Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

poem- around the world April 6, 2020

Filed under: Poetry — Shawn L. Bird @ 9:06 pm
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I’m on a site celebrating my adopted culture

when someone asks which of us were exchange students.

Suddenly there are 50 comments:

their years, their homes, their hosts.

Someone writes to me from Australia,

“We were there at the same time. I wonder if we met?”

Imagine that.

A virtual rendez-vous decades later.

A tiny marble, this globe; we can

almost hold it in our hands.



poem-there March 3, 2015

Midnight sun

your bright glow

matches my summer soul.

Midday night

your sky indigo

I hibernate and am made whole

Northern land

that journey long ago

taught me a heart has many homes.



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A rumination on my Rotary youth exchange year in Finland.

 Do you have a place that changed your philosophy and perspective?  Share your poetry or leave a comment about it at  

We’d love to hear your voice!

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The surreal life July 14, 2013

Filed under: Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 1:30 pm
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I thought I’d share with you this recent comment I left on the blog of a young lady recently returned from time abroad (slightly edited for broader audience!)

We have a saying in Rotary, “Once an exchange student, always an exchange student.”

If I am in a room, outbound exchange students find me, whether they know I was one or not. They bounce in their chairs, anticipating their year, and I share their enthusiasm, offer packing tips, and give them hugs.

At school, students from far away sit in my class room to discuss ‘life’ in the surreal bubble that is an inbound exchange year.  They vent their frustrations, shout their celebrations, observe their confusions.  I listen, encourage, bake, and give them hugs.

They write when they’re back home,  rebound students, about the strange dream that their year abroad becomes in memory.  The students my club sent join me at my table at our Rotary meeting upon their return in a numbed stupor.  I commiserate about the loss they’re experiencing, the strange sensation of being home, but being far from home.  I give them hugs.


See that sad face? That’s me on my last day in Finland posing with my 4th host family. That is the face of a broken heart. Still miss them and think of them every day!  (Thank heaven for Facebook).

We are tied by the experience of youth exchange, because it’s all paradox.  We feel disconnected and connected. Lost and found. Happy and sad.

We each leave pieces of our heart behind in these places that become our second homes, and we never get them back. Hopefully, those we love and leave behind, cherish those pieces for the precious parts of ourselves that they are. Sometimes we are blessed with an opportunity to hold those people against our hearts again, but most of the people who made such a profound impact on our lives, we will never touch again. It is a bitter sweet reality of those who live and love abroad.

Welcome home. Welcome to life with pieces missing. We just go on.  We find others with missing pieces and we hold each other as we celebrate what we have known.

Rotary Youth Exchange:

Opening minds and breaking hearts

since 1929. 

If you know any exchange students returning home this month.  Listen to their stories, ask questions about their year, and give them hugs.  They really need them right now.


thankful February 12, 2013

Filed under: Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 11:30 am
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I was just chatting with our school’s exchange student, a lovely girl here for the year from Finland.  Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I was an exchange student in Finland myself, many years ago.  It has been really great having Satu here.  We greet each other in Finnish in the halls, and once a week or so we chat more thoroughly about things.  I hope she enjoys having someone to speak her own language to, because I sure love speaking with her.

I talk to myself in Finnish to practice, but that doesn’t help my listening skills.  I can tune into Finnish radio, but radio doesn’t have the necessary pauses that allow assimilation of meaning nor does it provide opportunity to clarify meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary.  Having Satu here has been fantastic.  In September, there was a lot that I struggled with when I listened to her.  I constantly had to check words.  Now, I find that I understand her so much better.  I’ve learned some vocabulary (What does it tell you about my exchange that I didn’t know the word for ‘homework’! lol).  It makes me so happy that so many years after my return to Canada, I can still speak fluently enough to have these interesting conversations with her.  When I promised my 4th mom that I would never forget my Finnish, I meant it.  I have kept my promise.

I also have really enjoyed the excuse to do some Finnish baking now and then.  When I take karjalan piirakoita or some pulla buns to school for her, it’s nice to know I’ve brought a bit of ‘home’ into her week.

It makes me thankful, once again, for the existance of the Rotary Exchange Student program, and thankful that I was part of it.  It is amazing how it never leaves you.  When you meet another exchange student, of any age, from any country, you instantly have a  common bond of experience.   There is always something to talk about.  Eyes sparkle with fun or commiseration.

Once an exchange student, always an exchange student.


club obligations and privileges October 6, 2012

Filed under: Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 12:10 pm
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I was just writing a note to a person on an exchange student forum, and I thought I would share my thoughts with you.  We were discussing how some areas of the world don’t understand the purpose of Rotary Youth Exchange, and therefore, don’t do anything to support the student.

