You never know what will stand out the first time you visit a foreign country.
When 17-year-old Chiara Bano first arrived in Chilliwack in August, it was the architecture.
"In Italy we have a lot of medieval buildings and so it was quite different to see a lot of modern buildings," she said.
You see, Bano-the Rotary Club of Chilliwack Fraser's current inbound youth exchange student-is from Fabriano, a famed medieval papermaking centre about half the size of Chilliwack and three hours east of Rome.
Canada was her top pick when she applied for the year-long exchange despite our country's wild and chilly reputation.
"Everybody thinks it's really really cold. There's a lot of snow," she said.
What drew her most was a chance to learn English.
Every year more than 8,000 students around the world get a chance to learn more about themselves and the world thanks to a youth exchange network made up of 1.2 million Rotarians and 32,000 clubs worldwide.
Chilliwack students are billeted free of charge by Rotary members all over the world with the understanding that local Rotarians will host students from those countries in return.
The experience is inspiring for students and Rotarians alike, according to Chilliwack Fraser youth exchange officer Linda Rook, who has just finished her turn billeting Bano.
"We get to meet these incredible young people from all around the world who grow into amazing young adults who do wonderful things," Rook said.
But the experience is no cakewalk for the students, who range in age from 15 to 18 years old.
It's intended to engender independence and push youth out of their comfort zone and into a better understanding of people and cultures beyond their own borders.
"It's not just their own little corner of the world any more," Rook said. "Some of them are only 15 when they decide they're going to leave their families for a full year, go to another culture that they know nothing about, learn a language they're not comfortable with, go to school, learn in that culture, do well, fit into three or four different family situations-so they really have to be of that mindset that they can do that."
It's tough at first, said Bano, but it's worth it. "It helps you for a lot of things," she said. "You are more independent. Now I can do a lot of my choices by myself because I learn to live alone."
She said she has grown so much and become so much stronger, that she's not sure kids her own age will understand her when she returns to Italy in July.
The hardest part for her has been being away from family and having to survive in a foreign language.
"At the beginning when people ask me a question, I was just saying 'yes' 'no' because I didn't understand what they were asking me," she said, "but now it's doing better."
Her English has improved so much, she's now reconsidering her career plans to find a way to use her newfound skills.
When she returns to Fabriano this summer, the new friends she's made at Sardis secondary-where she goes to school-and especially among the 11 District 5050 Rotary exchange students currently being billeted throughout the Fraser Valley and northern Washington will have been the best part of the experience she says.
She'll be meeting up with her new Rotary friends, who hail from places as far a field as Austria and Brazil, for the District 5050 conference at the end of May.
There, Bano and her fellow exchange veterans will mingle with outbound exchange students who'll be shipping out to start their exchanges in August.
What advice does she have for them?
"Even if at the beginning it's hard to don't give up," she said. "A lot of people after the first month or two months want to come back home because it's not easy at the beginning, but just to don't give up because after it will be the best year of your life."
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