My friend Lilla Toth from Hungary went to the United States as a Rotary Youth exchange student. The program focuses on high school students (15 to 19 years old) and she was only 17 when she embarked on this journey.
She stayed in a town in Illinois with 3 host families and studied at O’Fallon Township High School for one year. At the same time, her family in Hungary hosted a sweet girl from Mexico and a cool guy from Canada.
In this post, Lilla explains everything we need to know if we want to apply for the Rotary Youth exchange program. We will learn in detail what it covers, tips for a successful application, and Lilla’s overall experience living in Illinois.
Now Lilla will tell us:
- Characteristics of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program
- Application process
- Tips for a successful application
- General opinion
1. Characteristics of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program
- Type of program: Rotary Youth Exchange Program for high school students from all over the world
- Location: worldwide, you will have a wide variety of choices because of the widespread presence of Rotary clubs in every continent
- Eligibility Requirements:
- Rotary Youth Exchange Program
- Rotary Club: there need to be Rotary Clubs existing in your country (there are clubs in more than 100 countries – check if your country is on the list HERE) and you need to be selected by your local Rotary Club in order to participate in the exchange program. The number of students sponsored each year depends on the host district.
- Age: Participants should be between 15 to 19 years old although in some cases students can be over 19 years old as well.
- Commitment: during the selection process, the Rotary club first and foremost would like to see your determination and commitment. You will leave home at a very young age and the most important thing is to be emotionally ready to leave the family nest and spend a year abroad. (There are also short-term opportunities for the summertime).
- No Language requirement: the above-mentioned criteria are far more important than being proficient in a foreign language or your grades in school. Many of my friends were sent to countries where they had absolutely no prior knowledge in the spoken language. Despite everything, one year later they returned as fluent speakers of their destination’s language.
- High School
- No need to be an active student: You don’t need to be currently enrolled in high school in order to participate. Some of my friends went abroad after they finished high school but in the majority of cases, participants were high school students.
- Any nationality can apply: There are no nationality or language requirements in particular as long as there is a Rotary club nearby you who can sponsor you.
- Rotary Youth Exchange Program
- Duration: my abroad experience lasted 1 year but there are 2 types of exchanges:
- Long-term (full academic year): students live with more than one family in the host country and attend school there.
- Short-term (from several days to 3 months): youth camps, tours, or home-stays that take place when school is not in session.
- Application Fee:
- Rotary Youth Exchange Program: no application fee. Rotary is a nonprofit organization.
- High School: no application fee.
- Accommodation: is covered because the purpose of the program is that you stay with families.
- Food: I was able to eat homemade food. In addition, my host families took me to nice restaurants quite often and they also paid for the cafeteria expenses in the school.
- Tuition: the tuition is also covered. I personally attended a state-run high school so there was no tuition fee but in case it’s a private school the Rotary club will cover everything for you.
- Flights: I had to pay for my tickets.
- Insurance: I had to pay for my insurance as well. The cost varies among countries as well as insurance companies (your Rotary club will assist you on this as well).
- Visa: I had to process an American student visa (J1 type). It costs 160 USD for Hungarians. You can read more info on the official J1 visa website.
2. Application Process
a. Rotary Youth Exchange Program
Enter the website & find the nearest Rotary Club to you
On the official Rotary website go to the Youth Exchange programs page. There could be many clubs in the same city, so choose the one closer to your house.
Send an email
Send an email to the Rotary Club and explain that you would like to apply for the Rotary Youth Exchange program. They will shortly get back to you and tell you the details you need to know before applying for the program.
Consider application dates
You need to apply a year prior to your departure. Rotary sends you abroad based on your home country’s academic schedule. Let’s see 2 cases:
- Northern hemisphere: applications are open during fall (September-November) and you can go abroad in the next Academic year (which usually starts in mid-August or September).
