At Southwest Florida International Airport on August 9, a group of local Rotarians eagerly waited with signs for the arrival of 18-year-old Ezgi Tacyildiz.
Ezgi, an exchange student from Sakarya, Turkey, is part of the Rotary Youth Exchange, sponsored by Rotary International and Marco Island’s Noontime and Sunrise Rotary clubs. Sakarya, located close to the Black Sea, is approximately 90 miles from Istanbul.
This year, through the Rotary Youth Exchange program, in addition to Ezgi, Rotary clubs in Southwest Florida have welcomed exchange students from Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, and Thailand. Rotary’s goal is that these young people will become ambassadors for Rotary, building world understanding and peace during their year abroad.
Ezgi is enrolled in highschool at Marco Island Academy (MIA) for her nearly year-long study abroad. She is taking classes in psychology, creative writing, calculus, and global perspectives. It may seem like a heavy load, but at her school in Turkey Ezgi would normally take 11 classes. The school day there would run from 8:45 AM to 6 PM, Monday through Saturday. At MIA the school day is 8:25 AM to 3:15 PM, and no Saturday classes.
One of the things that Ezgi hopes to achieve during the school year is to improve her English language skills. “It is hard not being able to fully express myself,” she explains quite articulately.
Sunrise Rotary President Neil Snyder and his wife Rebecca Hodge are Ezgi’s hostfamily. They interact like real family, with Ezgi calling Rebecca “Mom” and Neil “Dad.” “They are my Marco mom and dad,” she explains. She tells me how every day before school Rebecca makes her a big American breakfast of “eggs, hash browns and biscuits.”
This is Ezgi’s first time in the United States, and her first time away from her close-knit family in Turkey. At home, she spent a lot of time with her father, who is the headmaster and a physics teacher at the Doga College, a private school for kindergarten through 12th grade. After spending a full day with her father at school, Ezgi would then spend time in the evening with her mother at home. Herbrother Anil is studying to get his MBA.
Ezgi describes the initial homesickness she felt as “a difficult thing.” Helping her through it was her Marco parents, who she says are “the best family here.” Smiling, Rebecca adds, “We are good huggers.” Ezgi says by her third day of school everything was great.
It is natural for young exchange students to have an adjustment period to their new country, school and family. Ezgi, along with other exchange students, participated in an orientation to help them acclimate to their new environment. Rotary supports these students throughout their time abroad. Host families are also trained before their exchange student arrives.
The application process to be accepted in the Rotary Youth Exchange is selective,and rigorous. Initial steps include a lengthy application and a review of all school transcripts and extracurricular activities. If the student makes it through this first hurdle, the student will go through additional screening and interviews. Then there is a mandatory orientation camp, both in Turkey and in the United States.
Ezgi is appreciative of Rotary and the opportunity it has given her. She describes the Rotary Youth Exchange as her “chance in life.” She recognizes that “everybody doesn’t have this chance,” and says that she feels “lucky to be here.”
Ezgi is considering attending college in the United States after she graduates high school. She plans to study biomedical engineering or dentistry. With her drive and intelligence, she will undoubtedly achieve everything she sets her sights on.