For well over 30 years the Bingen-White Salmon Rotary Club has been the orchestrator of one of the most active youth exchange programs in the Columbia River Gorge.
“This is a real exchange program. For every kid that goes out, we try to bring a kid over here. It’s a really incredible opportunity,” said Bill Paulsen, Director of the Youth exchange program.
The students that participate in the program are defined by three categories, outbound, inbound, and rebound.
Outbound students are students from White Salmon that are traveling in another country. Inbound are students who travel from other countries to White Salmon, and rebound students are ones who have recently returned from an outbound trip.
This year, the Rotary Club is hosting two inbound students, Nicolas Becerra Garzon from Colombia and Nina Rivalieau from France.
Four White Salmon students are currently outbound to Turkey, Brazil, and Italy.
Students who participate in the exchange program are hosted by three families in the country they are staying in. The host families are vetted by the Rotary Club, the State Department and other government entities. More often than not, the host families are members of the local Rotary Club in the region.
“We are always looking for folks to volunteer to be host families though,” said Rob Sachs, president of the Bingen-White Salmon Rotary Club.
The youth exchange program is like a scholarship program for the students. They are given a $23,000 scholarship, which is doled out as a monthly allowance. The student’s families only pay for airfare, visas, passports, and health insurance.
The following is a question/answer with Nicolas and Nina.
Is this your first time to the United States? If not, where have you traveled before?
Nicolas: Yes, it’s my first time in the United States, I love this place and all its people, its beautiful places and my host family.
Nina: Yes, this is my first time in the United States. I have traveled mainly in European countries like Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, Greece, and Turkey. I have also traveled to Tunisia and Egypt.
Why did you choose to come to the US?
Nicolas: To learn more about the culture, observe the beautiful places and learn more the language.
Nina: I chose the United States because I have always wanted to come here since I was little.
Had you heard of White Salmon before coming here?
Nicolas: Before coming I had never heard anything about White Salmon, but I researched online and was really surprised. I love the beautiful landscapes.
Nina: Yes, I had already heard about White Salmon from another student that was visiting in France.
What is White Salmon as compared to where you are from?
Nicolas: In Colombia, my city has around 113,500 inhabitants, it is bigger than White Salmon. We have many mountains and a similar landscape; the big difference is that most people do not know each other because of the size. In White Salmon all the people talk with each other, that is beautiful. The climate is very different, my city, Duitama, has an average temperature of 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit) and the weather does not change all year. What I love about this town is that it’s not very big and it is very easy to get to everything.
What have you enjoyed or disliked about being here so far?
Nicolas: Here I have enjoyed to the fullest all that has been offered to me, from the first day I arrived in White Salmon. I have run for the cross country team, which was hard at the beginning but at this moment it is one of the things that I have enjoyed the most, especially the emotion that I feel when I go to a race. I have loved the mountains, the waterfalls, the kindness of the people, because when I go down the street people greet me, and I think that’s nice. I’m happy in White Salmon.
Nina: I enjoyed discovering the beautiful scenery of Washington and Oregon. I have also enjoyed discovering new sports like football.
Are there events you are looking forward too or places you are looking forward to visiting?
Nicolas: This week, together with Nina we are going to California. We are really excited since we will be together with other exchange students, with whom we already have an excellent friendship. I have seen photos and it is a very beautiful place.
Nina: I am so excited to see all the Halloween decorations and I am excited for Christmas in the USA.
How different or similar is CHS compared to where you went to school?
Nicolas: In Colombia, I finish school this year. When I arrive home I think I want to study veterinary medicine, I love animals. My school in Colombia is very small, it has only 600 students in the whole school. This is because in my city there are many schools you can choose from. Because it is very small all the students talk to everyone, they are very friendly and everyone at school are very close. I love the school here, its high quality in all sports, the students are very happy and always try to enjoy to the maximum every day. I love that there are subjects which the students can choose, in Colombia the school is very different regarding these things, because students always have the same subjects.
Nina: My school is a bit different because it’s larger, there are just over 800 students. There are no animals or gardens either.