It all started with Madeline.
From the time I was a toddler, I was captivated by tales of the mischievous mademoiselle and her cartoon canine. I loved her and her classmates' quaint "bonjours" and "au revoirs," their sunshine-yellow uniforms, and their school, the "old house in Paris, all covered with vines." One thing led to another, and soon enough, I was devouring kids' books on simple French vocabulary and documentaries about French children's lives. I admired the beautiful language, delicious-looking food and romantic images of painters and accordionists along the banks of the Seine. In elementary school, I began memorizing such essential phrases as je voudrais de la glace (I would like some ice cream).
France became more than a 12-year-old's fantasyland when I attended Concordia Language Village's French immersion camp in the summer following seventh grade. There, it finally dawned on me that some people really do speak French... all the time. I delighted in every authentic baguette, beret or chanson I came across, and was thrilled by being completely surrounded by the language. That fall, many of my friends signed upnol to take Spanish at school, as it was the only language class offered at the time. I decided that, somehow, I would study French instead.
Through five years of online classes, independent study, classes at Michigan Technological University, and my summers at Concordia Language Villages, I cobbled together an unorthodox yet fairly sound education in French language and culture. I started working at Concordia as a counselor in the summer of 2011, and decided after my experience there that I would study abroad in a francophone country, no matter what. I yearned to be completely fluent. I had a friend who was about to study abroad through Rotary Youth Exchange, so I decided to apply for the following year.
After an application and an interview, I found myself firmly established as Houghton Rotary Club's outbound exchange student for the 2012-13 school year. I came to learn a great deal about Rotary Youth Exchange this past year through meetings, conferences and Rotarians themselves. The program sponsors about 9,000 students each year (from individual clubs) who typically stay with one to three host families and attend a local high school. I have been very impressed by how organized Rotary Youth Exchange is, and how thoroughly it prepares all students for their diverse experiences.
Though I graduated from Houghton High School this past May, I will be continuing to attend high school in France as a terminale (senior year) student. My host town is called Auch, has about 22,000 inhabitants and is located in southwestern France. Auch is directly above the Spanish border and just west of Toulouse. I will be staying with three host families for three months each, the first of which consists of my host mom, host dad and 10-year-old host brother.
Many past Rotary exchange students have mentioned how lucky I am to be going to France. Outbound students have to rank a list of about forty countries in order of their desire to go there; my chances of getting France, one of the most highly sought-after countries, was slim. I have been very fortunate, not just in receiving my first-choice country, but in being a part of Rotary Youth Exchange at all. I would like to thank all the Rotarians who have worked so hard to provide my fellow exchange students and me with such incredible opportunities. I would especially like to thank the Houghton Rotary Club for their sponsorship, interest, and constant support. I will be leaving for France very soon, and I am unbelievably excited to see what this year holds!
Editor's note: Sierra Parker is spending a year in France as a Rotary Exchange Student through the Houghton Rotary Club.