SHIRLEY -- Philip Wesley will be a junior in high school next fall. But he won't be joining his classmates at The Bromfield School in Harvard where he recently finished 10th grade.
Instead, the son of Claudia and David Wesley will be living and attending school in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the guest of a Rotary Youth Exchange host family.
Kyrgyzstan, which Americans might confuse with the more familiar Kazakhstan, gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Its official name is Kyrgyz Republic, and Kyrgyz and Russian are the official languages, although Uzbek and Dungun are also spoken. According to the New York Times, which on May 31 reported on a conflict in Kyrgyzstan, the country covers 77,181 square miles, has a population of 5.36 million, and a per-capita GDP of $2,200. The nation is located roughly between China and Iran.
"I wanted to experience a completely different lifestyle," Philip said following a presentation on May 30 by Pat Doyle, district chair for the Rotary Youth Exchange.
Doyle, an ebullient ambassador, has been involved in the Rotary Youth Exchange for so long that she doesn't need notes to speak about it.
"Your club is new to it this year, so you probably have questions," she said, beginning her talk to the Ayer Rotary Club during its regular dinner meeting held downstairs at the Bull Run restaurant. Upstairs, Dave Davies, co-founder of the British rock band, "The Kinks," was warming up an overflow crowd.
"We were running this program district to district for years," Doyle said, describing the autonomy Rotary Clubs used to have in setting up the exchanges. "But the State Department got stricter about rules for visas. It became complicated and we created the Eastern States Student Exchange or ESSEX."
ESSEX includes 27 Rotary districts in New England, the mid-Atlantic, eastern Canada and Bermuda. Annually, the district welcomes 220 exchange students from around the world and sends out about the same number from its communities, according to its official brochure.
Rotary has been running the international exchange program for more than 75 years in roughly 80 countries. It is administered at the regional level by Rotary districts and at the local level by the individual Rotary clubs. An estimated 8,000 young people participate annually.
Doyle said students may apply for a long-term exchange, which is a full school year, or for the short-term, usually a summer vacation. In both instances, applicants must be between 15 and 18 at the time of departure, demonstrate above-average academic achievement, be outgoing, flexible and possess a sense of adventure.
Philip is one of the first students in the Rotary's international exchange program to be placed with a family in Kyrgyzstan. While he is on exchange, a teenager from Spain will be living with his family.
Doyle said American students have stayed with families in Argentina, South Korea, Peru, Chile, Thailand, Belgium and France. At the same time, local families have hosted students from France, Canada, Ecuador, Germany, Brazil and Thailand.
"In Marlborough, there was a girl who was home-schooled who went to South Korea," Doyle said, describing the teenager's roundabout route to her community's local Rotary Club. "She wanted to go to South Korea and found a district in Minnesota."
Exchange students aren't the only ones who benefit from the program, Doyle said. Returning students provide international exposure for the local Rotary Club, serve as guest speakers and often assist the club with other projects.
"It's an amazing program," Doyle said.
For more information about Rotary Youth Exchange, visit the ESSEX website at www.exchangestudent.org or call 1-888-ROTARY.