Freshman takes a year abroad


Stephens and her friend holding the Japanese flag.

Freshman Zoe Stephens plans to take a year-long exchange through Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) to Japan. She doesn’t know what city she will be living in, but it could be in the Kanazawa area or the Tokyo suburbs. This March or April, she will receive her district assignment.

Zoe and her family celebrated her acceptance to the program. 

Zoe will leave middle to late August and will return June or July. Although the exchange lasts for approximately 10-11 months, RYE is really a three-year program. After a year of applying and attending orientations, Zoe will go to Japan for another year. When she returns, she will become a ROTEX to mentor future exchange students.

Zoe first found out about the RYE program from a flyer hanging up in the school. She chose to apply because of her curiosity in other cultures.

After submitting her application Zoe went in for an interview with a board of Rotarians and the RYE District Chair. A month later, she was selected along with only six other students in the state.

Zoe is most excited to see what her day to day life will be like.

“Getting to see what life is like in a whole other part of the world is possibly what I’m most looking forward to,” she said. “It’s such a rare opportunity to spend a year of your life in another country, learning another language and culture, and forming lifelong friendships with people you would have never met back home.”

Zoe found out she was chosen when her family was driving to Texas for Thanksgiving.

“I had gotten a call from a number that I didn’t recognize, so I decided to let it go to voicemail,” she said. “Fast forward to when we’re in the car, just entering Alabama. I got a text message from the number that read ‘Zoe – this is Mike Parks, the District Chair for district 6900. Could you please return my call?'”

When Zoe heard the news that she was selected, she initially felt overwhelmed.

“It seemed like everything was happening so fast. I was still shaking after I hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe it. It was something that I had always wanted to do and here I was with this incredible opportunity in front of me,” she said.  

Bob Stephens, Zoe’s father, first reacted to the news with elation. In second grade, Zoe and her family traveled to Japan for spring break when they lived in Manila, Philippines. He thought that seeing the country again as a high school student rather than as a young child would be a great experience.

Zoe is grateful that her parents allowed her to do something a lot of people wouldn’t let their children do.

“I realized she would be gone for an entire year, and I felt a little sad because I knew how much I would miss her,” Bob said.

Zoe’s top priority to prepare for the trip is learning the language.

“Japanese is really different than any language I’ve studied in the past, but I think that it is incredibly useful,” she said.

To help her prepare for the upcoming trip, Bob wants to learn some Japanese.

“I felt a little bit anxious for her because Japanese is going to be a difficult language to learn,” he said.

In Japan, Zoe will be leading the same life as any typical Japanese teen. She will probably go to a public school while abroad, her classes being taught in Japanese. Zoe thinks that she might join a club at her school too since it would be a great way to meet people. She hopes to join a chorus or drama club because she enjoys singing.

As a Rotary Youth Exchange student, Stephens must attend monthly Rotary club meetings at her host club. She will be expected to give presentations (in Japanese) to her host club about her home country and interact with Japanese Rotarians. Rotary, being a service organization, also has service projects that she will get to participate in. 

Zoe and Sprull holding the Japanese flag.

She will be living with a different host family every three months. This is done so that RYE students are able to experience life with different families who have different traditions and socioeconomic backgrounds. As of now, Zoe does not know her host family either, but she will likely be the only exchange student in the household. She may have host siblings.  

Zoe thinks her trip to Japan will be a life-altering experience. 

“It will change me in ways that I don’t even know yet,” she said.  

Bob believes that she will gain a sense of her capacity for resilience and independence.

Zoe feels there is nothing more she could hope for. She knows that it won’t be easy, with culture shock, language barriers, and homesickness, but she is ready for whatever lies ahead.

Photos courtesy of Zoe Stephens.