Fenwick student Jack Kornowske ’22 takes part in the Rotary International’s Youth Exchange Program.
By Mark Vruno
Fenwick parents Diane Ellsworth and Pete Kornowske have four children, including twin boys Eric and Jack, who will be sophomores this coming school year. (Older sibling Will is a senior Friar.) Of the twins, “Jack is the more independent one,” their mother says. She is about to find out just how self-sufficient her 15-year-old son is, as he embarks in mid-August on an 11-month study opportunity near Berlin, Germany, as part of the Rotary Club of Oak Park – River Forest’s Youth Exchange Program. The cultural experience will feature several host families, not just one.
“We host two [Rotary] students per year,” explains Mrs. Ellsworth, who hails from nearby Norridge and became familiar with the program from a friend who is a Rotarian host. “My friend once ran a school in France and had great experiences hosting,” adds Diane. Ellsworth-Kornowske’s Oak Park house was the U.S. home of a junior student from Brazil attending Oak Park-River Forest High School this past spring. Last fall they hosted a student from Italy who was a guest at St. Patrick High School in Chicago. The family also has hosted other foreign-exchange students, from France and Japan, in the past.
As for Jack spending almost a year away from home in Germany, his mother admits to being a little “freaked out” by the prospect of her young, teenage son traveling, by himself, across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. “I was preparing for my oldest to go to college,” she explains. And now, this! Kornowske is one of eight students sponsored by the Rotary district to study abroad for the 2019-20 school year. Rotary International handles the logistics; each participating family is responsible for their child’s airfare and travel insurance.
Visiting an English-speaking country is not an option for students participating the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, Jack notes. “I was asked to rank my top 12 countries,” he recalls. At first he thought he was heading to Lithuania, number 7 on his list. However, in May, Outbound Coordinator Sue DeBolt (Rotary District 6450) and Youth Exchange Officer Lesley Gottlinger notified the family that his destination had changed to Germany. Soon, passport in hand, he will be on his way to board an airplane at O’Hare’s International Terminal.
Sprechen Sie Deutsche?
Young Kornowske does not speak fluent German, so to get ready for his 4,400-mile journey he has been working with a language tutor this summer. “Rotary helps with the language skills — they expect Jack to be fluent after three months,” his mom reports. He will attend a language camp his first week in Germany. And he won’t be allowed to text or FaceTime his family in Oak Park; at least not at first. As part of the Rotary program’s deeply immersive strategy, Jack cannot communicate with his parents or siblings at all for those first 90 days, which makes his mother even more anxious.
“There’s no constant calling home, asking for help … no ‘helicopter parenting,’” she explains. Experience has shown that this is the best way for students from other countries to assimilate, according to Rotary International. “They want the kids engaged and invested where they’re at,” Ms. Ellsworth continues, “not online, not talking with home. Jack needs to put himself out there and get involved in his new community!” She notes that thousands of kids do this every year, and that she and her husband “have faith in the process.”
Later in autumn, Jack may write a blog (web log) journaling his experience, which is one way his family back home can stay informed about what it is he is doing a continent away. Rotary meetings in Germany will be part of his monthly routine. Meanwhile, he and his parents are working with Fenwick Principal Peter Groom and the school’s administration to ensure that all his graduation prerequisites are met. “He’s going to need to make up Theology [class] and probably take Speech as a junior,” Ms. Ellsworth informs.
His mom concludes: “We think this is a great opportunity for Jack and that he will do well.” It gives her peace of mind knowing her son will be wearing his Rotary blazer while traveling. “It’s easily recognizable,” she says, “so if he needs help other Rotarians will be accessible — in any airport and in any country.”
Ms. Mary Visteen, Counselor for the Class of 2022, adds: “Jack is a brave kid with an adventurous spirit. I am sure that he will learn a lot from the experience.”
Journey safely, Friar sophomore. We’ll see you back on campus your junior year!
About Rotary International
Rotary International is an international service organization whose stated purpose is to bring together business and professional leaders in order to provide humanitarian service and to advance goodwill and peace around the world.