When Donranai “Ohm” Pakdee came to Hermiston from Thailand as part of Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange, he was determined to soak up as many American experiences as he could.
So far that has included joining the Hermiston High School football and wrestling teams and taking classes such as cooking and theater, which aren’t offered back home.
When he joined in a Rotary-sponsored tour of Eastern Oregon over the weekend, he was excited to add skiing to the list. “In my country, we don’t have snow,” he said.
Pakdee was one of about 80 students who traveled around Eastern Oregon between Thursday and Monday, starting with a luncheon with Hermiston’s Rotary Club on Thursday. The trip included skiing at Anthony Lakes on Saturday.
Half of the students on the tour were “inbound,” meaning they are currently visiting America on an exchange. The other half were “outbound,” meaning they will travel from Oregon to a foreign country during the coming school year. The outbound students got a chance to mingle with and learn from current exchange students like Pakdee.
The 80 exchange students attended the Pendleton Rotary Club meeting Monday at the Red Lion Inn.
Two of the outbound American students, Sasha Gilbertson and Haley Budroe, admitted a bit of trepidation about jumping into a foreign culture for nine months but the anxiety wasn’t serious enough to quash their excitement.
Gilbertson, of Tualatin, will head to Argentina.
“I’m excited and nervous. I chose Argentina because I’ve been studying Spanish for about four years now,” she said. “I love the culture and the people. I have an Argentinian exchange student living with me right now.”
Budroe, of Wilsonville High School, said she wanted to learn to speak Korean. She said she feels gratitude at being able to go to South Korea to do just that.
“It’s so cool and so few people get to do it,” Budroe said.
Marc Mullins, Rotary member and pastor of First Christian Church, gave the invocation before the meeting and then shared his own Rotary foreign exchange experience.
In 1974, Mullins was selected to go to the Philippines where President Ferdinand Marcos’ regime was known for corruption and brutality. The year Mullins spent there shifted paradigms and connected him with lifelong friends. Next year, he will return for his 45th class reunion of his Philippine high school.
In the Philippines, he found amazing acceptance, but also a governmental system that was quite different from the system back home.
“I learned that I lived in very blessed conditions with the freedoms that we have in the United States — extreme freedoms when you compare with other cultures that are suppressed,” Mullins said. “The Filipino people are incredible, but the governmental structure and regime back them was extremely intolerant and very forceful.”
He returned to his home near Seattle, with an altered view of the world.
“It opened me up,” Mullins said.
Pakdee, 17, said Rotary’s Youth Exchange is an opportunity he would highly recommend. His English has far surpassed that of his brothers, who are studying the language in Thailand. He has also enjoyed the chance to make new friends and learn new things, like American football, which he “started playing without knowing any rules.”
“School here is totally different than in Thailand,” he said. “There you stay with the same people. We move (through the school day) together, so you get to know each other a lot.”
For each student a Rotary Club hosts, the club also gets to send a local student overseas. James Campbell, a sophomore at Hermiston High School, will be one of two students Hermiston sends out next year.
Campbell and the other outbound students were scheduled to find out which country they were being sent to on Saturday, giving them the rest of the trip to find the exchange students from that country and ask them questions.
Campbell said Thursday he was hoping to be assigned to Turkey or Russia.
“I want to get a better perspective of the world, and Turkey is built on a lot of different cultures,” he said.
He added that Russia has been in the news so much lately he would be interested in getting firsthand knowledge of the country.
“I’m obviously a little nervous, but I’m more excited,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Luna Abadia and Max Prehn, both Portland-area students, arrived in Eastern Oregon Thursday to meet other exchange students and learn more about the other side of the state. Abadia wanted to go to Japan, because she has been learning Japanese. Prehn was torn between Thailand, Taiwan and Brazil.
“Thailand and Taiwan are both cultures that are vastly different than anything I’ve experienced, and for Brazil, I’m drawn to their reputation for warmth and hospitality,” Prehn said.
Chris Taylor, the Youth Exchange coordinator for Rotary District 5100, said students often changed their minds about where they wanted to go by the end of the trip.
While Rotary Club makes the final decision about where students go, they are asked once before the annual exchange trip and once right before country assignments are made.
“Saturday they’ll be asked again, and about 75 percent of them will change countries,” he said Thursday.
Taylor said students often start out wanting to go to a European country because it is more in their comfort zone, but while traveling with inbound exchange students they learn more about those students’ cultures and break down stereotypes and misperceptions.