The Rotary Youth Exchange program gives the promise to participants of learning a new way of living, a great deal about themselves, maybe even a new language. It also gives people the opportunity to be an ambassador, teaching people about their country, culture, and ideas.
“You can help bring the world closer – and make some good friends in the process,” they say about the program on their site.
Drumhellerite Lian Lister has just returned from a year long Rotary Youth Exchange trip in Finland, sponsored by the Drumheller Rotary Club. When The Mail spoke to her about her experiences, it is clear that the Rotary Youth Exchange program kept its promise.
There she attended high school, lived with three host families and got to discover the world through Rotary organized tours in Europe and learned about herself in a way and depth she hadn’t anticipated.
A determined person, Lian crammed three years of high school into two to get her Alberta diploma before leaving. She knew she wanted to stay somewhere in Europe but hadn’t expected to be assigned to Finland.
“It wasn’t my first choice of destination, but I really wanted to go to Europe. I didn’t know what to expect about Finland, because I knew nothing about Finland before I left. As it turned out, I was so glad I went to this country people don’t really know about, because I know that otherwise I would have never gone there. I can even speak a bit of Finnish now!”
Filled with fear and excitement about what was awaiting her, Lister flew off to Finland a year ago, and told The Mail she came back a more worldy woman.
“The trip has broadened my horizons. It sounds a bit cliche, but I have lived in Drumheller my whole life, and I was really looking forward to travelling and seeing what else the world had to offer me. I really feel like I have learned a lot, not just about Finland but other countries as well because I met so many exchange students and we were really like a big family from all over the world, so I really got a perspective about different cultures and how we interact, similarities and differences.”
It wasn’t easy though at the start, she explains she felt overwhelmed at first, the different language being a barrier, she found the country itself very similar to where she came from.
“It looks very similar, the nature is very much the same. I thought I was going to be so cold going so far north, but it wasn’t any colder than I am used to here,” she laughs.
“I didn’t know any Finnish when I went there, it was terrifying, it really was, being there, not understanding the language or the culture and not knowing anyone, it was really really scary,” she remembers.
“I feel like I have changed so much and grown so much as a person. I missed home so much in the beginning, it took me a few months to get over that. Everything was so new and overwhelming, families were doing things so differently from my own family, that made me miss my own family but it also made me appreciate what I have here.”
She plunged into Finnish life, attending one of the top high schools in the country, took classes, and even decided to take exams at the end of the year.
“I didn’t have to take any exams but did a few anyway. The papers were given to me in English, although I was expecting to get them in Finnish!”
She studied math, physics, english, geography and music classes during her year there and was taken aback by the school system, saying it was a really good system and highlighting most people could speak english, so it made it easier for her.
“I was doing well in school here but there, their schooling is really tough. They have to apply to get into their high school, and it depends on their marks in junior high. I went to one of the top school in the country so the students there were there to study. The classes were intense.”
Part of the Rotary exchange program is to be an ambassador for your country. This, Lian says, was what she enjoyed the most.
She gave presentations about her country and says she felt more comfortable up in front of a classroom giving a presentation than she did in the school surrounded by people that she didn’t know or understand.
“Actually they don’t know anything about Canada just like we don’t know anything about Finland. I told them about Canada and where I am from, Alberta, talked about Drumheller and dinosaurs. I really liked doing it. Over there I felt more Canadian than I ever have. I felt so proud to be a Canadian, I had never felt that before. How great life is here and how blessed we are, how fortunate we are with everything we have here. I think going abroad makes you have a stronger identity.”
Now back home, adjusting to life again and the reverse culture shock as she describes it - “it’s weird to hear people speak English and be able to understand!” she laughs - she is already planning a return trip in a few years, to meet up with the many new friends she has made.
“My new friends were the hardest ones to leave. I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”