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Rotary exchange promotes peace through better understanding

For the past 21 years, the Pagosa Springs Noon Rotary Club has sponsored incoming foreign exchange students. The “Morning” Rotary Club, formed four years ago, has also hosted three foreign exchange students. These students come from all over the world. Both clubs also sponsor, in addition, “outbound” youth exchange students from Pagosa Springs High School. The “outbound” program has both a one-year exchange and a month-long summer exchange.

Rotary Youth Exchange is a club-to-club program which promotes peace through better understanding via the exchange of high school students who are hosted by Rotary clubs and families. The program aims to enable students to acquire knowledge of life in their host community and to promote the general interest and good will of international exchange.

Annually, over 7,500 young people participate in exchanges supported by Rotary clubs in 80 nations. Youth exchange continues to grow, and it is regarded as one of Rotary’s most popular and enduring programs.

Agustina, 18 years old, arrived in Pagosa Springs last December from a small beach town called Santa Teresita in Argentina, to spend a year in Pagosa Springs under the sponsorship of the Pagosa Springs Noon Rotary Club. Agustina’s first host family was the Preuits — Bunk, Marsha, Angel and her husband Travis Starr and their two children Bailey and Nathyn. Angel is also the Rotary Club’s coordinator for their Youth Exchange program.

After sharing her first five months in Pagosa with the Preuits, Agustina is now with her second host family ­— the Scotts ­— Bob, Lisa, Dean, Spence and Diana.

When asked what she found in Pagosa Springs that she did not expect, Agustina, without any hesitation, said, “Basically I have found my place in the world. I never expected to feel so comfortable here to the point that I don’t want to ever leave. I knew that I was going to love living in America ... but I never expected to love Pagosa Springs as much as I do.” Although she misses her family in Argentina — her dad, who is a doctor, mom, an interior designer and two siblings, 15 and 4 — the Preuits and the Scotts have filled the space in Agustina’s heart with all that has gone on and is going on in the lives of busy, involved and traditional American families.

Agustina’s decision to be an exchange student is driven by a strong desire to explore the world, meet and get to know new cultures, and forge international friendships. Above all else is her love for America and the English language. “I always wanted to come here to improve my English.”

Many foreign exchange students cite the desire to learn English as one of the main reasons for coming to the United States. The joke that follows, anecdotally, perhaps sheds a bit of light on why learning English is a priority for many people around the world.

So, there were these two highway workers and they were busy working at a construction site when a car with a diplomatic license plate pulled up.

“Parlez-vous francais?” the driver asked them. The two workers just stared.

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” The two continued to stare at him.

“Fala portugues?” Neither worker said anything.

“Parlate Italiano?” Still no response.

Finally the man drove off in disgust. One worker turned to the other and said,”Gee, maybe we should learn a foreign language.” The other worker answered, “What for? That guy knew four of them and what good did it do him.”

Forgive this rather lame joke, but I just simply had to share it.

School is a major part of the total experience for exchange students, and Agustina shared how school is different in Argentina: their 12 years of school is broken up into 6 years of primary education and 6 years of high school. Before first grade, a child has 3 years of kindergarten. Their school year starts in March and finishes in November when the summer holidays begin. They have 12 non-elective classes which an Argentinian student takes for the school year, and instead of going to a teacher, the teacher comes to the students’ classroom.

Let’s find out more about our youth exchange student — the rest of my interview with Agustina follows:

What kind of application process was involved for this exchange program?

“Thankfully the application process is not that hard. The first thing that I did was attend a Rotary Exchange Program assembly at my school. That was when I first heard about the program. That same day I talked with my parents about it, and we called the Counselor of my Rotary district in Argentina (4920). We arranged a meeting with him and there everything started. In the meeting he asked me why I wanted to do it and where would I like to go. After that, he gave me a lot of paperwork to do. I had to do it in English, too, and send it to the central Rotary Club of Argentina. Then I just had to wait until they confirmed my exchange, and I attended some meetings where we met exchange students and they prepared us for what was coming next.”

What is the biggest difference between teenagers back home and here in Pagosa Springs?

“I don’t really find a big difference between teenagers here and there. We dress almost the same way, we listen to the same music and basically do the same things for having fun. Maybe a difference could be that in Argentina it is not as common as here to have friends that are younger or older as we always stick with students from our own grade at school.”

When people back home advised you on what to expect in the U.S.A., what Americans were like, how you should behave, etc., etc. What was their advice?

“When I was informed that I was accepted to come to America, I had the good luck to have an American exchange student from Indiana living in my hometown. That was so good for me because she answered every question that I asked and I’m very glad to say that today she is one of my closest friends.  But the main thing that people told me is not to be so confident at first (Argentinean people get close with friends so fast, we hug and kiss our friends and family all the time) and to get used to hamburgers!”

What are your future plans for study and work?

“Before coming here I was going to study journalism in Buenos Aires ... but now I’m really thinking about staying here in Colorado for college. I’d love to study journalism here, at Fort Lewis College or in Denver ... it’s going to be hard for me to make it, but at least I’m going to try.”

What do you and your host family like to do together? What are your favorite foods that your American host family has served you?

“I love to go with my host siblings on bike rides ... also I love to have breakfast every Sunday all together. My favorite food is breakfast. I’ve never had bacon and eggs for breakfast before and I have to say that I love it! Also, I tried peanut butter for the first time and now I don’t know how I lived without it for so long.” 

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of our local newspaper?

“I want to thank everybody that made my exchange possible and have given me the best opportunity of my life. Also I want to say that every Pagosan should be very proud of Pagosa Springs. It is without a doubt the most beautiful place I’ve lived in ... and I really can’t wait until my family comes to visit me in August so I can show them what a beautiful place I’ve found.” 

If you would like to look into the organization behind Rotary International Youth Exchange, you can contact Angel Starr at 264-5910, or Robert Soniat at 731-3777, who will be happy to help you in your desire to embark on this adventure.

Or, if you would like to enrich your life by hosting an exchange student for three months, you can also speak with Angel or Robert.

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