Annie Courtway of Conway recently returned from a one-year Rotary youth exchange program in Switzerland.
Courtway said she chose the Rotary program above other youth exchange programs because everything was managed at a local level between the Conway Rotary Club and the Rotary Club in the city where she ended up staying. She decided to do a “gap year,” meaning she completed high school in the United States and then went to high school an additional year as an exchange student.
She stayed in a town just outside Zurich, where she lived with three different host families over the span of 11 months. She said it was interesting to see the different ways different Swiss families lived.
Courtway said Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh, an old Roman language preserved by Romans who settled in the Alps and remained there. Courtway lived in the German-speaking region of the country, and so she learned German.
“I think it’s so interesting that they have such a mix of different cultures,” she said. “You could take a train to the Italian part and feel like you were in Italy.”
Additionally, she said, in the border areas between the dominant German- and French-speaking regions, the schools teach both languages. Most young people also speak English, she added.
“It was sometimes hard to make myself practice German when everyone wanted to speak English,” she said.
Courtway said her exchange year taught her to be more independent and to put herself in challenging situations. She said she also came away with lifelong friends.
She said of her Swiss peers, “It’s a little bit harder to make friends, because they’re more reserved, but once you’re in their group, I think you’re friends for life.”
She said she made friends with her host sister’s friends as well as plenty of other exchange students. One of her best friends was an exchange student from Paraguay, she said.
“Before, I knew nothing about Paraguay, but now I know so much,” she said.
Courtway had the opportunity to travel to other countries as well. She went with her school to Berlin. Her aunt came to visit and met her in Milan, only four hours away. A cousin met her in Ireland. However, she said her favorite trips were the ones in Switzerland with her host family.
“We went hiking and skiing. We had a two-week sport break (from school) where basically everyone goes skiing. We went, not to a resort, but to a tiny village of about 90 people. We stayed on a farm. There was a solar-powered ski lift. The first one in the world.”
She said Rotary provided free activities for the exchange students, such as hiking and ice skating. One weekend the group went to see the Matterhorn. She also went to Rotary meetings from time to time, giving a presentation in broken German when she first arrived about Arkansas, and then another presentation in more fluent German at the end of the year about her exchange experience.
“They really rolled out the red carpet and made me feel special,” she said.
She noted Dan Allen of Conway made her exchange year possible.
“I’m very grateful for all that Rotary has done. I’m so thankful for the best year of my life, and I encourage other high school students to do an exchange as well.”
Courtway will start to college this fall at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C.
(Staff writer Rachel Parker Dickerson can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)