A message from former Youth Exchange Student Stephanie Cox who went to Brazil on the Youth Exchange Program in 2004 / 2005.  It is an amazing testimonial to the impact of the Youth Exchange Program.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude for your commitment to Rotary and, more specifically, for giving me the opportunity to take part in the Rotary International Youth Exchange Program.  I know that I have previously expressed how incredible the experience was, but I have now come to a point where I can better express how it has influenced my life for the past four years.

When I first returned home from Brazil in July 2004, I knew that my experience had impacted me in a profound way, but not merely to the extent that I can recognize today.  The exchange enabled me to integrate into another culture giving me the ability to understand implicit cultural norms and rules which translated into understanding and the ability to empathize with others.  Bridging cultures allowed me to recognize myself in others despite life style and cultural differences.  The experience also allowed me to self-define at a young age because I had to decide to what extent I was going to integrate without compromising values and forms of expression that were foreign to the Brazilian culture.  Cohesively, the exchange experience and the guiding principles of Rotary have become integral pillars to my University career and the future that I aspire to.

In May 2009, I will have completed a double major in Social Justice and Peace Studies and Political Science.  The impact of my experiences in Brazil and the principles of Rotary cannot be underestimated; they difinitely influenced the courses I have taken in University.  Social Justice and Peace Studies is a course dedicated to understaning the causes of injustices at a global and local level by analyzing systems and structures of power and the ideologies that guide them.  Within the discourse, some of the themes we have discussed include: the definition of poverty, militarism, globalization, environmental degradation, indigenous struggles, diversity and multiculturalsim and Canada's role globally and domestically in regards to policies towards the amelioration of injustices.  The course has been a tool for me to theoretically gain greater understanding of some things that I saw and experienced in Brazil.  As well, it has been an instrument of constructive action to make change.  My final course in SJP is one called "Methods of Research", where we discuss theories of on-field research.  This method of research course has enabled me to connect theories of participatory observation to my experiences in Brazil, giving me greater understanding of my role in Brazil as well as reasons behind circumstances that took place and overall, a greater ability to verbalize my experience.  My studies would not be so rewarding had I not had the personal experience of exchange in Brazil.

Luckily, the program of Social Justice and Peace Studies fosters the idea of putting theory into practice and has many bursary programs that sponsor students to travel overseas.  In saying this, I was sponsored to take part in a program called DREAMS (Dominican Replublic Emergency And Medical Support) wherein I traveled to the Dominican Republic for one week and lived in a rural community occupied by peasants who live in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.  Our mission there was to integrate into the community and understand what deprivation looks like on an every day basis, donate money and supplies to help a family build a home, and donate our time to help build a house (simple square structure with 2 rooms).  The experience was extremely rewarding because we were able to provide a family with a land title (as opposed to randomly squatting) and a home; giving them a sense of dignity and security.  As well, I was able to see the different poverty lifestyle in the Dominican depending on the economic background of the community.  For example, I saw how someone impoverished survives in urban cities, as well as in the mountains and the dump.

My exposure to poverty and marginalization has inspired my interest in human rights, so my third year in University, I became President of the University of Western Ontario's Amnesty International.  One of the initiatives I led was a 12-hour drum circle that raised money for an Aboriginal NGO and raised awareness of Aboriginal issues.  Also, we led the Write for Rights campaign, held a coffee house of live music to raise money for Amnesty International, and developed a Fair Trade Fashion Show featuring fair trade clothing and guest speakers from Canada's Fair Trade Certification Centre and Cafe Justicia (Fair Trade coffee bean distributor).

Most recently, I took part in a student delegation to Guatemala, which was also sponsored by my SJP program.  I spent one month in Guatemala living in a self-sustainable community created by ex-guerilla combatants.  The community members were part of a revolutionary resistance to an American backed coup that overthrew the first ever democratically elected President of Guatemala in 1954, that evolved into 40 years of peace and reconciliation.  I experienced the lifestyle of a peasant Guatemalan; eating, living and wokring with them for a month.  The trip was emotionally, physically and intellectually challenging but extremely rewarding to see the perserverance of a population that has exercised every means of resistance to oppression.  I was also exposed to the explicit negative effects of globalization and have written a thesis paper on my research in Guatemala.

In my last year, I have chosen not to take on so much in terms of a leadership role in order to concentrate on my grades.  However, I remain an active Board Member with the Centre for Social Concern which organizes guest speakers on issues of social concern.  Once I graduate, I plan on taking a year off with the hopes of getting an internship and studying for my LSAT test in hopes of acceptance into Law School.  My goal is to continue to partake in grass roots organizations in Canada, but eventually become a lawyer advocating for justice with Non-Government Organizations and/or be in a policy making position.  My aspirations are a reflection of the principles of Rotary; as the organization exemplifies a commitment to the qualifty of life to others, community and peace building.  The Rotary Club's investment in me must be acknowledged because it has been a major influence in shaping who I am and who I aspire to become as a member of a local and global community.

I wish you all the best and thank you for being such an integral "jump start" to the world that has opened up to me since my exchange.  I have maintained a relationship with my host family in Brazil through email and I hope to return sooner rather than later.

In closing, I wish you peace and happiness this new year as we celebrate the gifts and blessing we have been given!

Beijos e Abracos (Kisses and Hugs)

Stephanie Cox