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Rotary affords Maiden voyage to Belgium

By Staff | Nov 24, 2017

Submitted photo Ryan Maiden is shown squatting on top of the ancient city of Mycenae in Greece during his time in the Rotary Youth Exchange program. Maiden, a Jefferson High senior, spent his junior year of high school as a student in Belgium.

Jefferson High senior Ryan Maiden had a somewhat unconventional junior year of high school. That is because Maiden, 17, studied abroad in Belgium – an opportunity few experience.

Maiden’s unique junior year was all in thanks to the Rotary Youth Exchange program, a benefit of Rotary International that allows students across the globe to learn new languages and discover different cultures, all while completing a year of high school.

“I didn’t know what to expect. Although I had been abroad before, it wasn’t to learn anything,” Maiden said. “I found out about the program through my dad, Tom Maiden. The interview process began November 2015 and I was accepted in January 2016. I went through an interview here in Shepherdstown and was invited to an interview in State College, Pennsylvania for Rotary district 7360. I then left in August and spent my junior year in Belgium until July this year.”

Maiden’s stay in Charleroi, Belgium became a quick “trial by fire” cultural adjustment.

“Belgium is divided into Dutch and French speaking parts; I was in the French part. I had taken two years of French in high school. That helped me with the basics, but once I got there I was talked to in French by my host family. It took me awhile to communicate effectively with them,” Maiden said. “It took some time to get used to the language.”

According to Maiden, much of the culture shock didn’t end with the language.

“It is a given to try new things – food, a new experience – don’t knock it until you try it. Given that, I did so many things I thought I would never do. I got to surf in Greece. Because I was three hours north of Paris I tried escargot, but you quickly learn that the snails in France are just a delivery mechanism for butter and garlic,” Maiden said.

While studies were the main focus of Maiden’s voyage, the experience also afforded him the opportunity to travel elsewhere in Europe.

“With the exchange, Rotary does a Euro tour. I went to Paris with the Rotary, Greece on spring break. I went on small trips with my school to London. One time with some friends I bought a train ticket and went up to Amsterdam,” Maiden recounted. “I had also met a girl from Pennsylvania who I came over with and she was in Helsinki. I got to go visit her and get a taste of her experience as well.”

Even though Belgium proved to be a culture shock, Maiden said some aspects felt like home.

“Charleroi is a little south of Brussels. It is a sister city of Pittsburgh and is similar economically to here. It felt a bit like home,” he said. “In the Belgium school system they don’t do sports, but my second host brother convinced me to join a local Rugby club. I didn’t know how it worked or really even what it was. I had some difficulty learning, since they were also giving me instructions in French, but I had a lot of fun. I had a group of friends on that squad, apart from my host family and school.”

Just as Maiden cherished his experience abroad, he hopes to encourage other students to seek out the opportunity.

“Many people think it is hard to do, or is unattainable. People also think it is expensive, but with the Rotary, they pay for everything except your plane ticket and insurance. They even give you a stipend every month for spending money. But living with a host family, they treat you like part of the family,” he said. “The hardest part is getting your foot out the door to start the process.”

As for the future, Maiden already has some travel plans in the works.

“Next year I’m going to Japan to visit a friend. When I go to college, I want to study abroad in Brazil, maybe,” Maiden said. “Going to Belgium sparked a travel bug in me and I just really want to travel and experience new places and things.”

The Rotary Youth Exchange program is open to students ages 15 to 19. Long-term exchanges last a full academic year, with short-term exchanges lasting from several days to three months. To apply, students must meet the age requirements and be leaders in their school and community.

To learn more about the program, visit http://bit.ly/2zjr0o1. To find out more about the activities of the Shepherdstown Rotary Club, visit www.shepherdstownrotary.org.