Photo by Heather Middleton
By Joel Hall
For Freja Fornander, 22, a Swedish student participating in the Georgia Rotary Student Program (GRSP), the state of Georgia was merely a spot on the map until this summer.
Through the sponsorship of the Clayton and Henry County Rotary clubs, Fornander is now attending Clayton State University and experiencing the heat and hospitality of Georgia, firsthand.
Fornander is one of 61 foreign students who will spend the next year attending Georgia universities through the program. This year, students from Argentina, Zimbabwe, and most places in between will spend two academic semesters learning various subjects, interacting with host families, and participating in Rotary-sponsored activities throughout the state.
Clayton County Rotary Club President Gid Rowell said the program was started in 1946 as a way to "promote peace through understanding." He said the Clayton Rotary has sponsored an international student every year since 1965, as a way to spread the importance of community service around the world.
"Service above self is one of the phrases that you live by [as a Rotarian]," Rowell said. "It's a good program to do, because so many of the things we are trying to do are encapsulated in the program. There are lot of service projects that Rotary does around the world, such as ending polio. This is a way to bring students in, and let them know the good things that Rotary does, and spread that message around the world. Hopefully, one day, these students will be Rotarians themselves."
He said that for the past several years, the Rotary clubs of Clayton and Henry have co-hosted a foreign student. The clubs hosted a student from Scotland last year, and a student from Lebanon the previous year, he said.
Henry County Rotary Club President Kerry Arnold said the close interactions GRSP students have with local students and host families help all parties involved gain a greater appreciation for different cultures.
"These are students from all over the world, who have preconceived notions about Americans and how they live, and we have those as well," Arnold said. "This dispels those and reinforces others. We become very close to these students and they are almost like part of our family. Hopefully, when they go home, they have a better understanding of Americans, and we have a better understanding of them and their countrymen."
Arnold said the participants in this year's program include students from: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Benin, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, El Salvador, England, Finland, France, Germany, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Norway, Scotland, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Swaziland, Sweden, Taiwan, Wales, and Zimbabwe.
Fornander, a native of Kristianstad, Sweden, said she plans on attending medical school in Sweden next year, with the hope of becoming a surgeon. She said the GRSP is giving her a chance to see America for the first time, as well as a chance to explore other subjects she is passionate about, such as music.
"In Sweden, Rotary has a youth exchange where high school students get to spend a year in America," Fornander said. "I regretted that I didn't do that. When I heard about the GRSP, it was like a second chance. Going to school is such a great way of being in the society, instead of just staying in hotels and being a tourist.
"Leaving Sweden for a little while and seeing what's out there, I think it's important," she said. "There's so many ways to do things, not just my way, and you really see that when you are abroad."
This weekend, according to Rotary organizers, Clayton and Henry counties will play host to all 61 GRSP students during 2010 GRSP Weekend, taking place on Friday and Saturday at various locations in Morrow, Jonesboro, and Hampton.
According to Rowell, students will meet Friday evening at the Morrow Tourism Center for a special dinner sponsored by The Varsity, from which they will depart to Hampton to experience "Friday Night Drags" at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
On Saturday, he said, the students will participate in team-building activities at The Beach at Clayton County International Park in Jonesboro. On Saturday night, a dinner and a 'GRSP Idol' singing contest will take place at Clayton State University, according to Rowell.
Rowell said most of the students have been in the country for a little less than a month, and that he hopes this weekend's activities will start them "on a good foot" toward continuing to be involved with the program throughout the year.
"I hope they have a good time," he said. "The program is really about building those kinds of relationships that will last."