Essentially a young person selected by the Rotary club of their local area (the sponsor club) to be sent to live in a foreign country to live and study under the care of another Rotary club (the host club).

This care involves travel arrangements, education, and billet accommodation with local families who are involved with Rotary through membership or obligation. These host families basically act as surrogate families for the student, accepting them as a short-term member of the family and looking after them as they would their own child. Through the course of a year (the usual length of an exchange), a student might (rarely) stay with a single host family, or more usually move around between 3 to 7 (or very rarely more).

The exchange part of the title comes from the reciprocal contract the sponsor club enters into, stating that it must itself host a foreign student. This usually happens within a few years, and although the student the original sponsor club ends up subsequently hosting may not be sent from the same club that hosted the first student, he or she is likely to come from a club nearby (that is, belonging to the same Rotary district).

The details of these sorts of arrangements can be idiosyncratic and highly political, and although both sides theoretically adhere to the official policies of Rotary International, the responsibility of upholding these policies lies with the executive members of each club, who often have different ideas of what the exchange should entail.

This causes the experiences of Rotary exchange students to vary incredibly, as these experiences depend upon concentric layers of social climates, at the national, regional, host club, and host family levels.

So what does this mean in practical terms? It means that Rotary exchange is like the proverbial box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get.

The benefits though can be absolutely amazing, and I can say as a former exchange student who has been through the good, the bad and the ugly, that as awkward, heartbreakingly lonely and confounding it could be at times, my exchange was by far the most amazing and rewarding 12 months of my life, and it cost me next to nothing.

Yeah, I shit you not. One advantage that Rotary Youth Exchange has over most exchange programs is that it's run by a very charitable organization made up of some fairly well-off people. These people will send you around the world and support you financially if you can impress them with your intelligence, perseverance, or sometimes sheer charm. The program exists to send inquisitive young people out on study holidays to exotic locales.

If you're in high school now and you're reading this, you'd likely have a very real chance at making it overseas under the patronage of your local Rotary club. Keep in mind though that these exchange placements are very rarely advertised (at least where I come from). Ask around at school, or look up your nearest club in the phone book or the web and express your interest if anything I've said here sounds intriguing. You've likely got nothing to lose but the best damn year of your life...

For Rotary's glossy, official take on student exchange, check out:

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