Year after year our club has fantastic, interesting, and delightful exchange students.  How do I know?  Because we integrate our students into our club and get to know them.  Students chosen for this program tend to be talented, fascinating kids who are travelling to broaden their experiences and to prepare to make a difference in the world.  We send fantastic kids abroad to share them with another part of the world.  I am sad when I hear about clubs who miss the opportunity to know the amazing kids that they have under their noses, so here is my advice to Rotary Clubs all over the world, prefaced by my core belief that when a club agrees to host a student, EACH member of the club has an obligation to that student.

Each member of the club should make an effort to,

1. make them welcome to the country, city, and club

get to know who they are,  greet them on the street, and  invite them to attend club meetings, projects, and events, and personal activities.

2. include them in club activities

that means when  exchange students are at a club event, you integrate them by having them sit with members, you speak to them, you encourage them to participate in the program somehow.  Listen.

3. show interest in them, their experience, their home country  

Ask them about their hobbies and interests, and how things are similar and different in their home area.  Your way isn’t the only way.  Your students have experiences to share with you, just like you have experiences to share with them.  Listen.

4. welcome them into your home and family activities if you can.  

Even if you are not able to host a student in your home, you can include them into your activities.  When you know your students’ hobbies and interests, you can more easily identify opportunities to include them.  The student likes sports?  You can invite them to a local game- even free ones played by your grandkids.  Your student plays an instrument?  You can invite them to attend a recital or concert.  Your student loves history?  Take them to a local site you know well.  If you know what your student hasn’t experienced, you can invite them along on simple family events.  One of my more memorable experiences in Finland was foraging for mushrooms in the woods with a family!

5. share in their local experiences.

Consider yourselves the students’ family.  If they are participating in a concert, a sporting match, or speeches, go along to cheer and celebrate.

These inclusions are fantastic for everyone involved.  Your club learns more about the world, and more about your country by seeing it through the eyes of another perspective.  You will improve your club’s experience with your students, and your students will have a more memorable, and more valuable exchange year by having the opportunity to know you all.  You will feel blessed by experience.

Don’t waste your exchange students.  Celebrate them!


Vesta August 16, 2012

Filed under: Alpha-biography,Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 9:11 am
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I quite like Vesta.  She is the hearth goddess, the one who keeps the home fires burning.  Vesta is a virgin goddess, but she is ‘mom’ to the rest of the gods.  She’s the one who provides the milk and cookies and the ear after the stressful day battling monsters.

On Mother’s Day, the sweet and mushy cards abound and they mostly seem to envision the same mother, devoted and appreciated.  But mothers are women, and they are diverse!

I have 6 mothers.

First, I have the mother who carried me, thoroughly nauseated and regretting the idea, within her body and who raised me.  She is a creator mother.  She makes clothes, quilts, jewelry, tapestries, sweaters, and good food.   She gardens, and eats her harvest, while her flowers are admired by neighbours.  She has had four children, each quite different in outlook.  She cares for them with gifts of time and talent.

Next, I have the four Finnish host mothers who sheltered me on my youth exchange:

The first, was like Vesta.  She was  a nurse who had raised five amazing children, and she welcomed me into her embrace with a loving care that overwhelmed me with its sweetness.  She patiently listened each evening, sitting with me and asking me to describe my day and the news from home.  With my growing Finnish vocabulary, funny drawings and a Finnish English dictionary as a last resort, I learned to communicate with her.   I grew by leaps and bounds.

The second was an athletic teacher.  She was tough and no nonsense.  She had four children.  Three older teens (one in the army) and a two year old.  She was harried and busy.  I was devastated to have left my first host family, and suffering from serious Seasonal Affective Disorder while I was living there (though no one knew it at the time: I slept all the time, had no energy, and felt very morose).  I wasn’t a very good exchange student there, to be honest.  What I remember most, actually, was that the bathroom with the shower/tub / sauna didn’t have a lock, and the two year old would come in whenever I wanted to bathe.  I had no privacy, and was terrified of having my host dad or host brother walk into the room accidentally.  I smelled bad when I lived there, as a result! :-S   She was the working mother of a toddler.  Her life was full and exhausting.

The third was a trophy wife of a banker.  Bouffant bleach blonde hair, blue eye shadow, and black eye liner were her trademarks.  She had two children who were away from home, so I was a relief to her her boredom.  Not that she was often bored.  Her calling was as a hostess.  There was a constant stream of guests, dressed to the nines, holding their wine glasses, and discussing the world. She wore beautiful clothes, practised her English on me, and went travelling.  They left me alone rather frequently, and I found that I didn’t mind the independence of having my own little apartment where I could shower in security, but I missed the embrace of a family.