- Crossing hemispheres: I remember that students from Argentina and Australia arrived in Hungary in January/February and left the country around November/December. These students basically spent 5 months in school then 2,5 months summer break and then again 2-3 months in school. So you will have an ‘odd’ school year if you decide to cross the north and south hemispheres.
Write a motivation letter
I had to write a motivation letter and also show a strong interest in the exchange program.
Meet a Rotary representative
My family and I had to meet a representative from the local Rotary club who helped us go through not only the application process but the whole journey.
Attend a Committee assessment
During winter (December to February) all the applicants had to present themselves in front of a small committee of Rotarians. We were assessed to determine if we were ready to go on this journey. From my city, Szeged, Hungary all of the students who applied and showed a real commitment were sent abroad.
Meet a Rotary coordinator
After the selection process, the successful applicants had a one-on-one meeting with their Rotary coordinator.
Receive a home inspection
My Rotary coordinator visited our home because we were also asked to host another student. So our counselor needed to check if the exchange student was coming to a safe and supporting environment.
**It is not a requirement to host a student but if your family has the financial means and an extra room then it is something that you should do in return.**
Listen to the advice of the Rotary coordinator
While the coordinator was visiting our home he spoke with my parents and me about life in the USA and also what to expect as an exchange student.
He mentioned the struggles I’d most likely face, how can I handle them, what are the rules I should obey, and he also gave us a lot of useful advice!
Just to give you a hands-on example, he said that it was well-known that students who like to do sports are likely to have a better experience in the USA because most of the students make new friends by joining sports teams. I did exactly what my coordinator recommended and joined the swimming team and then the lacrosse team.
Do all the paperwork
In addition, I had to fill in a lot of documents but at that time I was only 16 years old so my mother and my Rotary coordinator helped me a lot!
Usually, once you have established a personal connection with the sending club it will be smooth sailing because of the tremendous amount of help that you will receive from your coordinator. Your Rotary club will provide you with all the necessary documents (which might vary on each country) that you need to fill in so don’t worry, they will guide you on all the way!
b. High School
- You don’t need to register to the school in advance because the Rotarians in your host country will manage everything for you!
3. Tips for a successful application
- Show your interest: as I have mentioned the most important thing is to be determined and be 100% sure that leaving home at a young age is for you! You need to be good at conveying your message so that the Rotarians are convinced that you are a good fit for the program.
- Get good Recommendation letters: you will need to get 2 recommendation letters from your high school teachers in which they explain your abilities as a student and as a person as well. (At least that was the case in Hungary, but it might vary according to each country)
- Have good grades and extracurricular activities: it’s also a plus if you have good grades and you do extracurricular activities. This shows that you are an open-minded and extrovert person who likes to be around people and not afraid of new challenges.
- Show your nice personality: altogether if your personality speaks for an outgoing, courageous, open-minded young individual, then you will most likely be accepted to the Rotary Youth Exchange Program!
I was studying in Hungary in Ságvári Endre High School when I decided to go on the biggest journey of my life! Ever since I was little I wanted to experience the so-called ‘American dream’ so when the opportunity arose to spend a year in the USA I knew I had to take it!
I studied at O’Fallon Township High School (O’Fallon is a small town in the Midwest). The uniqueness of this place is that there is a military base located nearby so the majority of the people are employed there, just like my first host parents.
This also means that the citizens are open-minded and probably have moved around a lot due to their job, maybe even lived outside of the United States.
My teachers in O’Fallon were super nice and awesome especially my Spanish teacher! He was the most hilarious teacher I have ever met and I was always looking forward to his classes.
They were very nice, the majority of them were Americans. Some of my friends’ parents migrated to the USA but their kids already grew up in the United States.
Besides me, there was one more exchange girl who was from Indonesia and came to the USA to study with the Rotary Club. We became best friends and spent a lot of time together during our exchange.
I joined sports clubs and we had practices every single day after school! (I could’ve been the fittest person but the extreme amount of fast food I ate didn’t allow me to… I gained around 10 kg over one year!)
