Kate, Outbound to Mexico

April 7, 2018

Welcome to my first guest journal! I hope you like the different perspective on my Rotary Youth Exchange, which has been written by my amazing mom, Therese.

If you are reading this blog, you may fall into one of four reading audiences.

1. You are a friend or family member of Kate (here in the United States or there in México). You probably have been subjected to the craziness that is Kate...for which I do not take responsibility for her actions. Haha!

2. You have walked alongside me as my friend or family as I said goodbye for almost a year...thank you for supporting me.

3. Your own child will be leaving in a few months for their own exchange...brace yourself, it's an adventure for everyone.

4. You’ve done a Google search about exchange student programs, and you’ve found yourself on this page...no two exchanges are alike, so please take what you read with a grain of salt.

First, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I traveled on my own exchange to West Germany for three months when I was a high school student. To give you a hint of how many years ago that was, there were two very different German countries (East and West), I crossed a very intimidating Communist East German border to visit the Berlin Wall and mailed handwritten letters that took weeks to arrive back in the United States. Fast forward (several years), and now my own daughter was asking to go on exchange. As a mother, I was somewhat conflicted. I knew that experiencing a year living in a foreign country would be an amazing opportunity for Kate. But on the other hand, a whole year? That is a lot longer than just three months that I had experienced. Seriously, how do you prepare to say goodbye for a whole year to your teenager who’s never been away from home for more than a week? Many people told me I was crazy to even consider it, didn’t I know all the dangers and risks that she could encounter? I like to consider myself a fairly level-headed person, but the skeptics weren’t completely wrong. Yes, there were definite risks on exchange, but where in life is it risk-free? I had to trust that I had raised a strong, resilient, wise daughter who would be capable of navigating the challenges on exchange. But on the flip side, what an incredible opportunity to experience life in another culture. And when I say experience life, it really is life. Not a visit, not a vacation, not a trip. I knew that Kate would grow and change in so many different ways that I couldn’t even begin to imagine all the benefits of going on exchange.

As I write this, Kate has been on exchange for eight months. I won’t lie, saying goodbye at the airport was extremely difficult. We took several photos with Kate and we all had big smiles. In fact, I think when people see the airport photos they wonder why we aren’t more emotional during such a big moment. I was so happy and excited for Kate to begin this adventure, but I was also trying to put on a brave face so that Kate didn’t have the burden of my broken heart on her mind as she boarded the airplane for Mexico. I stood and watched Kate go through the security line and disappear from my view...and then I lost it. I had literally just watched a piece of my heart head out into the world where I could no longer protect her the way I had been accustomed to for 16 years. The first couple of weeks at home continued to be extremely difficult emotionally. Seeing her vacant chair at the dinner table, walking past her empty room, the deafening silence without her conversations. Although I was missing Kate so much, I never regretted letting her go on exchange. As with most big changes, time is a healer, and eventually we all settled into a new “normal” with Kate living in Mexico.

Before the students depart for their exchanges, Rotary Youth Exchange provides valuable training to both the students and parents to help prepare you for the ups and downs that you’ll face during the year. One particular session that I found interesting was about the “Culture Shock Cycle” by Dennis White. To briefly summarize the session, he discussed how typical exchange students will go through a wave of ups and downs during exchange. The four basic stages students may go through are:

Excitement and Enthusiasm - just before departure through arrival in host country

Irritability - realizing what have I gotten myself into?

Adaptation - gaining confidence in language and ability

Biculturalism - competence in living in another culture

He also discussed how students are often so well integrated into their exchange that when it comes time for them to return to their home country, they are sad and upset. As I listened to Dennis speak, I nodded my head in agreement thinking I could see how that made logical sense. But it wasn’t until much later when I realized that as a parent, I was also going through a series of emotional ups and downs. And often times when Kate was up, I was down and vice versa. She was so excited to leave on exchange, and I was dreading the day at the airport. When Kate was getting to the irritability phase of her exchange, I was starting to find equilibrium without her daily presence. As Kate was adapting and finding the joy in exchange, I started to feel like a year is a really long time!! And I am sure that Kate will have many mixed feelings of sadness when it’s time to head back to Atlanta, and yet I will be jumping for joy at her return! The most important thing is to find people to support you through the difficult times and celebrate with you during the good times.

