Petting a gator in the bayou, Louisiana, 2002 

What being an exchange student did for me – and why every teen should have the same chance

This is the speech I gave at the Rotary International Youth Exchange Officers 2023 Preconvention on 26 May 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. I am an alumna of the programme, which transformed my life.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

This is the speech I gave at the Rotary International Youth Exchange Officers 2023 Preconvention on 26 May 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. I am an alumna of the programme, which transformed my life. The speech was never intended for wider consumption and only filmed by my mum in the front row, so pardon the quality. I'm only publishing it as Rotarians have asked for it to share with their clubs and districts and hopefully galvanise them for Youth Exchange. I can't say no to that. Full transcript below the video.

[00:00:00] Good morning. Good morning.

[00:00:03] Dear Rotarians, I am absolutely honoured to be on this stage today and to be trusted along with Hans, with opening your preconvention. It is really a gift and an honour to be asked back by this programme, which has meant so much to me, and to be able to give back even a fraction of what I have received. And it's especially joyful to meet you here in Australia, which is a country where I have lived and that is very dear to my heart, and to finally deliver the address that I was supposed to give to you three difficult years ago in Hawaii -- but that I still only wrote on the plane down here in a panic.

[00:00:46] On August 26th, 2001, I landed in Newark, New Jersey, in the United States, for a year that would -- and that is now a cliché -- transform my life. I was starting a long term exchange hosted by the wonderful folks of the Montclair Rotary Club in District 7470 and sponsored by Dijon Est in District 1750.

[00:01:12] That's in France. And yes, I am French, which is something I usually need to convince people of because... I sound like this. And invariably, within a few minutes of meeting someone new and speaking to them in this accent, the question comes. It's a glint in the eye. I can see it coming, and the brow furrows and finally it travels to the lips: "So... what are you?"

[00:01:40] And what I am, as you well know, is a pure product of Rotary Youth Exchange.

[00:01:46] So for the non-native English speakers in the room -- again, that includes me -- I need to describe this. I sound generally North American, but most Americans say I "must be from outta state." I have yet to find that state. There's still some French in here, so a lot of Americans also think that I'm French Canadian. Canadians know better. There's a little bit of Aussie twang sometimes. As I pointed out, I used to live here, in the other city, I would say the better city, but that's dangerous... so in Sydney. And I've been here a week and soaking it in, so I sound maybe a little bit more Australian than I usually do, because usually I sound more British because I've been living in London for the last seven years and I've tried to posh it up over there because if you know anything about Britain, you know that accents matter a lot more than they should.

[00:02:42] And so invariably I get the question, "What are you?" And invariably I respond, "Well, I'm French, but I was a Rotary exchange student in America, and that's where I learned English, and that's why I sound like this." And then they go, "Oh, but you didn't speak English before? How long were you there?" And so I go -- and yes, I have a script because I've done this a few times -- "I was good academically, but I was not fluent. I spent a year in complete immersion. I lived with a host family. I went to high school. There wasn't a single French person around. So I had to adapt and I had to speak English, or I would have to shut up for a year and that's not me. And so after a few months, I became fluent and the accent went away." And scene.

[00:03:29] I swear every time I open my mouth to a stranger, I end up advertising Rotary Youth Exchange. My accent makes me a walking, talking sandwich board woman for your programmes.

[00:03:41] Those language skills did serve me extremely well. Rob was kind enough to give you my CV. My whole career has been bilingual. I returned to the United States for journalism school later on. Go Mizzou. I know there's at least one Missouri person back there. And I edited various publications and reported in the English language for the large part, and started a podcast called Borderline about people like me who cross a lot of borders and tick a lot of different boxes on the forms.

[00:04:18] For many people that's the sum of it. Rotary Youth Exchange is where I became bilingual and what made this career possible, and that's certainly true, but you and I know full well that language skills is the least of what an exchange programme does for you.

[00:04:34] My accent is the surface level expression of a change that went much, much deeper. I think of that day, of August 26th, 2001, as a sort of second birthday, and it's very hard to remember who I was before that day. It opened up for me a lifetime of travel, of international moves, of discovery and of adaptation, and for my poor parents sitting here in the front, a lifetime of keeping track of way too many timezones because while I was in the US, Cambodia, Australia and the UK, my brother François, who is also Rotex, was in the US, Canada, Germany, Brazil, and now Sweden. And yet we always get together for Christmas.

[00:05:19] Not every exchange student takes this life as far as we did, but I know a great many who did. All had their eyes open to the wider world, to the diversity of human experience, and that comes with a certain kind of wanderlust that never leaves you.

[00:05:34] And from then on I became not just multilingual, but multicultural, never again fully at home back home.

[00:05:41] And that's something we perhaps don't talk about enough -- what we break unwittingly when we leave. But we also build something. And I became at home enough everywhere that I went. I took on a new identity, that of someone with an ever changing identity. I developed a skillset that is, I believe, fundamental not just to modern careers, but to modern citizenship. And I've taken to calling it cultural literacy. We'll see if that catches on.

[00:06:12] It's the ability to fold yourself into any environment, to pick up the cues quickly, to work and form friendships with people from all sorts of backgrounds, but also to interpret between them, to spot where misunderstandings happen and to help diffuse them, to build bridges, ultimately, since we're among Rotarians here and you'll pardon me being a bit grandiose, I think to create peace.

