For decades, students living in the White Salmon area have had the opportunity to travel to different countries to study, make important and long-lasting connections, and experience a different culture, thanks to a strong local chapter of Rotary International’s youth exchange program. This year, while traveling is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the White Salmon-Bingen Rotary Club is bringing back alumni to present on their past experiences.

Pamela Zachary-Morneault, the Rotarian who organized the presentation series, told Columbia Gorge News that the club wanted to celebrate the program any way they could, given that so many people are working remotely. Zachary-Morneault said that it seemed like a great opportunity to reconnect alumni with their roots, and to inspire newer Rotarians.

The alumni presentation series has had four former exchange students — three from the White Salmon-Bingen area and one former inbound student from Germany — share their experiences during what would normally be a regular weekly meeting of the Rotary club.

“As much as we’d like to be back together, it does give us this opportunity to connect with and have some alumni, both inbound and outbound to tell us about how it’s been going,” said Bill Paulsen, who sits on the Rotary District No. 5100 committee.

Former students, such as Navy SEAL Mark Lampman, shared to the Rotary Club through Zoom the ways the exchange program impacted their lives. Former students said that the exchange program gave them invaluable connections that they would use later in life, and said that the program gave them a sense of responsibility and resilience.

“You guys kind of took a little bit of coal and gave it a little pressure and I couldn’t thank you enough,” said Lampman, who shared how the exchange program, which sent him to the Philippines for a year, gave him a determined sense of spirit to enlist in the Navy and make it through the U.S. Naval Academy.

“I had never experienced a prouder moment of accomplishment than that beautiful Maryland day when I crossed that stage and shook the President of the United States’ hand. That day marked a momentous milestone that started eight years earlier when a few Rotarians took a chance on a young man and made him their international Ambassador,” said Lampman.

One former exchange student told the club she had met her husband on the trip.

“I wouldn’t change a single thing. I met a great man, have two amazing children, and that is how my Rotary experience stayed with me every single day since I came home,” said Abby, who traveled to Denmark for her Rotary exchange year and settled down there.

Rotarians were able to ask the former students questions about their lives since youth exchange, and had the opportunity to share how Rotary has given them many valuable virtues. Many shared how it was their first time in a different country, and that even though it can be nerve-racking, the lessons they take away from it can outweigh the initial anxiety of traveling to a place you’ve never been.

White Salmon-Bingen Rotary Club continues to host alumni presentations. The next presentation will have Zachary-Morneault’s own daughter, Carol Alcock, share her experience staying with host families in the Philippines.

About the program

Rotary International offers high schoolers the opportunity to study in a different country through their entire junior year. Students ordinarily enter the program their sophomore year, and work with the Rotary Club to build connections with other students in the program before they leave. On the trip they stay with three host families and do activities with the Rotary programs established in the host country. After their trip, they present their findings and lessons learned to the Rotary Club.

The club makes a point not to pair students up with host families who speak the same language. Common host countries include the Philippines, Japan, and Germany.

This is no ordinary year, however. Students who were supposed to take their trip last year have not been able to make the trip when they were supposed to, due to COVID-19 pandemic. This has changed a few things up about the program, said program coordinator Travis Cieloha. For one, students who were not able to go on the exchange will be seniors on their trip. Also, freshman will be allowed to enter the program, since the club does wants to give everyone an opportunity to take the trip, said Cieloha.

Rotary International is set to vote in the next week whether this year’s trips are canceled. Regardless of the outcome, Cieloha said, the club will be putting on a remote informational session for high schoolers interested in participating.

“As with everybody we learned that we needed to make adjustments (during the pandemic) to continue to consider how to keep the programming as strong as possible,” Cieloha said “That might have some positive impacts because more people may join and learn.”