Editor’s note: This post was written in two parts, the first during the author’s Rotary Youth Exchange year and the second after she returned from her exchange.
By Smera Chandan
My name is Smera Chandan and I am 16 years old. I am sitting in English class. I am in a class to learn English, yet I am fluent in English. So why would I be in an English class?
I am a Rotary Youth Exchange student from the United States and I am living in Catalonia, Spain. I began this journey in September 2022, and I have been living among the people, culture, and customs of this beautiful place for five months. What an incredible time it has been.
I started my exchange on 14 September from Charlotte, North Carolina. I remember it like it was yesterday: standing at the airport gate, my face tear-stained from saying goodbye to my loved ones, wearing my Rotary Youth Exchange student blazer. The excitement was indescribable. Yes, I was leaving everything I knew behind, but I was leaving with the same body, heart, and mind to guide me.
Being an exchange student was always a faraway idea for me. But one day, I found myself filling out an application at the age of 15. My family and I had hosted four exchange students at our home previously. It makes me so happy to say that they will all – truly – always be family to me. I had seen what it was like to be a host sister. But what would it be like to be the “American sister” to two little Catalan boys? That, I couldn’t imagine. I’ve never had a brother before!
After a month and a half, life started to settle down. I felt so incredibly welcomed by my host family. As I got more comfortable with them, a sense of peace set in. I started school, where lessons were taught in Catalan, and dedicated a lot of time to learning the language. I had to get my Spanish skills down as well!
As an exchange student, I was inspired to do some type of service. I began dedicating my hours after school to help with English classes at the local primary school. This in turn also helped me learn a good bit of Catalan! I started teaching English classes after school to raise money for polio eradication efforts. It made me feel good to represent The Rotary Foundation and pay forward the opportunities I had been given.
After three months, I became fluent in Spanish, and now I am conversational in Catalan – a language that I had never heard of before. I started to make more friends as I gained the ability to talk about my passions and interests.
Being an exchange student means more than packing your bags for a “vacation.” It’s a time for learning, trusting, and accepting change in more than just your physical surroundings. And there is so much more to come.
Post script: 3 August
It has now been a month and a half since I came back home to the United States. Reflecting back on my exchange always brings me happiness. The lessons I learned enabled me to see the world with new eyes and appreciate its bountiful possibilities. I learned how much beauty is in the world, including the beauty of simplicity and of conversations.
I now have not just one new language under my belt, but two. I now have another incredible family whom I will remember forever. I stay connected to my English students and will be teaching some online lessons starting this school year. I still call my friends back in Spain to share life updates. One of my friends from Germany even came to visit me and stayed for two weeks. As a senior at Pine Lake Preparatory, I’m looking forward to college, where I hope to study communications, media, and acting.
The lessons I learned will be with me forever. I want to share my experiences and stories with others to inspire more people to travel with purpose and curiosity. Thank you, Rotary, for an unforgettable experience.
International Youth Day is 12 August, established by the United Nations in 1999 to spotlight youth issues and celebrate young leaders as essential partners in addressing the world’s challenges. Learn more about Rotary youth programs.