students and tend to enhance their own social lives in the process of showing students around.
Lifelong friendships are one of the many advantages of the cultural exchange, Lobel said.
About 8,000 U.S. students travel to study in other countries every year, which means 8,000 students are coming into America to study.
“If we exchange enough students we’ll get rid of war, because you don’t go to war with people you understand,” Lobel said.
“These young people are the best of the best, to be willing to leave their country … and go abroad for a year takes a certain spirit. They are going to be the leaders of our country in the future just by their nature.”
More information is available at ryeflorida.org. Those interested in hosting students can call Lobel at (352) 400-0540.