Emanuelle and Sabrin Barreto

By Emanuelle Barreto, youth exchange committee chair of District 4500 (Brazil), and Sabrina Barreto, a youth exchange officer, both alumna of long- and short-term youth exchanges

I have been hosting Rotary Youth Exchange students since my daughter, Sabrina, was a year old. She was my first child in a big family. I have three sisters; she was the first niece and first granddaughter. I knew everyone would spoil her.

I wanted her to have sisters and brothers and learn how to share. I wanted her to grow up in an open environment with an open mind, knowing her limits reached beyond our city or our country to the world. Hosting exchange students allowed me to provide all this for her. And from the beginning, she was very excited about it.

She used to love teaching the exchange students things she was learning herself at a young age: how to speak and write. She loved sharing our culture in simple ways. During visits to the supermarket, she enjoyed introducing Cris, my first exchange student “daughter” from Mexico, to our local fruits. I would instruct them to “stay near me” only to find them a few minutes later in the fruit aisle, laughing and having a great time.

She taught but also learned how to be polite with Seraina, the sweetest Swiss student we have ever met. She learned how to always see the good things in life from Tosia, our lovely exchange student from Poland, and to be ambitious like Tracey, the most American of her American sisters. And she even learned how to be a bit sassy with Brian, her first exchange brother. As a result, she now has sisters and brothers worldwide and goes on family trips every year to visit her siblings.

Sabrina: I was never an only child. I had siblings all year long. But besides the usual sibling relationship, I grew up speaking English from July until October at home, learned that Christmas was a melancholic holiday, and had many sad trips to the airport in the month of June. The exchange cycle was a strong part of our routine. 

I saw many teenagers live the best year of their lives, and being part of that was simply the best thing about my childhood.

At the age of 12, when I dared to tell my mom, “English classes are useless,” she didn’t think twice about sending me off to Pennsylvania, where she was an exchange student. There, I lived with my host grandparents and learned how you can build up a family through the program.

Later, when I was 15, there was an open spot for a short-term exchange in Argentina, and I jumped at the opportunity, even though it was right before I was scheduled for a long-term exchange. It meant no time preparing. But in some respects, I had been preparing all my life.

When the time came, we placed a map on the table and passed carefully through most of the countries, naming every sibling I had and remembering good and bad moments. I chose Taiwan not only for my sister Tina but because I knew I would always have a place to go anywhere, so I better take this opportunity to go as far as possible!

I did not find that my exchange was easier because of my previous experience growing up with exchange students. But I was definitely more resilient. The first months were hard, as I was in a new and completely different culture facing an unfamiliar language. My mother, with her experience as a host mom and a Youth Exchange Officer, kept her distance, knowing that would make it easier for me to connect with my new family.

Through all this, I realized my passion for Youth Exchange. I wanted to use my experience living abroad and hosting exchange students and my professional background in tourism to help the program in new ways. I became a counselor and a commission member, helping teens and families experiencing what I had experienced.

All this taught me the importance of empathy. For example, I was counseling a student this year who would constantly tell me that everything in her life was perfect. Whenever I would ask how she was doing, she would say, “Oh, everything is so great, everything is so good. I love it here.” It was like nothing bad ever happened in her life. So I would plan outings where we would do nothing but sit and eat. For the first ten minutes, we said nothing. But then, as time passed, she would open up and share. “Do you know what happened?” she would say. And then I would learn what was really going on with her. You have to know when to intervene and when to let them come to you. Having been on both sides of the story helps me to act with empathy and confidence.

Both my mother and I look forward to shaping student and family experiences as long as possible. Being involved in the program keeps us young, active, and excited, exposing us to a constant stream of new ideas. We wish more Rotarians would get involved and experience the beauty of the youth exchange program.

Emanuelle and Sabrina Barreto will be sharing their experiences at a breakout session during the 2024 Rotary International Convention in Singapore 25-29 May. Check out the schedule of breakout sessions.