Just over a year ago, three St. Marys teens were departing on what would be three life-changing, solo journeys to three different countries through Rotary Youth Exchange. Brett Dill visited Brazil, Analee Leavitt traveled to Thailand, and Billy Strathdee ventured to France. In the coming weeks, the Independent plans to print articles written by all three individuals about their many firsthand experiences. As a lead-in to those stories, we sat down with Dill and Leavitt to learn about some of their first impressions of the countries where they spent almost a year, and what has stuck with them since they got back in Ontario.
Leavitt, 17, left for Thailand on Aug. 8 last year. In the weeks and months leading up to her flight, she said she began studying up on the Thai language, and wrote an essay on the country. “I did a lot of prep work, honestly,” she said. “I heard it was quite a complicated language to learn.”
This homework paid off as, by the end of her trip, Leavitt said that, on a scale of 1 to 100, her understanding of the local language was a 92.
The first thing that dawned on her upon her arrival is probably the same thing most people would realize when arriving in Thailand in August. “It was very hot out,” she said. “When I got off the plane it was like 51 or 52 degrees Celsius.”
But she also quickly learned about the friendliness of the people in the country. “Everyone is so nice there,” she said. “I had so much help from everyone in the airport as soon as I got off the plane. I felt comfortable there.”
During her stay, Leavitt saw a wide swath of the southeast Asian country, including the cities of Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya and, of course, the capital of Bangkok. “I lived right in the middle of Bangkok,” she said. “It’s massive. A lot of people.”
While there, she attended a school of 3,000 students. “It was a shock,” she said, noting that there was only one Caucasian person within the walls of the school; her.
“School is their life there,” she said. “They’re very strict about it. Not just on the parents or teachers’ parts, but also on the students’ parts. They’re so into their schoolwork. They study so hard, and, if they’re not studying, then they’re taking extra classes or doing something to do with school. It’s very much math and languages-oriented.”
Leavitt said that, since she was doing so much travelling around she didn’t have to do too much school work herself, but when she was in school she was able to find some art-oriented classes that appealed to her.
Over time, she became good friends with several other exchange students and very close with her host family, she said. However, Thai society did take some getting used to, she said. “Family is kind of different there,” she said. “They don’t really show a lot of affection. When I first got there it was super confusing because i thought my family didn’t like me.”
Dill, 18, had somewhat of a different experience in Brazil, where his two host families were related to one another. “It was basically like one giant family I was with the whole time,” he said. “I met the uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters and all of them were really involved in my exchange. I stayed with them the whole year and they took me everywhere, drove me places and brought me to parties.”
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t surprised by what he was seeing and experiencing. “Culture shock,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to expect going in there, but when I got there everything from the traffic to the food was different. It was really cool to experience that. I’d never been outside North America, so going there was a little bit difficult for me at the start, but I got used to it.”
By the end of his trip, Dill gave his knowledge of Portuguese an 85-out-of-100.
Some of the stops he made in travelling across the huge South American country included some cities in the north and the Amazon, as well as the larger southern city of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
“I didn’t get to be there for the Olympics, unfortunately,” he said.
But that didn’t mean he had any less of a great time. “It was amazing,” he said. “For anyone who is even questioning whether they want to do it… I was there myself two years ago, wondering whether I should do it or not. Looking back on it, I’m so glad I went through with it. The benefits far outweigh the negatives of it.”
Leavitt agreed. “You go and, essentially, you grow up,” she said. “It’s a year away that you learn so much and it opens your entire world up.”
Rotary Club of St. Marys Youth Exchange Officer Mark Oliver said that, prior to this past year, it had been a long time since as three St. Marys students went on exchange all at once.
“One is a more typical number,” he said. However, the club will “push forward every candidate that we think is a worthwhile candidate,” to the district level, he said.
“I am in active recruiting mode right now,” Oliver said. “By this time next month, local interviews will be done and we’ll know who our candidates are that we’re pushing on to the district interviews. If anybody wants to apply, the door is open for the next couple of weeks to apply. Right now is prime time.”
Any student interested in going on Rotary Youth Exchange is invited to contact Oliver at email@example.com. The deadline for applying is fast-approaching.