It was a walk down memory lane for the 300 delegates from 20 countries who attended the Youth Exchange Conference at Goa. Each had fond memories of their sojourn in India as Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) students when they had experienced India’s warm culture and traditions during their stay with host families. Organised by District 3060, DG Parag Sheth and his team ensured that the guests had a memorable homecoming, packing the two days with knowledge resources and entertainment.
“Shukria! I cannot thank enough Vikrambhai for such a wonderful welcome back to India. I have truly found peace in my heart once again. I had left half my heart here when I went back to the US after completing my programme,” said Ann Flatt Smalley. She is one of the earliest RYE students who was hosted in 1973 by Rtn Rajnibhai Marfatia, the Founder-Chair of the International Youth Exchange (IYE) programme of D 3060. As for the Marfatia family, Ann’s visit was like “receiving our long lost daughter after 44 years. It was an emotional moment and all of us wept with joy. She came here as a 16-year-old and today she is 60,” said Usha Marfatia.
Outbound RYE students from Districts 3000, 3030, 3131, 3140 and 3160 also participated in the meet and shared their experiences with their host families abroad.
The exchange alumni students have formed a group called ROTEX, through which they mentor the present RYE students.
The conference, titled Nostalgia, aims to promote understanding of Indian culture among the young guests. Greeting the delegates, the chief guest, RI Director Manoj Desai talked about the youth oriented RI initiatives lined up for the future. Gen-next clubs and flexible clubs were being planned, and greening of Rotary had to take place through induction of younger members to bring down the average age of clubs. “If Rotary has to realise its destiny, it has to be evolutionary at all times and revolutionary occasionally. Now is the time to be revolutionary as we have tremendous youth power that can change the world. If we could not change it, so what, we should now leave it to the youth.”
The programme offers a year of self-discovery and shapes youngsters to cope with diverse cultures and practices in an alien land, said the Event Chair, Vikram Sanghani. A South Asian Regional Association (SARA) to promote youth exchange in South Asia will be formed and Rtn Terrance McNaughton, President of North American Youth Exchange Network, has offered to provide relevant resources for its formation.
The District began the programme in 1972 and has exchanged more than 75 students so far. “PRIP Kalyan Banerjee wrote our first Youth Exchange manual in 1981,” recalled Sheth. Though South Asia has over 40 Districts, only 10 are certified for youth exchange and only 1 per cent of 9,000 exchanges worldwide are from the region, although it constitutes 12 per cent of RI membership, he added.
Nostalgia was a collection of emotional nuggets with several ROTEX members speaking about their RYE experience and how it had shaped their lives.
Stine from Germany had got so used to the spicy pav bhaji and paani puri in India that when she went back home she found the German cuisine bland and tasting “paper-like.” Victoria from the US loved India immensely to prompt the comment: “Sare jahan se achha, Hindustan hamara” on Facebook.
It was the call of the soil for ROTEX Gilles Verniers of Belgium, who returned to India after completing his further studies to work as a faculty at the Delhi University. “My daughter, Aliya, was born here. We’re raising her in four languages and for her too, the question of being Belgian or Indian does not arise, as these are not mutually exclusive categories,” he said.
ROTEX Binish Desai from Valsad had flown to Chicago as an RYE student. He spoke about how the exchange motivated him to innovate. Today he has ten patents to his name, the most significant being bricks made from paper waste. He has designed low-cost toilets using these bricks. There was Dina Ginwalla of Bharuch who was flooded with job offers as a French interpreter, having learnt the language in her host country.
RI Alumni Relations staff Laura Higgs, DGs Nikhil Kibe (3030) and Subodh Joshi (3131) were the other guests who attended the meet. Classical music concert, aerobics on the beach and music by a Goan band entertained the visitors.