A recent Mountain Pointe High School grad is learning to put service above others while experiencing the world.
Tanner McDonald is part of Rotary International District 5495’s Youth Exchange program, which gives teens an opportunity to build peace and foster lifelong relationships with people around the globe.
Treaveling overseas, Tanner and the other students areimmersing themselves in new cultures, overcoming language barriers and learning to become independent leaders for their communities upon their return home.
When asked to describe their experience in one word, exchange graduates use words such as “unbelievable,” “amazing,” “astounding” and “exciting.”
District 5495 – which covers the northern half of Arizona – partners with other international Rotary Clubs and is sending Valley youth to places like throughout Europe, South America and Asia.
Tanner, 18, said he is adjusting well in Belgium, though he misses his 3-year-old brother, driving his car and heading to In-N-Out Burger with his friends.
He makes it a point to regularly FaceTime with his kid brother to chase away any feelings of homesickness.
He said Belgium is a “very fascinating and dense country filled with a rich history, amazing food and hospitable people.”
He loves using the train system to scoot around from cities like Bruges to Brussels, taking in all of what Belgium has to offer.
Since he turned 18 before his departure, there were some restrictions as to where he could go on his Youth Exchange.
His advice to other teens interested in the program is “apply early if you would prefer your first selection of countries.”
On the other hand, he liked the fact he experienced high school graduation first.
“Graduate with your friends and classmates for the experience and then find a country that suits you, even if it’s not your first choice,” he said.
The Rotary Youth Exchange program sends high school candidates 15 to 18 on an ambassador-like exchange experience to one of 27 possible countries.
Donna Goetzenberger, a former exchange student herself who is outbound chair for the Rotary program, said the selection process may be rigorous, but ultimately it’s an enriching experience for teens because they mature into independent, globally-minded men and women of the future.
Students are selected based on interviews, courage, adaptability, grades and/or achievements, school and recommendations as well as interests in world affairs, cultures and languages.
She encourages teens to not allow grades to be the deciding factor though students should be prepared to speak about their grades and classes.
“We want to remind today’s youth about just how vitally important and powerful it is to have our future industry leaders – whether lawyers, bankers, journalists, or some other professional career - respect our international communities, for the benefit of our future as a community, state and nation,” Goetzenberger said.
“Universities look favorably on the exchange experience, as evident by unusual maturity and drive in a college applicant,” Goetzenberger said, adding teens should “go, experience the world, take a gap year and come back with a new perspective.
“Who knows? It might end up changing which career you come back to study at a university, but you just won’t know until you go.”
Tanner said he and the other participants in the program are “unlocking their full and true potential” by developing lifelong leadership skills, learning new languages and cultures, building lasting relationships and becoming members of the global community.
“Ultimately our Youth Exchange graduates return with a sense of self-confidence making them better equipped to handle college and life in our local, state, national and global communities,” Goetzenberger said.
“These are the youth we want leading the charge of our tomorrow,” she added.
The Rotary International exchange program began 90 years ago in Copenhagen when just a handful of students traveled abroad. During the 1970s, it was formalized into its current form.
Tanner went through the Tempe Rotary Club, since the Ahwatukee chapter dissolved years ago for lack of membership.
District 5495 Inbound Chairwoman Machel Considine said she likes the program because it gives students a chance “to appreciate and understand another culture, become fluent in another language, develop lifelong international friendships and (learn to) make independent decisions.”
The various Rotary clubs provide a stipend to cover all school fees, a monthly stipend as well as a students’ room and board.
Families are responsible for round-trip airfare, medical insurance, travel documents like passports and any additional spending money to cover extra traveling a student wishes to experience above what the program already provides.
District 5495 invests nine months in preparing each student for his or her academic year abroad.
Students who are selected attend Rotary meetings, receive counsel and support from Rotary Club members and participate in club activities.
“The Youth Exchange program is affordable to students of all backgrounds and economic means,” Goetzenberger said. “We want to make sure every student interested in studying abroad has the opportunity to do so.”
Applicants must be in their freshman, sophomore or junior years at time of application and willing to immerse themselves in a new culture for an entire academic year.
They must have demonstrated leadership skills in school and their community, prepare to reside with two or three families when they’re abroad, be comfortable with limited contact with their family and friends back home and be prepared to learn the language and make new friends.
The program is open to both Rotary members and nonmembers.
The deadline to apply for the next full-year program is June 30 and Feb. 28 is the deadline to apply for a shorter summer program.
Apply at rye5495.org/about.html.