[00:06:40] Rotary is not a political organisation, they always say. Well, I'm gonna challenge that. Rotary is not a partisan organisation and that is how it should be. But it is political in the noblest sense of the word.

[00:06:53] As the world retreats behind borders, I can't think of anything more wonderfully, quietly radical than to send our kids across them and to value crossing borders as one of the most character-building things they'll ever do.

[00:07:08] As we increasingly wear our identities as armors that limit us and wall us off from others within our tribes, what a meaningful challenge it is to tell our kids, go unravel yours. Build new identities from the bits and pieces you'll pick up along the way and celebrate them, old and new. But don't be too wedded to any of them because you'll shed them again and again through life.

[00:07:35] As cable news pundits and social media algorithms entrench our beliefs, what could be more politically powerful than for our future leaders to dedicate a year to challenging their certitudes? To understanding others, even if they won't agree, and to learning most importantly, that you do not need to fully understand someone to make room for them.

[00:08:03] Openness is a muscle that you must exercise, and I have found my exchange year to be the most effective bootcamp, but also a trainer in my ear throughout my life reminding me of my better values. And I'll second what Hans said earlier: exchanges are truly a lifelong education.

[00:08:25] As we quickly and with little thought for consequences develop technology that would have you believe that machines can write or create art, Rotary Youth Exchange for me has a simple and fundamental message, which is be more human.

[00:08:42] Of course, exchange students are not the only ones who benefit from that education. My own started years before I got on that plane in 2001. I was sister to Nicolas and François, two exchange students. I was host sister to Sam, Jacqui and Carolina. I was classmate to Amy. I think every time a young person goes on exchange, the world expands for their family, their host family, their schools, their communities, Rotarians...

[00:09:08] I could share many moving stories of lives transformed and I actually did in the first draft of this speech, but they're not my stories to tell. I'll just give you one really fun example.

[00:09:20] Barbara was in my year in district 7470. She was an exchange student from Slovakia and when she landed in a New Jersey high school, she was asked to pick a sport. American high schools really love you doing sports. And she learned about lacrosse, which is a Native American ballgame that is virtually unknown in Europe and pretty much anywhere but the United States, and she fell in love with it. And when she went home to Slovakia, she took lacrosse with her. She found a handful of people in Europe who even knew what lacrosse was, and played a huge role in developing the sport in Europe. I saw her last year in Berlin where she now lives. She is the head referee for the European Lacrosse Federation, a woman in a top job in a man's sport. Maybe she should be on this stage next time. And this year she will officiate the World Lacrosse Championship.

[00:10:20] So one exchange, great success for Barbara and a whole new sport in Europe. Now, of course, she didn't do it alone. It's not all up to the exchange, but it is in large part. And my point is that when you sponsor a student, there is no telling the ripple effects. You're not serving one, you're serving thousands and for years to come.

[00:10:41] And finally, and this is something that I'm really only just starting to understand about my own exchange, sponsoring a young person as you do, to go spend a few weeks or a year away from home, is an act of faith. It's faith in complete strangers somewhere on the planet. Faith that we can take care of each other and of our kids in this big human family. Faith in the next generation. Faith too that life can be more than a succession of the things that you have to do, that we can make room for big, ambitious, crazy adventures and for the unexpected. And it's faith repeated some 9,000 times every year in one kid, in their potential, in their maturity.

[00:11:32] Imagine what it does to your self worth to see dozens of adults -- your parents, your host parents, youth exchange officers, school teachers, Rotarians that take you on weekend trips, that chaperone district getaways, that drive you to the airport.... -- dozens of adults that are working to make sure that you're safe and that you're thriving.

[00:11:55] The kids don't know what that does yet, but they will.

[00:12:00] And so I know the kids are tough sometimes. I know safeguarding requirements are really onerous. And I know it's a lot of work and time and worry, and even more so now having to rev up the engine again after the pandemic. And I know that all that was happening backstage while our lives were being transformed was way less glamorous than anything I described.

[00:12:22] But I hope I was able to remind you of all the good that you do and all the good that you receive as well. I personally find it impossible to be cynical if I spend even just a day among these young students.

[00:12:35] And so for myself and the hundreds of thousands of Rotary Youth Exchange alumni that I'm privileged to represent here, I want to thank you, though the words "thank you" honestly don't quite cover it, for the formidable impact that you had on our lives. And while I owe I would say at least 95% of what I am to the two wonderful people sitting here in the front row, I'm comfortable giving the rest of the credit to Rotary. Or the blame, you decide.

[00:13:09] And for the next generation, especially for those kids who had such a rough go of it in the last few years, for this generation to whom I think we owe more than lockdowns and climate breakdown, I do implore you to continue and redouble your efforts and to give them the same chance that you gave me and that you gave Hans. And I wanna recognise and thank you especially who are in this room because you are demonstrating your commitment to youth exchange and your commitment to re commencing this program after the hard stop of the last few years, and I hope that you'll be inspired today, that you'll be able to take that message in the next few days and the rest of the convention to your fellow Rotarians so that we can get more clubs and more districts going again for youth exchange.

[00:13:55] Because any leadership that students show in later life, I believe will be modeled on the leadership that you show them now. And the faith that you show them when you invest in them is the faith that they will be taking with them as they enter the world as adults.

[00:14:11] Thank you very much.

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist. Founder & host of Borderline. Former international editor of LinkedIn, foreign editor at Le Figaro, reporter at The Cambodia Daily. Global soul, messy accent.

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