Youth exchange offers hope

Over the last months especially, it has become clear that better global understanding of our fellow citizens of the world must be achieved in order to foster well-being. I believe that one of the best ways someone can better understand different viewpoints is living abroad. During the academic year of 2013-2014, I had the chance to do this as a recipient of Rotary District 6690’s Scholarship for International High School Studies.

Rotary Youth Exchange, one branch of Rotary International, sends students aged 15-19 to different countries to live with host families and study in a local school in order to immerse students in a new culture. Students who complete youth exchanges gain knowledge of a new culture and language, personal growth, increased maturity, independent thinking, and self-awareness.

Thanks to the sponsorship of Athens Rotary, I was able to complete an exchange in Istanbul, Turkey, for 10 months last academic year. Istanbul is a transcontinental city with a population of 15 million, and I was proud to call it home. I undoubtedly enjoyed the best year of my life. I made lifelong bonds with my host family and friends, enriched myself academically, learned a foreign language, and had the chance to explore the history, art, and culture of one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the world. Although I am grateful for the education I received at Athens City schools, I know that life in Turkey taught me lessons that I could not have learned in a classroom setting.

As the world fights intolerance and ignorance, I think about what all exchange students learn abroad: Cultural differences make us unique, but all humans have equal worth. The same things inspire us and evoke our emotions around the world. International exchanges allow people to gain empathy, and with this, we are one step closer to achieving peace globally. As J. William Fulbright states of exchange programs: “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy – the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately. The simple purpose of the exchange program…is to erode the culturally rooted mistrust that sets nations against one another. The exchange program is not a panacea but an avenue of hope”

Reiya Bhat

Athens, Ohio