Rotary exchange gives Chilliwack youth a global perspective

For Chilliwack's Becky Sturm, her year as a Rotary exchange student in Spain was a life-changing experience.

Rebecca “Becky” Sturm completed her Grade 11 in Spain as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange.

Rebecca “Becky” Sturm completed her Grade 11 in Spain as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange.

When Becky Sturm met her host family for the first time after the long flight from Vancouver to Spain, there was a moment when she had a serious second thought about the Rotary exchange program.

Thinking Becky knew the language fluently, the family spoke to the tired Grade 11 Sardis Secondary student like she was a native.

“What have I gotten myself into?” she remembers thinking with a laugh.

Becky, now in Grade 12 and back at Sardis, quickly explained to her hosts that while she had taken several language courses in preparation for the program, she still had much to learn.

That moment of doubt passed quickly – soon replaced by an experience she says she’ll treasure for the rest of her life.

Becky is no stranger to the Rotary Exchange program. Her family has been welcoming international students into their home since she was in Grade 3.

Indeed, she says, “I don’t remember a time in my life when my parents have not been involved in Rotary exchange.”

The Rotary Youth Exchange program has been around for more than 75 years. It’s a global initiative that sends more than 8,000 young people (aged 15 to 18) to host families in 160 different countries.

Participants apply through their local Rotary Clubs to take part, however participants do not have to be Rotary Club members to be accepted.

Becky never had a doubt she would one day take part in the program. She had seen what it had done for young people who had come to this country. As she watched them grow and mature during their time here, she knew she wanted to share that experience.

“I wanted to be like that and go through that kind of development,” the vivacious 17-year-old says. “It really helps you grow and find out who you are.”

Becky travelled to Colmenar Viejo, an agricultural community north of Madrid. She lived with two families during her time there, and completed her Grade 11 courses – all in Spanish – so she could graduate with her friends this year.

Becky’s blue eyes go wide as she recounts her experience, her challenges and her rewards. She remembers going for a run out in the country: Hearing footsteps behind her, she turned to see about 200 sheep being herded down the road and running toward her.

“You won’t see that in Chilliwack,” she remembers thinking.

Still, the greatest experiences were the ones of self-discovery. When she sought out a place to volunteer, she found herself teaching English to children whose parents could not afford lessons. “That’s when I realized this was something that I loved.”

The relationships she formed with people she met also left an indelible impression. “It’s not even that they’re ‘friends’ now,” she says with enthusiasm. “They are family.”

Since returning, Becky has shared her experiences where she could; she’s even taught a few Spanish classes at her school.

She believes strongly that the Rotary Exchange Program enriches the lives of those it touches.

“I would recommend it to anyone,” she says emphatically.

“What the Rotary gave me, I can never give back,” she adds.

But that doesn’t mean she won’t try. She’s vowed to “pay it forward” and work toward making her community – and the world – a better place.

To find out more about the program call Victor Froese, local chair of Rotary’s Youth Exchange Committee, at (604) 823-7335 or email: vsf@telus.net.