The fourth was the wife of a sailor.  She was grounded, earthy, and fun.  She had two teens and a 9 year old.  She welcomed me into the household and treated me like one of her own, taking me everywhere.  We chatted constantly and I felt understood and appreciated.  I adored my little sister in particular, as she had the time and interest to take me around the neighbourhood, have me at her school for show and tell, and to chatter with me constantly so that my Finnish was solidified.

When I married, I received my sixth mother.  My mother-in-law is a pious, caring lady who is anxiously devoted to her children and grandchildren.  She is a wife of a professor and farmer who hosts crowds of visiting entomologists, ornithologists, lepidoptorists, genealogists, farmers, church members and friends from all walks of life with good grace and sincere interest.  She adores each of her in-law children and grandchildren and makes sure we know it.

Vesta guards the hearth and everyone gathers around its warmth for sustenance, care, and conversation.  Pull up a chair.  Whatever kind of mother or child you are, there is room.


Rotary is amazing August 12, 2010

Once again at our weekly Rotary meeting, I was struck by how this organization is amazing in the scope of its vision and in the power of its members to make the vision reality.  We had two guests, a Rotarian from Calgary, and a pop in visit by a Past District Governer from Kenya.  How cool is that?  Kenya.  A few weeks ago we had Rotarian guests from Finland and from the Philippines.  It is astonishing how wide our world is, and how interesting Rotarians are all over the place!

We had a typical summer meeting.  About half the club was away and our guest speaker had canceled on us a couple days before.    A few quick calls had been made to our outbound exchange student and a former exchange student to Malaysia who was in town from university.  Both of them gave us some time, and our meeting was quite delightful and inspiring.  It is a shame that only 11 of us got to experience the inspiration!

Many clubs sponsor the Youth Exchange program and believe in its power to improve the world, one young person at a time.  Last night that was very powerfully illustrated to me, and I think our outbound Maddie (who is off to Argentina this weekend) and her father were quite amazed by the possibilities of the journey she is embarking upon when they heard Chad Shipmaker speak.

Chad remarked to me at dinner that Rotary owns him.  It is certainly no doubt that this organization changed his life, though he is an impressive young man in his own right, and would have found a way to change the world without us, I’m sure.  I am just really glad that we have been involved, because we get to have some familial pride in his accomplishments.  After  his time as  a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Malaysia, Chad returned home to do a Bachelor’s degree at University of Victoria.  He worked in Africa for awhile in development work.  He was home working here when Rotary came into his life again.

Although many clubs participate in Youth Exchange, many fewer sponsor Group Study Exchange candidates.  Due in no small part to the efforts of Lynda Wilson, our current club president who was formerly on the GSE District committee while she was Dean of Okanagan College, our club regularly sponsors GSE applicants, and quite frequently our applicants are chosen by the district to join the team.  Chad Shipmaker was chosen as a member on a team that went to Chile.  Back on our radar, we started keeping a closer eye on him.

Soon after, he decided to do his master’s degree and applied to be a Peace scholar.  Our club proposed him.  The district agreed with our nomination and forwarded his application to Rotary International.  Rotary International was as impressed as we have been, and so this last year Chad has been studying at the Duke Centre for International Development in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  He is “Fellow, Master of International Development Policy” and “Rotary World Peace Fellow.”  Even the titles sound impressive.  Just wait until you find out what he’s learning! 

As I listened to Chad’s awe over the people he’s meeting, the speakers he’s hearing, and the work he’s been doing at the World Food Agency in DC, I can’t help but be inspired.  Chad is just one amazing alumni of our Rotary Youth Exchange program.  Not all RYE students are going to end up doing things quite as amazing as Chad, but we are in good company when we support the organization that gives us all the opportunities to change the world through the skills honed and polished through involvement with Rotary. 

Vision and the power to make it so.  Wow. 

 Rotary is awesome.


PS. Stay tuned for another blog on the amazing accomplishments of Chad Shipmaker, coming soon to this space!


How to be a crappy exchange student July 31, 2010

Over the years, I have met probably a thousand exchange students. 90% of them have been amazing young people, but some really should not have been sent abroad.  Some of them had a really horrible exchange year, and they were thrilled to leave their new country and go home.  Some chose to leave voluntarily before the year was over. Some were sent home.  Some of them managed to get through the challenges and salvage their year.

Here are some of the strategies these students employed to ensure they had a year they have been grumbling about ever since.  Of course, most of these students blamed everyone but themselves for their horrible experience. 

