The coronavirus pandemic is testing the resilience of young people on student exchange in Australia and abroad.
Rotary’s Youth Exchange Program (YEP) sends, on average, 150 teenagers overseas each year and hosts a similar number of foreign students.
The global health crisis has seen 80 of the current contingent return home to Australia or overseas.
Some say they are glad to be home, while others are resisting a premature end to their exchange.
‘I feel like a Tasmanian’
Tajikistan is home for Yoqub Davlatov, who had been soaking up the Tasmanian way of life for the past 11 months.
Unlike other Rotary exchanges, the plan to have the 17-year-old visit Australia was hatched between Rotarian Felicity Gifford and Yoqub’s family a few years ago when Ms Gifford volunteered in the Central Asian nation.
Yoqub said the support of Ms Gifford and her family, as well as his Tasmanian friends, helped him enjoy his first trip overseas.
“It felt very strange but I got used to it, and now I feel like I’m one of these people. They treat me like I’m living there,” he said.
The biggest challenge for Yoqub and Ms Gifford was finding a way for him to return home, with few routes available to Tajikistan.
“[The exchange has been] worthwhile because the opportunities he’s had have changed his life,” she said.
‘I’m safer here’
Fifteen-year-old Sofia Seneme is on a year’s exchange in Wagga Wagga in south-western New South Wales.
She said it had been difficult to watch her country of Brazil become one of the world’s coronavirus hotspots.
“I worry about my family. My city is the worst city [with coronavirus] in the region.
“My family were happy for me to stay. They feel I am safer here.”
Sofia’s choice to remain in Wagga Wagga was mostly because of her love for the region’s natural beauty and the friendships she had forged.
“It will be hard when I go back to Brazil; I think I will cry at the airport.”
Love of language a motivation to stay
In France, Launceston teenager Alice Lowe’s drive to stay abroad was fuelled by a clear goal.
“I was really motivated by my French, because I didn’t want to go home not being able to speak French,” she said.
“I thought it would be such a shame to come all this way and then go back home.”
While France’s lockdown earlier this year put an end to Alice’s plans to travel around, the 16-year-old said she was still glad she stayed.
“It wouldn’t really be better if I came home; the situation wasn’t much better in Tasmania at the time,” she said.
Her father, Matt, said she wanted to finish the experience.
“She was pretty determined to stay. We were happy for her to do that.”
Told to stay overseas
When Daniel Maxwell told his parents he wanted to come home early from Norway, his parents encouraged him to stay.
“I didn’t want him to come home because I thought it was safer to stay in Norway,” Jennie Maxwell said.
The 16-year-old wanted to return to Port Macquarie in NSW because he was bored in lockdown and struggled with the language barrier.
But Ms Maxwell said she and her husband held out.
“Had he been saying things like: ‘I’m really worried about getting COVID, or I’m scared to be on the other side of the world in this situation’ — I think we probably would have been more worried,” she said.
“But because the reasons for him wanting to come home were trivial and fairly par for the course of exchange anyway, it made me feel better. It was the right thing to do.”
“I’m actually very glad that [my parents] convinced me to stay because it is getting better now,” Daniel said.
Positives despite being stuck inside
Despite his best efforts to “wait out” the pandemic, Joel Mangion’s family decided to fly him back to Canberra.
Joel said being stuck inside his host families’ homes for most of his seven months in Brazil had been disappointing.
“Since the pandemic, I haven’t been able to go to school so I had a profound lack of friends,” he said.
His father, Charles, said the experience had a positive effect for Joel despite the pandemic.
“I can see that his confidence levels have still grown,” he said.
“His eyes are wider open to what happens outside of his bubble of friends he went to school with in Canberra.”
Rotary International has urged students to strongly consider ending exchanges and fly home if possible and safe.
Rotary’s long-term youth exchange program has been suspended for 12 months.