I am thrilled to share with you, dear Rotarians, my first experience as a virtual Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) chair of RID 3132. I was given this post more than a year ago. At first I was annoyed because we were not able to achieve a single youth exchange goal due to the Covid pandemic. Physical exchanges were not allowed by Rotary International and practically none of the RYE chairs all over the world were interested in having virtual RYE programmes.
But I kept trying; I kept writing multiple emails and finally got a positive response from the RYE chair of district 4170, Erika. Hurrah! Finally, someone had agreed to join us. I was elated. Like all other RYE colleagues, both of us were equally new to virtual RYEs. There were no clear guidelines to conduct the programme. But we were determined. We decided to go ahead with a trial programme of one month on each side. Since the programme was new, acquiring applications was not easy. Somehow I managed to get three applications — Kasturi, Karan and Aryan and Erika could match them with three Mexican girls Frida, Cami and Guissel.
We planned an inbound programme in my district 3132 to mimic the physical programme and thought of giving a similar experience to the Mexican students. But three was a very small number; so I requested my district students to join all virtual programmes. Interestingly, a few of the Rotarians involved in this youth exchange on either side also agreed to join all the virtual meetings. It was fun! It became a mixture of RYE and Rotary Friendship Exchange. In the welcome meeting, Mexican students had a PowerPoint presentation about Mexico and their Rotary district 4170.
I had deliberately planned the inbound programme during Diwali festival. Mexican students enjoyed Diwali, with all its colour and sparkle, along with their Indian host families. They joined various rituals, participated in drawing rangoli, lit lamps and enjoyed various sweet dishes… all of it virtually. Students, as well as Rotarians from Mexico, enjoyed informative sessions on our Diwali festival and Indian culture. Indian Rotarians taught the students as well as some Mexican Rotarians how to prepare the Indian sweet, Shahi Tukda, and a spicy preparation, Moong Chila.
Mexican students enjoyed Diwali, with all its colour and sparkle, along with their Indian host families. They joined various rituals, participated in drawing rangoli, lit lamps and enjoyed various sweet dishes… all of it virtually.
Students and Rotarians on either side prepared both the dishes up to perfection, all working together, thanks to the wonderful zoom platform. At the end of three special virtual meetings, all the students and attending Rotarians were able to perform basic yoga and pranayama under the able guidance of an Indian yoga teacher. They also learnt Indian dance basics from a reputed dance teacher. Mexican students enjoyed a virtual tour of Goa, with the kind help of the Rotaract Club of Vasco da Gama. The inbound programme was closed with sharing of experiences by Mexican students about their inbound visits. All the six students were felicitated with a certificate of participation from district 3132. Select meetings were blessed by district leaders on either side.
The outbound visit for district 3132 students was equally interesting. Mexican RYE chair Erika had planned a wonderful programme for all the six students. Everyone learnt to prepare the Mexican Cocada and Enchiladas easily on zoom, thanks to the enthusiastic local Rotarians. Learning Mexican history, details of the ‘Day of the Dead’ tradition was quite interesting. Celebrating Christmas by preparing Piñatas was great fun for all of us.
I think the virtual RYE is here to stay. There are various reasons for it. It is equally great fun as that of a physical exchange.
While closing the virtual RYE, the students were in tears and the Rotarians were equally moved. But the assurance of a physical exchange in July 2022 onwards changed the mood of the meeting. Not only an RYE but also a Rotary Friendship Exchange was also planned between these two districts by the attending Rotarians. A twin club agreement between the Rotary Club of Solapur North, RID 3132, and the Rotary Club Las Lomas, RID 4170, was the icing on the cake of this virtual RYE. Overall, it was a wonderful, unique and memorable lifetime experience for not only the RYE students but also the Rotarians from both districts and families.
Now I am a converted man! I think the virtual RYE is here to stay. There are various reasons for it. No travel, no risk, practically no hassles. It is equally great fun as that of a physical exchange. The students from lower socioeconomic strata can even participate and enjoy it, as there are negligible expenses. So my request to Rotary International will be to continue virtual youth exchanges even after we start physical exchanges from July 2022 onwards.
The writer is a member of RC Solapur North, RID 3132
Illustration: Sanjay D