1. Go on exchange to escape troubles at home.  Leave to escape SATs. Leave boyfriend problems.  Leave to avoid college decisions or family problems. Believe it or not, your issues will just follow you. You can’t escape. Deal with your issues before you apply to go on exchange.

2. Go on exchange to become a celebrity. While it is true that you may be highly recognizable in your new town, you may not be admired. Your home and host countries might be in political dispute, as when Canada seized Spanish fishing boats they claimed were illegally fishing on The Grand Banks. Your religious background might be unpopular in your host country. Your ethnicity might make you a target, like it was for the Indo-Canadian student in Germany presumed to be a Turk and bullied in the streets and refused service in restaurants.

3. Be afraid of or be overwhelmed by your host culture. If you are not willing to face crowds, language, smells, religion, attitudes, and ideas that are different from your own, you’re not going to be able to handle the stress of being an exchange student.

4. Be shy. Avoid talking to people.  Don’t make friends at school.  Hide in your bedroom and don’t socialize with your host family.  Don’t attend Rotary meetings.  If you do, don’t talk to the Rotarians.  Stare at the floor a lot.

5. Insult people.  Take your nationalism to extreme.  Make sure that everyone knows where you are from and that your home country is MUCH better than your host country.  Explain how they are stupid, backward, or ignorant in your host country.

6. Borrow money.  Whenever you go out, whether with host families, school friends, or other exchange students, make it a point to leave your wallet at home, and ask others to pay for you.  Never pay them back.   This is particularly effective when people learn that you are receiving several hundred dollars of spending money every month from home.

7. Lie.   Pretend you are going to school when you aren’t.  Claim you’re making lots of friends when you’re in your room on the computer all day.  Tell your family you’re with friends, but go to a bush party, get drunk, and then get in a car accident.  While in the hospital, keep telling people you weren’t drinking at a party…  (These students were sent home , one with a broken neck and severe brain damage).  

8. Moon over your boy/girlfriend back home.  Spend all your time on the phone or  sending email messages to your love back home.  Neglect making friends and participating in events so you don’t miss chat/call opportunities.  If you don’t believe either of you are mature enough to handle separation without daily contact, you are probably not mature enough to be on exchange.

9. Be a snob.  Whether because of insecurity, inferiority or actual narcisism, some students behave as if they are much better than those in their new community.   Show this by refusing to do chores your host family assigns, refusing to help in Rotary service projects, or refusing to attend functions.  You can also show this with a bored or uninterested attitude when you do deign to attend an event or by talking about yourself and never showing any interest in others’ interests or opinions.

10. Never spend a night away from home before the exchange.  The trauma of homesickness from kids from tightly emeshed homes almost always ensures the kids are home within a month of their arrival in the new country.  Your mother will probably be thrilled to have you back, tied to her apron where you belong.

11. Be disrespectful to your host mom.  The most important person for you to impress is your host mom.  She is the power behind the home.  If she likes you, you will be eating your favourite foods, going to special places, and receiving gifts for years.  If she dislikes you, well, let’s just say that you will probably be very uncomfortable. 

12. Whine a lot  and complain about your treatment by school mates, family and other exchange students.   If it seems to be a universal opinion, consider that perhaps you aren’t very likeable.  Study points 1-10 above and determine what you need to change about yourself. 

Be aware: If you aren’t usually so obnoxious in your home country, the manifestation of a few of the above points may indicate that you are suffering from culture shock.   Please speak to your club exchange counselor.  If s/he can’t help, speak to the district exchange officer.  If you address the issues early enough, you can turn your horrendous time into a wonderful, enriching exchange.  It’s not the host family, your club, or your circumstances that create a great year.  Your attitude is the most important thing, so if you find yourself having problems, decide what YOU can change to improve the situation.


PS.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that more than a few of the points above applied to my own exchange year.   I think I had a great year abroad, but like everyone, I had some things I could have done better in order to have had an even better experience.


Rotary Youth Exchange: open mind, broken heart July 27, 2010

Filed under: Commentary,Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 12:41 am
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In the blog about The Exchange Student Cycle, I mentioned that at the end of an exchange, the worst part of being an exchange student becomes clear. No one warns you about how difficult it is to come home.

When you choose to be an exchange student, you know in your head that you are going to become attached to your new country. You know that you will have host families and that you will make friends abroad. You hope they will be close friends. You hope you will love your families. Friends and families provide the strength and value of an exchange, but they also cause the greatest pain. When you leave home, you expect to see all your friends and families in a year, but when it comes time to leave your new country, you realize that you may never see these people again. They have become a precious part of your life, and you are leaving them behind to return to your old life. If you have had the wonderful year you wanted to have, you are about to be disemboweled. Unless you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, it is unlikely you will ever have experienced the suffering you will endure when you leave your exchange friends and families behind to return to your old life. You can never return to your exchange life. Even if you return to the country, it will never be the same again.