While I had hoped that Kate would have a conflict-free exchange, I am realistic enough to know that life is not conflict-free. Before I discuss a few challenges Kate has experienced on exchange, let me again reiterate that no two exchanges are the same. So please do not let this deter you from considering exchange for yourself or your student.

Just six weeks into Kate’s exchange I received a message from her, “I just experienced my first earthquake.” I have never felt an earthquake myself, so just reading this message stopped me in my tracks. A thousand questions rushed into my consciousness. What?! Are you okay? Where are you? Is there any damage? Kate assured me that she was fine and not to worry. Not worry...that is impossible from the moment you become a parent. Several people had text me after seeing the news about the earthquake and asked if Kate was safe. I assured them that “Kate was fine and not to worry.” Two days after the earthquake I received another message from Kate, “My asthma is not responding to the treatments, and I’m struggling to breathe. We are on the way to the emergency room.” Again, my heart skipped a beat or two and my mind began to race. What parent wants to hear that their kid is on the way to the emergency room...in a foreign country?! I tried to remain calm and rational, but I wasn’t sure how to react. Kate ended up being admitted into the hospital for 4 days. I hated being so far away and feeling so helpless. A mom should be at her daughter’s bedside comforting her during a hospitalization! At some point I had to question who’s judgement should I be most concerned with - my own for not flying down to take care of my daughter in the hospital? Or Kate’s for saying “Don’t worry, everything is fine.” when she was a patient in the hospital struggling to breathe!! I wondered at what point would Kate decide that it IS time to worry?? I had to resist my urge to jump in and try to “fix” things, because Kate was right. She was going to be okay, even without me by her side.

You would think that an earthquake and hospital admission in the first 2 months of exchange would be enough drama for one person...but if you know Kate, you know that she likes to exceed expectations. She experienced 2 more severe earthquakes and two more unrelated visits to the emergency room. But in typical Kate style, she handled each crisis with courage and determination that made me so proud. It showed me that she did have the strength to overcome extremely difficult circumstances. She has shown me time and time again that she is more than capable of navigating challenges and resolving issues.

I hope that I’m not giving you the impression that exchange is all negative. Far from it!! Just scroll through Kate’s blog posts, and you will see all the amazing growth and opportunities that exchange can provide. I knew from my own (albeit shorter) exchange experience that so many benefits are intangible.

Kate left for exchange on August 1, and we visited her in México the first week of April. Kate has shared so many heartwarming stories about her friends and family in Puebla. But to personally witness the sincere love between my daughter and these people made my heart explode with joy. People who were strangers less than a year ago have accepted Kate as one of their own. Their genuine love and concern for her was evident by watching their sweet interactions with Kate. I saw how happy Kate is and the purpose she has found in life on exchange. I have peace knowing that Kate has discovered her own voice and place in the world. What more could I possibly want as a parent?

I am so grateful for all the people who have made Kate’s Rotary Youth Exchange so meaningful. I am forever indebted to the host families who have opened up their homes and lives to my daughter. They have shown her love and support when I was hundreds of miles away. I cherish Kate’s teachers and friends who have given her a place to be accepted for her crazy uniqueness! I appreciate all the Rotary volunteers all over the world to invest their time to provide the Rotary Youth Exchange Program for students like Kate. I truly believe our future lies in the hands of these students who are learning to become better global citizens.

Although I do miss Kate more than words can describe, I am so proud of her courage to go on exchange. It is not easy to leave everything you know and everyone you love behind, move to a foreign country, and establish a new life, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs