Rotary exchange program a long-running, life-changing experience 

Application deadline for next year's exchange is Jan. 1

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - DENMARK EXCHANGE  Caitlin Patterson and her first host family on a trip together to the town of Skagen in Denmark.
  • photo submitted
  • DENMARK EXCHANGE Caitlin Patterson and her first host family on a trip together to the town of Skagen in Denmark.

Back in the mid-80s, an 18-year-old Jennifer Leigh went to Denmark for a year as part of the Rotary Club's exchange program.

"It was great," Leigh said.

"I learned the language by Christmas time. I lived with three different families, two of which I still stay in touch with. It was amazing."

Thirty years later and not much has changed.

Right now, Whistler's Caitlin Patterson — whose mom happens to be friends with Leigh — is on her own Denmark excursion thanks to the Rotary.

"My trip has been unbelievable. I wouldn't change any part of it for the world," Patterson said in an email.

Since leaving Whistler in August, Patterson has been to Berlin and Copenhagen with her European host families.

Around Christmas time, she's going skiing in Norway.

"I have learned so much about the way the world works, (and) how to take care of myself and watch out for myself," Patterson said.

"I think the most important lesson I've learned while here is 'man kan ikke spå om fremtid,' which means 'one cannot predict the future.'"

Patterson is Whistler's first rotary exchange student since before the 2010 Winter Olympics.

According to Diane Maskell, the rotary's youth exchange officer, the club will be accepting applications for next year's exchange until Jan. 1.

"We have raised the funds to send a student and we would dearly love to send a Whistler student out," Maskell said.

Compared to other exchange programs, the cost to families is a bargain — usually a few thousand dollars for airfare and insurance.

The rest — room, board, etc. — is paid for by rotary fundraising.

Maskell said the club is looking for applicants who show initiative.

"Initiative in that, you know, have they tried things out from under the umbrella of their family activities? That is a big one," she said.

"And then we look for personality, because they're going to have to make it on their own in another country, usually in another language. And we need them to be realistic. It sounds like a great adventure, but there's a lot of homesickness and separation involved, and they have to be able to ride through that."

There's no obligation to take in an exchange student for families who send a child on a Rotary exchange, but they can choose to do so if they'd like.

The Patterson family is currently housing a Rotary exchange student from Sweden.

While Patterson's trip hasn't yet reached its halfway mark, she said she can already feel the effect it has had on her.

"This experience has already changed me as a person, which is natural when you're given this amount of responsibility," she said.

"I was thrown into a new culture, with new people, a new language, on a different continent and with a different time zone, so that definitely changes a person and matures them."

Talking to Patterson about her trip, Leigh was amazed at how similar the experience has been to her own.

"I think that really speaks to the program," she said.

"That they have something really good going on and it's stayed the same over the years."

And three decades after her own Rotary exchange, Leigh still has fond memories of her time overseas.

"I recommend it hands down. It's a life changing experience," she said.

"It's something that you'll never get an opportunity to do in the same way."

For more information on the Rotary Club's exchange program, contact Diane Maskell by phone at 604-938-4787 or by email at


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