Last year, several bad news stories regarding foreign exchange students cast a negative light on the exchange process across the United States and around the world. The stories include tales such as that of an American university exchange student studying in Italy accused of and arrested for the alleged murder of her American roommate.
Locally, Oneonta High School had a bad exchange student story when Hungarian exchange student Natalia Timar went missing from her host family's Oneonta home in June. According to Daily Star news articles, Timar had run away from home, and was found safe and sound in Brooklyn several months later, declined to explain her exploits and then was flown back to her native country.
While these bad-nes stories may give schools and prospective host families cause to pause, such experiences are the exception, not the rule. According to the New York Rotary Club and Rotary International, their organization's student exchange program is doing just fine. Calling the chance to study in another country "an opportunity of a lifetime," the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, or YEP, sponsors roughly 8,000 students annually and sets up host families in more than 200 countries worldwide.
Through Rotary's long-term and short-term youth exchange programs, students learn a new way of living, a great deal about themselves, and sometimes even a new language. Students can also be ambassadors, teaching people about American culture and ideas.
The Rotary International district responsible for a student exchange program in our area, District 7170, is composed of 42 clubs in seven counties: Otsego, Chenango, Delaware, Broome, Tioga, Cortland and Tompkins.
All Rotarians are volunteers. According to one District 7170 YEP coordinator, Mike Wilcox, the student screening process is thorough between the countries and international Rotarians.
Potential exchange students submit an application to their local Rotary Club, where they are interviewed by Rotarians. Their backgrounds are checked when they apply for a visa.
Besides being a 25-year Rotarian, for the past 20 years Wilcox has planned a 31-day bus trip across America for District 7170 exchange students every July.
The trip includes stops in 40 states and tours of America's most renowned historic, educational and entertainment attractions, such as a tour of Washington D.C., stops in New Orleans' French Quarter and the Texas Space Center, as well as trips to the ocean on both coasts and much more.
According to Wilcox, the trip costs each student $2,050 and includes hotel lodging and admission to attractions.
To participate, he said students must be enrolled as a Rotary exchange student at the end of the school year and must be recommended by their local Rotary Club. In all, 108 students are expected to participate in this year's trip, which will be chaperoned by seven adults.
"Most of our chaperones are school teachers because they have the summers off and have had background checks," he said.
Morgan Gervais, a Rotary-sponsored exchange student from Belgium attending South Kortright Central School, has applied to the local club in Hobart for permission to participate in the bus trip. She said she is excited about the upcoming tour.
Gervais, a senior at SKCS, said being an exchange student in the United States is a dream of a lifetime.
"I have wanted to come to this country since I was a little girl," she said, adding that she would like to attend college in the United States.
Gervais has excelled and adapted well to life in America and SKCS classes, said SKCS Superintendent Ben Berliner, who is also a Hobart Rotarian and actively involved with District 7170's student exchange program.
"Morgan is a good student and has fit in well. She is the editor of the yearbook and is well-liked," he said.
The exchange students' families provide the money needed for airfare and health insurance while they are studying in another country. Host families, such as Gervais' host family, Eda and Dennis Dorosky, become the student's parents while they are away from home, said Berliner.
"While they are here, the student lives with host families who assume the responsibility for that student as if the student were their own child," he said.
The Hobart Rotary Club provides the exchange student a $75 monthly allowance for incidentals, according to Berliner. SKCS has participated in the YEP for 50 years.
"The flags hanging in our cafeteria are the flags from the counties where are exchange students are from. Under each flag is the name of each foreign exchange student who has attended our school," he said.
The Doroskys of Bloomville have two sons. One attends SKCS as a senior and the other is a sophomore at the State University College of Technology at Delhi.
According to Dennis Dorosky, Gervais has resided with his family since August and he said she is one of the family.
"We think of her as our daughter. She has the same house rules as our son Ryan," he said.
Gervais, who has an upstairs bedroom in the family home, said she loves her host family.
In Belgium, Gervais attended a boarding school located in the south in the town of Huy. She said she loves SKCS because she is able to go home every night.
When asked to describe the differences between Belgium and the U.S., Gervais said the biggest difference here is the food and shopping.
"In school (in Belgium) we were never given pizza. There were more vegetables and maybe some meat. The meals are very different. The malls are much bigger here," she said, adding that she likes going to fast-food restaurants and the mall.
Delaware Academy student and Delhi resident Chelsey Hitt was a Rotary International District 7170 exchange student ambassador last summer.
The program, People to People Student Ambassadors, began July 14 and ended Aug. 2. Hitt trekked through Europe and the United Kingdom with her group for three weeks, staying mainly in hotels.
The cost of the trip she said was roughly $3,000, which her family provided. It included stops in France, Belgium, Wales, Ireland, England and Holland. She said she had a fantastic time.
"I was able to see many different parts of each country. I'm very lucky to have been able to see all the things I saw," she said, adding that her favorite parts of the trip included learning Gaelic football and visiting the home of Anne Frank. Hitt said she plans to travel more in the future.