How does an exchange program function in a pandemic? The obvious answer would be that it doesn’t, but Rotary Youth Exchange has always prompted our students to be adaptable and willing to step outside the box, so it was time to listen to our own counsel.
Rotary International suspended all non-essential travel until the end of June 2022. Covid had resulted in the repatriation of students that were on exchange and cancelled the opportunity for those students already approved for travel in the fall of this year. Short-term exchange came to a screeching halt.
After investigation and thoughtful consideration, the solution was found; a virtual exchange program would be undertaken. Our YEX committee formed a smaller subcommittee to plan, organize and launch “Virtual Exchange 2021." A few other clubs in our Rotary world had already launched similar programs, RI provided a webinar on the topic, and NAYEN (North American Youth Exchange Network) had compiled some documents that could be adapted for our use.
We knew that we wanted a structured program that would promote cultural awareness and international friendship; we wanted to offer more than a “pen-pal” relationship. We felt strongly that the participants have a voice on the development of the program.
Our next step was to find a partner District and adventurous students who were willing to try this concept of exchange. The decision was made that we should start modestly as we were in unchartered territory, so we reached out to find eight students in our district and of course a matching number of students in our partner district which was yet unnamed. In choosing to reach out to prospective districts, we decided it would be unwise to look for a partner district in Europe or Asia as we would like a compatible time zone.
We had established a good working relationship with Brazil over the years and so we reached out to them, and our proposal of exchange was enthusiastically welcomed by the Chair of D4571. 
Our survey of the 16 students gave us ideas as to what they would like to achieve through the exchange and from there a program plan was developed. The students would meetup through Zoom each Saturday beginning in mid-October until mid-December. Each week would offer insight into each other’s culture; they would start with A Day in their Life, and in subsequent weeks would explore Music, National Holidays, Arts & Culture, Food, Sports, Oddities, Holiday Celebrations as well as both districts presenting an overview of their country.
Student safety and wellbeing was as always, a top priority, so we started by offering a program on internet safety for all our students and committee members. Two orientation sessions were designed by our YEX Training Officer; the first for all sixteen students to introduce themselves and learn about what the program content.
The second orientation was offered separately for each district to provide an opportunity to develop the aspects of the program for which they would be responsible. We knew that the format and length of exchange didn’t lend itself to having a strong language component and we are fortunate that all of our D4571 students have a working  knowledge of English and were looking forward to increasing their skills but we also wanted to offer our D5040 students the opportunity to acquire some Portuguese language so with the assistance of one of our committee members, a Duolingo classroom was set up and a challenge was made to our students to learn some basic Portuguese. 
We have moved from an intrepid exploration to our first official meet-up on October 16th, the students have each been paired with a “host sister” and have had initial conversations – some of them quite lengthy as they have come to get to know each other! So far, our feedback from the students has been positive and we look forward to travelling this new journey with them and offering virtual exchange as a post-Covid alternative. The virtual option can offer the value of exchange, international understanding and friendship to a demographic that otherwise would never have the opportunity due to financial constraints, mobility challenges or just the reluctance or anxiety to travel far from home.
As we continue to move forward in our battle against the pandemic, we have learned that we can adapt and reach out in friendship to the world and continue to pursue peace and understanding.