During fall, I joined the swimming team and when the season was over during spring I joined the lacrosse team. In Hungary, we don’t play lacrosse so I thought I will try out something completely new and be adventurous! I fell in love with this team sport and wish I could’ve continued!
I had plenty of opportunities to travel with my host families! They treated me as a family member so every time they traveled I went with them! I visited nearby states like Missouri, Arkansas, and Michigan. I also went to Chicago 2-3 times and Saint Luis several times.
Besides that, with my second host family, we flew to Colorado for a winter holiday and I had the chance to ski in the Rocky Mountains! The scenery was breath-taking and I enjoyed the progressive mindset of the people over there.
At the end of the school year, the Rotary Club organized a 2-week trip exclusively for Rotary students! We flew from St. Louis to Los Angeles and during those two weeks, we did a round trip from LA up to San Francisco.
We visited the Yellowstone National Park (I think this was the most beautiful natural place I have ever seen in my life!) and then we headed to Las Vegas! (You might wonder all the crazy things we did there but unfortunately, we were not allowed to enter to most places because almost all of us were under-age :D).
We then went to see the Grand Canyon and the last stop of our trip was San Diego. There were around 50 exchange students who participated in this trip and we spent the whole time together visiting amazing places! I had the most intense and overall best experience throughout these two weeks in the USA!
Unfortunately, in the USA they are very strict about going to parties especially if you are under 21 years. Therefore, I never actually went to a club or a bar because at that time I was only 17. But it did not make the year any less enjoyable!
However, if you like to go to real parties during your exchange, I would recommend you to go to South America or even Europe because there are less strict rules.
The Exchange program was in O’Fallon, Illinois and it was a quiet town in the Midwest. I am sure you have seen many American movies where the people lived in the suburbs. O’Fallon was exactly like that! Everyone had a gorgeous house with a nice front yard, a big car, wide roads and many fast food restaurants like my favorite: Steak ‘n Shake!
I lived with 3 host families over the course of 12 months. The Rotary Club’s aim is to accommodate students with more than one host family because this way the students will get a better understanding of their host country’s culture. In addition, it is not so overwhelming financially for one family because you are only staying with them for 3-4 months.
The families apply on a voluntary base so they don’t get any financial compensation for hosting you, they do it solely for the kindness of their heart.
I always ate with my families and they also paid for the cafeteria in the school.
Traveling with Rotary is one of the safest ways because they have connections literally everywhere in the world! It is a widely acknowledged organization and there are thousands or even millions of Rotary members who all want to do something good for their communities! Moreover, O’Fallon was also a safe town and all of my host families and also the local Rotary club was very protective of me.
5. General Opinion
- You will be independent: in the most positive way at a young age.
- The whole world will open up for you: and you will meet many amazing people and make friendships for a lifetime!
- You will be able to master a foreign language at a young age: which will be extremely beneficial in the future! I didn’t speak English well and I had major anxiety when it came to expressing myself in a foreign language. It all changed after that year and I became a much more confident girl than I used to be, in addition, I also became fluent in English!
- You may get homesick: some teenagers might not be ready to leave their family during high school. You might get homesick and want to go back home. This is why you need to consider every aspect before applying for the exchange year.
- You may not get along well with your host family: perhaps you can’t abide by their rules or lifestyle. Luckily this is not the end of the world because your host Rotary club can assist you in case you think you need to change host families.
- You may face many cultural differences: some of them will be funny, some annoying or simply you won’t understand some. And you need to be able to adapt to the new circumstances.
- You may experience a language barrier: especially if you don’t speak the country’s language at all!
I would recommend the Rotary Youth Exchange Program to all of those young students who are adventurous, courageous, would love to become fluent in a foreign language and on the top of that want to make new friendships from all over the world! It was truly a transformative experience for me and for all of my friends and I firmly believe it helped me to become the person I am today!
In the Study Abroad section, you can find more experiences of success cases winning scholarships to study abroad! If you had a similar experience and want to inspire others to apply please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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