If you’ve had a successful exchange year, you will have embraced a new life. You will feel part of a new culture. You’ll be dreaming in a new language. You will feel like you belong in that world, and the life you left at home will seem very, very far away. You will wonder that you ever found it strange and difficult to fit in. You will find it difficult to remember what life was really like back home, and that’s the moment when they send you home.

Now the crushing truth becomes clear. You are leaving people you love behind, and you may never see them again. The pain is engulfing. Your heart is about to be torn in half, and left behind in your exchange country. When your heart is left behind, the exchange was everything it was supposed to be.

Rotary Youth Exchange: opening minds and breaking hearts since 1929.


The Exchange Student Cycle July 22, 2010

Filed under: Commentary,Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 7:37 am
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Canadian Rotary exchange students at Helsinki World Figureskating Championships 1983 (+1 Aussie)

A couple decades ago, when I was working as an exchange student counselor, I came across some information about the exchange student cycle. It was such an accurate description that I have always made a point to tell exchange students about this cycle, because it is good to be warned of the bumps ahead.  If you know what to expect, when you’re in a rough spot, you can think of it rationally, knowing that soon enough you’ll move into the next part of the cycle. Everything has a season. These are the seasons of exchange student life.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re involved in a two week exchange, a three month exchange, or a year long exchange; the cycle remains pretty much the same. An exchange is divided into three sections.  Each section seems to last roughly one third of the exchange.  Knowing the three parts to the exchange cycle helps you understand the changes in relationships and attitudes that occur throughout the year. If you imagine a typical ten month exchange in which a student arrives in the new country in late August and is set to return home around the end of June, the cycles will be split somewhere around November and March. There is no specific line, and you may find yourself moving back and forth between two stages for a month or two. If you rotate to a new host family every ten weeks or so, you will likely experience mini exchange student cycles in each home, as well as the over-riding year cycle.

During the honeymoon phase of the exchange, everything is new and wonderful. While sometimes there is an issue of culture shock, the student is usually expecting so much change that it isn’t too difficult to accept.  You’ve been warned that everything will be new and different.  You’re prepared for these differences and you’re excited to experience them. In this phase, the host family is still treating the student as a guest, showing them the sites and being solicitous. The school might be particularly challenging because of language issues, but you often feel like a celebrity, and are often treated as such. You tend to be on your best behaviour making an effort to be liked and interested in the new culture.  You tend to love your new culture a lot in this stage.

In the second phase, the bloom is off the rose. The family is used to having the student in the home. At this time, if there are host brothers and sisters, it is more likely that there will be some ‘sibling rivalry’ than at other times in the exchange. The novelty of the new experiences has worn off, and now the real work has begun. This is the point in the exchange when your new culture is a pain in the butt.  You long for your favourite meal, your favourite snack.  You want your friends.  You want your old, easy life. There is more expectation for you to be functioning in the new language, which can be stressful. School seems difficult and unaccommodating. In a year long exchange, this phase tends to coincide with Christmas time, which adds another challenge. You’re used to certain weather, special family traditions and foods, etc, but now you’re in a new place where the traditions are completely different, if they celebrate the holiday at all.  It’s not better or worse, it’s just different, but at Christmas time we often don’t want different, so it is not unexpected that you should be a little nostalgic for home and family. This is the period in the exchange where it feels like work. You let your best behaviour lapse and let your warts show up.  At this stage, petty irritations start to become issues.   This might be the point in the change when you want to give up and go home.  Hang on.  Keep trying,  talk to your counselor, and wait it out.  Luckily, at some point the challenge of this stage lifts, and one day you relax into life in your new culture.  You just fit comfortably into school and family.  You feel settled. 

Suddenly you realize that the exchange time is moving on, and that it is not going to be long before you are heading home. Now there is a last minute rush to do all the things you wanted to do. Now is when the student starts to enjoy every possible activity, because it might be the last opportunity to do it. There is a clear awareness that you have become at home in this new culture, and that it would not be difficult to stay here forever. In the third phase everything is bittersweet. Experiences are grabbed and savoured, but with the understanding of your attachment to this world, there is a sense of impending loss. The last few weeks of the exchange can be extremely difficult, as the worst part of being an exchange student becomes clear, but we’ll discuss that in another blog.

Be prepared for the changes and celebrate the victories!   You are experiencing one of the most challenging, most valuable, and most amazing year of your life.  Enjoy each phase.


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