Thursday, April 5, 2018

A Georgia Rotary Student Program Experience

This is a letter summarizing two of our current Georgis Rotary Student Program (GRSP) students’ experience. It is from Clare Ballantyne of England and Linnea’ Neman of Sweden. 

Submitted by - John D. Richmond, MD, GRSP Trustee - Rotary Club of Dalton 

Our GRSP Experience
Seven months ago, after a similar length of time of growing excitement and anticipation having discovered I would be a GRSP scholar, I found myself being wished a ‘happy birthday’ by the Customs Officer as I emerged into the bustling arrival terminal of Hartsfield-Atlanta airport. I was greeted by the wonderful couple I would come to know and love as my host family, but that would all come later because I only just about made it to their car before I was fast asleep! 

It seems crazy to think about how much I have done, learned and grown as a person since that night. Being at a small college has enabled me to interact with and make friends with many American students, though an English accent is certainly a bonus when it comes to starting a conversation! People often worry that they are pestering me when they ask questions, but I always enjoy answering them. Not only because am I helping to increase their awareness of my country and Europe but it also increases my own awareness of my country, as I have learned more about aspects of English culture which I hadn’t previously thought much about in order to answer their questions. Additionally, I now appreciate more and have gained fresh perspectives on parts of English culture which I had taken for granted.

College classes have been fantastic as I have rediscovered the joy of going to class excited about learning new things, rather than worrying about whether I can fit the new material into my revision timetable and focusing solely on getting good grades. United States History was fascinating having learned little about it in my own country and made me realise that history is much less mundane than my impression of it from secondary school. I have also been delighted to be able to study Spanish again, having been inspired and helped along the way by many of the GRSP students who can speak multiple languages.

I feel I have developed a lot of independence, from making day-to-day decisions like when to get up, do laundry etc. to organising group GRSP trips across the USA and dealing with unexpected situations. Public transport misfortune in particular has led to some of these! Yet when I was stranded in Chicago and New York due to cancelled flights, both times I felt confident in the knowledge that there is a huge network of Rotarians in Georgia able to support me. Whether it was my host mum picking me up from the bus station at 1.30am after my forty-hour Greyhound bus journey, or a Rotarian on holiday in New York letting me join her family on their road trip back to Dalton- even stopping in Washington DC on the way so that I could see the sights-, the generosity and hospitality I have been shown by Rotarians is simply overwhelming. I am so grateful, as it really is the involvement of Rotarians- in organising student weekends, doing things with us like taking us to dinner, shows and events, and transporting us around so we can do activities with college and GRSP students- which makes this unique program so amazing. 

One of our favourite things to do here in Georgia is to attend the different GRSP weekends. It all started in Bainbridge, at the Conclave, when we met the other 43 GRSP students. After only a few hours, we both knew that this would be a good year. We can today both say that these are some of the best people we have ever met, and we truly enjoy spending time with every single one of them. The warmth and love within this big group of international students is truly amazing. At almost every weekend we’ve had small gatherings at Rotarians houses, whether it’s been a pool party or intense games of heads up at the dinner table, which we’ve really enjoyed.

One of our favourite weekends was the leadership weekend hosted by the Rotary Club of Dunwoody. It was a weekend that gave us a lot of perspective on our lives, both here in Dalton but also in general. Even though I’ve been here for 7 months, some things that still confuse or surprise me are the backward date format, the sales tax, free refills, the fact that everything is big and the strange bathroom designs (you can both hear and see other people). 

One of our top aspirations for the year was to learn about America, Rotary, ourselves, other countries, different lifestyles and ways of life. Of course, this is a humongous goal and we’ve barely scratched the surface, but we certainly know much more than we did before participating in GRSP! Linnea and I have been able to meet and make friends with people from many different backgrounds, as well as travel to different states and see the diversity of American culture while making lasting memories with each other, our host families, and the other GRSP students. 

Ultimately, GRSP has been an unforgettable, fantastic experience. I know I’ll reminisce about it with a big smile on my face whenever I am travelling, living in the dorms at university, speaking to anyone about Rotary, America or countries where GRSP students are from, or essentially doing anything in daily life which takes my mind back to Georgia. But I am happy in the knowledge that the impact of GRSP upon my life doesn’t end when I return to England. Being more informed because of everything I have learned and experienced, I will be confident to participate in and lead conversations where I would’ve previously stayed quiet, and to raise awareness and involvement among my own generation of the brilliant work of Rotary International. Both Linnea and I are very excited to think about all the trips we need to organise to visit the friends we now have from all over the world! 

By Linnea Neman (Sweden) and Clare Ballantyne (England)