Rotary’s short-term student exchange offers a new twist to educational program
MARK — Nothing changes your perspective on the world like traveling to another country, especially when it’s outside the protective bubble of organized tour groups.
Immersion in the day-to-day lives of the locals offers the best opportunity to learn about the lifestyles and traditions of a culture. Student exchange programs have long been a popular way for youths to experience this, but Rotary International’s short-term exchange has provided an interesting twist — pairing students together through trips to both their home countries.
Putnam County Rotarian Darlene Siegman recently hosted Putnam County High School graduate Ben Just at a dinner at The Clover Club where he shared his experiences in this educational program.
“I’d definitely say I’m a different person now. It changed me, and I’ve grown a lot because of my experiences with Tommaso and his family,” Just said.
This past summer, Just spent six weeks hosting Italian student Tommaso Ghiara at his family’s home in Putnam County. Afterward, the two traveled to live with Ghiara’s family in Marudo, Italy, for six weeks.
Just said hosting someone full time took some getting used to, but in the end, he said, they had become very close and “were like brothers.” While in Putnam County, they went camping and took trips to see the popular sites in Chicago.
When asked what Ghiara enjoyed about this area, the answer provided by Rotarian Adriane Shore prompted some laughter.
“We took him to the demolition derby at the Marshall-Putnam Fair, and his eyes were so big. He’d never seen anything like that before,” Shore said.
Ghiara told her that while they had auto racing in Italy (Formula One, the highest level of auto racing), there was nothing like a demolition derby.
Once in Italy, Just said much of the six weeks was spent traveling throughout the country with Ghiara’s family. The cities visited included Montepulciano, Florence, Venice, Marudo, Pisa, Verona, Milano, Sienna, Bologna and many more.
The young men were able to spend more time camping together, but this time it was with the stunningly beautiful backdrop of Italian mountains, lakes and forests. During his presentation, Just shared many photos taken during this period, and Italy’s natural beauty could arguably surpass its’ long history of cultural beauty.
Endlessly surrounded by countless pieces of breathtaking art and the historic buildings in which they’re often displayed, one location above all others stood out for Just.
“The Duomo di Milano was incredible, I’d never seen anything like that,” he said of the largest cathedral in Italy.
With the staggeringly beautiful landscapes and art works experienced by Just, there was yet another area of Italian culture that deeply impressed him.
“The food was definitely not a problem. I put on some weight there, and honestly felt kind of fat when I got back,” he said, smiling.
A future culinary student, Just took advantage of being in Italy and learned everything he could about Italian food. He returned home with several recipes and a strong appreciation of their style.
He said Italian homes are very similar to American homes, but added there’s a much stronger sense of family and community among the Italians.
“There was company every night. Sometimes it was family, other times it was friends or neighbors, or you might be going to visit them at their home,” he said.
Language barriers are always a concern when traveling to another country, and while Just did have some regrets with not preparing himself more, he adapted quickly.
“At first, I was really frustrated and angry at myself for not making more of an effort to learn Italian, but within a couple of weeks I started being able to communicate. By the end of the six weeks though, while still broken, I could make myself understood pretty well. I’d like to be able to speak it more,” he said.
He described an encounter with a fisherman he met while camping. While neither could fully speak each other’s native language, they successfully conversed for 20 minutes.
“They don’t care if you’re not perfect. It means more to them that you’re trying,” Just said.
In October, Just will be traveling to New York to attend the Institute of Culinary Education. Following his graduation, he said he’d love to focus on Italian food and return to Italy.
“I consider Tommaso and his family to be my family now. I’d definitely recommend this program to other Putnam County students,” he said.
The Rotary’s short-term youth exchange program is open to Putnam County High School students ages 15-19. Those entering the program will be paired with a student from Spain, France, Germany or Italy for four to six weeks here, and another four to six weeks in their home country.
The Rotary covers the application and registration expenses. There is also a requirement for a two-day orientation for students and parents at Rock Falls in March. Families are responsible for the cost of the overnight stay, as well as for transportation, insurance and the costs involved with hosting a student for the duration of the program. Students are paired by age, gender and interests, and there is no language requirement.
Applications are due by Dec. 1 and are available upon request by emailing PutnamCountyRotary@gmail.com. The selection of students will be completed by the PC Rotary by Dec. 15. The selections will be subject to the acceptance by the District Rotary and the “match” placement of students, a process that will begin in January.