Being a Rotary exchange student contains all the classic elements of a quest.
The book “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” suggests the idea that a quest consists of “a knight, a dangerous road, a Holy Grail (whatever one of those may be), at least one dragon, one evil knight, one princess.”
Whether the journey is within one’s town or to another country, every trip has the potential to be a quest because the travelers are discovering more about themselves as they are learning new things about the world.
To me, the experience of a Rotary foreign exchange student, who is given the opportunity to travel to another country and live with a host family or families, is a quest.
This journey begins with the students — the “knights.” They are venturing into new lands and exploring entirely different countries. These young people are on a slightly dangerous road of travel, flying in order to find and experience a new culture — the “Holy Grail” of this experience. They must leave home — a situation that symbolizes confronting “the dragon” — and face possible barriers such as language, which is a challenge similar to an “evil knight.” Each student has left in search of another beautiful country, which symbolizes “the princess.”
One of these local exchange students is Katy Jach, 19, who was sponsored by the Yakima Rotary Club to travel last September to Argentina and will return to Yakima this month. Jach, who graduated from Davis High School in 2012, also traveled to Chile.
Jach wrote in an email: “I had the amazing opportunity to go on a 17-day trip touring north of Argentina with exchange students from all around the world. I was able to see the breathtaking Iguazu waterfalls, ride horses in the sierras in Salta, and go rafting in the Atuele River in Mendoza.”
Another local exchange student is my sister, Georgia Gempler, 19, a 2012 Davis graduate whom the Yakima Rotary Club sponsored for an exchange to Bolivia that began last August and will conclude this month. She had the opportunity to travel throughout Bolivia, Argentina and Peru to sites including Machu Picchu. She also got to volunteer at a zoo; Rotary students are not allowed to work for pay while on their exchange.
“I never expected to be able to do something like that in my lifetime, and I enjoyed it immensely,” she said via a Skype call. “If I had another chance to work at a zoo, I would definitely take it.”
In addition to the opportunities a Rotary exchange provides, the experience leads to self-growth.
“I went on an exchange hoping that it would clarify what I would do with my life,” Gempler said. “But instead, it seems to have opened up more opportunities.”
Jach says her Rotary experience has added to what she already felt was in her future: “My exchange has helped me confirm my passion of becoming a teacher. Here in Argentina, I have been given the opportunity to help teach English to elementary school kids. I help in about eight classrooms of 20 kids each, and I read books to them, lead activities and games, and have even taught them songs in English. I have loved my teaching experience here and cannot wait to start studying education when I get back to the States!”
Each Rotary experience is different, but it seems that living in a foreign country provides a way to attain more knowledge about oneself and more knowledge about the outside world. Exchange students say they are given incredible opportunities in both exploring and becoming a part of another culture.
Even though the students face barriers that could be seen as evil knights while on a quest, they ultimately experience being introduced to a life of independence in another country. It is a quest because, after leaving home, these students have grown through traveling and exploring.
In the end, Rotary exchange students become like the knight in some stories who changes and unexpectedly becomes friends with the dragon.
• Ava Gempler will be a junior this fall at Davis High School, and is a member of Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed journalism program for high school students.