Living overseas as a high school student can be a tough thing for anyone, including the strongest willed and strongest minded. I know many people that have said they would love to go on exchange, but they would miss their friends too much or would fail immediately. I thought this as well going into my exchange, as I felt relatively unprepared in comparison to other exchange students I have seen, past and present. There were even moments where I considered dropping out! Leaving my friends and family behind to live in a foreign country with virtually no knowledge of the language was, without a doubt, the most challenging thing I have done. But I saw it through, and I never looked back.

 

The first month or so of my exchange...

The first month or so of my exchange was difficult. I didn't think I was connecting with my host family well, I missed my friends and my family, and I did not have a solid grasp on the language. The school was tough, and making friends was not easy either. Slowly but steadily, however, I started to learn Italian, which made a huge difference. I got closer to my host family and made new friends.

 

In November, I participated in ItalyTour, which brought together exchange students from all over Italy for a week-long tour that visited Rome, Florence, Naples, Pompeii, Milan, and Sorrento.  It was amazing to see so much of my adopted country and make friends from all around the world.

 

Around Christmas, I was feeling happier than ever, and I was excited to see what came next. I was playing trumpet in a community band and was making friends, and I couldn't wait for the new year.

 

2020 started on a high note. January was filled with great memories with new friends and amazing experiences with old ones. I was finally conversational in Italian, I was having fun in school, and my second host family was incredible. And, best of all, I found a jazz club in my town, so I was frequenting that, too! I was able to perform with several jazz bands and meet other musicians who loved the same music I did. I signed up for a jazz seminar and learned from some of the best musicians in Sardinia.

 

Around the middle of February, I felt on top of the world! My exchange was slowly taking shape as the best year of my life, and I never wanted it to end.

 

And then, out of nowhere, February became the unfortunate turning point of my exchange.


Around the middle of February, COVID-19 was becoming a severe problem in North Italy, in the Milan area. We were all very attentive, as my host brother had come home at the beginning of February from the University of Turin before it had become a problem. My host dad was a doctor at the local hospital, which was one of the largest ones on the island of Sardinia. He kept us well-informed while it developed on the mainland. It was very nice to have him as a resource in the house while the situation was ramping up. However, there were still no cases on Sardinia for a while, so I felt relatively safe, especially compared to some of the other students that were in the Milan area. My host family was taking care of me, and I was frequenting school and going out with my friends, and I was attentive, yet I felt secure.

 

March 4th, 2020. My host sister and I were getting picked up by my host mom after school on a sunny March afternoon. I got in the car, and she had a sober look on her face as she told us that there was a confirmed COVID-19 case in our town. I started to feel uneasy, but I knew I was in a great family and had no concerns.

 

But, when I got home that afternoon, the news started to break. All schools in Italy were to be shut down until the middle of March. It didn't seem like anything more than a little pre-spring break at the time. But as the days went on, my host mom was growing less and less sure that we would be going back to school so soon. And not five days later, the biggest news of my exchange broke.  “All of Italy is now under lockdown until further notice. You may not leave your houses except for essential services, such as grocery shopping.”

 

It was at this point where I became genuinely uneasy about the future of my exchange. Many questions filled my mind, and it became a daily conversation with my birth parents, host parents, and my sponsor Rotary Club. They were all incredibly supportive during this time, but nobody knew what to do or what we SHOULD do.

 

But how was I keeping busy during all of this?

 

I spent 23 straight days in my host house before leaving, which was a small apartment. My host siblings were occupied throughout the day as they were doing distance learning. I was participating in the activities with my class, but they did not consume all of my time.  I spent a lot of time engaging myself in my musical interests. I spent as much time as I could practicing trumpet, and I had also borrowed a saxophone before the quarantine had started, so luckily, I had things to keep me entertained. So this should have made it a lot easier.

 

Not even a little bit.

 

During the 23 days, I was in my house. I spent a lot of time talking with my parents, my host parents, my sponsor club, my host club, my sponsor district, and my host district about whether I should go home or not. Wires were easily crossed. Miscommunication was everywhere. And this only made the problem worse. I spent three stressful weeks trying to figure out what I was going to do, and nobody was giving me an official word. Rotary in Italy said we should go back to our countries as soon as possible, yet Rotary in the United States said that it was safer to stay there, and my parents were unsure what to do. Nobody knew the airport situation, as many people were getting trapped in airports around the world. My host dad was a doctor, so it was safer to be in that house than any other, but was it the best choice to stay there?

 

It was a daily conversation at that point, which only made the waiting worse as more and more people that were doing exchanges on the Island of Sardinia were going back daily. I felt that staying would be the wrong decision, as it would have been impossible for my host family to guarantee my security while also fighting for theirs. The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was when the other American in my town, a girl named Katie from Montana, went home.

 

It was at this point where my mind was made up. I knew that the only thing left for me to do was to pack my bags and head stateside.

 

My last few days in Italy were challenging, to say the least. I had to tie up so many loose ends without being able to see anyone in person. Every friend I had made, I had to say goodbye to over the phone or text. Saying goodbye to my host family wasn't any easier, either. I had grown very close to them during the quarantine, and it was hard for me to leave them so soon.

 

March 31st was the big day. I had to leave my host house at 3:30 am, as the only flight to Rome from Cagliari was at 6:30 that morning. Only my host dad could take me, which made it all the more difficult to say goodbye. He dropped me off at the airport, and I boarded the plane, ready to take on the next adventure in my life.

 

While not the ideal way to end an exchange, I've learned a lot from experience. It taught me that not everything would play out like it's supposed to, but you can always find bright spots in the situation. For example, it was nice to be able to see my family sooner.

 

While I may not have finished the ten months as planned, I would highly recommend Rotary Youth Exchange to anyone interested in doing a Foreign Exchange program if I had to describe it in two words: Life-changing.

 

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This story first appeared in the May-June edition of the Rotary District 5020 Newsletter "UD5020: Unite District 5020".