For Kenai’s Thomas Smith and Soldotna’s Taylor Ruffner, their destinations as they participated in Rotary International’s youth exchange program were a surprise.
Both also said that their experience — Smith in Mâcon, France, and Ruffner in Novara, Italy — broadened their horizons and instilled in them a sense of independence and growth.
Smith reported back on his time in France, which stretched from September 2022 to June, at a meeting of the Soldotna Rotary Club at Addie Camp on Thursday. Wearing a blazer covered in patches he obtained from other nations’ exchange students, as well as his plane tickets, he told the rotarians about his time overseas, then fielded questions about the challenges he faced, the French political climate, and his plans for the future.
The best part about spending 10 months in France, Smith said, was traveling the country. He described trips to Paris, Disneyland and Lyon.
Smith said he decided to participate in Youth Exchange immediately before applying, after seeing a presentation by the club in high school. “Why not?”
In an interview later that day, Ruffner told a different story. She said she knew she wanted to participate in Youth Exchange from a “very young” age after she met some exchange students. She said her parents always knew she had that intention, and her father, who had previously been a member of the Rotary Club, pointed her in their direction.
Ruffner said that school in Italy was more divided by discipline, that she attended a school with an art focus, but she could have gone to a school with a focus on math or language. She said the focus on art was an opportunity to realize that art isn’t what she wants to wholly pursue. Instead, she said she’s looking at medical science.
Italy was a surprise, and Ruffner said she tried to shore up her Italian before going, but couldn’t find many great online resources. Fortunately, she said she was able to pretty quickly get up to speed after she arrived. She said her struggles with communication stemmed not from the language barrier, but from the social differences.
In Italy, she said, people are “much quicker” to approach strangers and strike up a conversation.
“They’re not afraid to interact with others,” she said.
Smith similarly reported some friction in his attempts to make connections in Europe. He said that when he arrived, he didn’t fully speak French — his background was stronger in Spanish. He decided to throw himself into it, even without complete understanding, but now he regrets a slow, roughly monthlong onboarding curve after he arrived.
That initial hurdle overcome, the differences that impacted Smith were the little things — like the way people customarily offer a quick greeting when entering stores. Also, he said many people would just go home after school because it was so rigorous, which made finding a social scene difficult.
He said that because of the early difficulty making connections, he learned to just do things by himself — building motivation to drive himself to try new things.
“It definitely opened my eyes to the world and showed me a lot of different perspectives,” he said.
Ruffner said the experience was a chance to grow — especially because she was isolated from the familiar influence of family and friends. In Italy, she was introduced to new people and ideas, went through hardship and learned to solve issues independently.
For more information about the Soldotna Rotary Club, visit facebook.com/SoldotnaRotaryClub or soldotnarotary.org.