Expanding views of the world
Entrenched in a new school in Modling, Austria, and able to recite few German phrases beyond "I like cats," Wilsonville High student Elizabeth Harms had a novel plan to make friends.
She asked her parents to ship a package of chocolate chips across the Atlantic Ocean — knowing chocolate chip cookies aren't a staple of Austrian culture like they are in America — and baked a batch of gooey goodness and brought them to school one day.
For Harms, the ploy worked like a charm.
"They were like 'Oh my gosh. I love this. What's the recipe?'" Harms said. "That's how you make connections. You have to bake 'em cookies."
And, through the Rotary Club of Wilsonville foreign exchange student program, Harms and other students have learned how to adapt to unfamiliar environments and relate to people from different cultures.
In the program, Wilsonville students stay with host families for 2-3 months or 5-6 weeks and students from other countries live temporarily in Wilsonville. The program was defunct for more than 10 years before the Rotary resurrected it three years ago.
Participants discussed their experiences during a celebratory event at Al Kader Shriners last Thursday.
Wilsonville High senior Dawson Durig stayed in a farm town just outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina. During his time in South America, he became much more adept speaking Spanish, learned how to ride a tractor and kicked around the soccer ball with pals frequently. He also made a lifelong friend with one of the members of his host family and, later on, traveled back to Argentina for the friend's high school graduation.
"We had a lot of the same traits and personality. We were around each other all the time. They made me feel comfortable," Durig said.
During her stay in Natal, Brazil, Sophia Somerscales initially struggled to communicate with her Portuguese host family. But she tried to mimic and study their words and phrases and also bolstered her language skills during an intensive class put on by the local Rotary club. As her communication skills improved, bonds strengthened and she grew to appreciate the Brazilians' friendly disposition and family-oriented values.
"One thing I learned about Brazil is that everyone is super welcoming and super energetic so whenever I met anyone there they would talk to me. Even if they didn't know English they would go out of their way to say as much as they could," she said. "Doing the exchange made me a lot more confident and extroverted because everyone you're meeting is new and so you have to initiate conversation and be comfortable with meeting people."
Harms learned that Austrians appreciate the health benefits of fresh air and that the length of hikes in America are analogous to walks in Austria. She also gained self-confidence.
"I'm more confident and open to challenges, whereas before I was anxious and overthinking all the time," Harms said.
Students who boast a 3.5 grade point average or higher can apply for the foreign exchange program and are interviewed for over an hour to see if they can handle traveling overseas.
"There's some kids based on maturity, they demonstrate that they're ready to be away from their family for a couple months at a time," said Rotary Club of Wilsonville President-elect Laura LaJoie-Bishop
LaJoie-Bishop traveled frequently when she was younger and her daughters haven't had as many opportunities to visit other countries. But, by hosting Mexican foreign exchange student Samantha Buholzer this year and another student from Switzerland last year, she said her daughters' worldviews have expanded.
"Having people from other parts of the world lives with us, it's an opportunity to understand that while the world seems huge, we're all connected," LaJoie-Bishop said. "I wanted my girls to feel like they can go anywhere in the world and connect with them."
At the meeting, Buholzer talked about her trips around the West Coast to places like Seaside, Alcatraz and Crater Lake, her enjoyment participating in three sports at Wilsonville High, attending prom and raising $1,200 for ShelterBox, which provides emergency shelter and food for families who have braved natural disasters. Buholzer enjoyed the experience so much, she extended her trip by a couple weeks.
"I feel like this experience was not that much about making friends or being a tourist. It was more about myself and finding who I am and who I wanted to be. I can't believe how much I've grown and I couldn't have done it without rotary," Buholzer said.
LaJoie-Bishop added: "She realized she has a desire to do community service and fundraising. She took a lot of pride in raising $1,200 to create a shelter home for another family in the world."
LaJoie-Bishop said the Rotary program is looking for a Wilsonville host family with a son or no kids — so that a boy from another country could stay with a male counterpart and his family.
"It's been exciting because every year we've had more families that are interested in hosting. It's a really good opportunity for families because instead of having a whole year, it's a three-month commitment," LaJoie-Bishop said.
And showing foreigners the virtues of Wilsonville and the United States is one of the reasons the Rotary resurrected the program, according to LaJoie-Bishop.
"Because Rotary is all about a global connection and Wilsonville Rotary in particular, we're really proud of our city and our schools," LaJoie-Bishop said. "We feel like it's a great opportunity for others to learn about the U.S. from our eyes."