Makie (Mack-ee) Dawson isn’t your average high school senior. For starters, she’s only 16 years old, but is probably more mature than many adults.
The daughter of Eastern Sierra residents Dan and Leslie Dawson, Makie started school at age 4, which is why now, going on 17, she is about to graduate high school. That early start has given her the luxury of a “gap” year between graduation and the start of her college career. Rather than languish in her spare time, she has chosen to double up her studies and work harder so that she can be part of the Rotary Youth Exchange program next school year.
“I’m most worried about getting my inventory [plane ticket, itinerary, etc.], and learning the language,” Makie said of her upcoming adventure.
Rotary Youth Exchange, or RYE, is similar to a study abroad program in college, but with more support and structure. Makie will head to South Korea sometime this August to live with a total of three host families for more than 10 months in the city of Busan. She will attend high school and immerse herself in a culture that is, literally, in her blood.
“I am South Korean, adopted at three months old,” she said. “I’ve visited there twice.”
But she has never lived there, which is where RYE comes in. The program sends 30 students from a Rotary District overseas, while simultaneously hosting 30 students in American homes.
When applying to the program students are asked to list the top six places where they would like to study. The program then determines where the student would fit the best. South Korea was Makie’s first choice.
An extensive application process narrows the interested students down the to the 30 available spots. Makie had to show extra perseverance by filling out the 20-page application … twice.
“Mammoth Rotary changed districts recently,” explained Leslie. The local Rotary chapters used to be part of the San Bernardino District, but relocated to Reno, Nev., a few months ago. Makie had already filled out her application in the San Bernardino district, but had to start over when Mammoth switched.
However, her strong desire to be part of the program made jumping through the hoops less daunting.
“If I find an opportunity I want to take I become very determined,” Makie said. “I get this fire in my head.”
So she filled out the application again, working on her college applications at the same time. Makie applied for college this year but will ask for a year of deferment wherever she ends up going so that she can be part of RYE and then be ready to walk into college when she returns next year. After being inspired by her high school teacher, Ms. Hart, she hopes to study biology when she does get to college.
She hopes her year abroad will help her in any future job she may hold.
“I think it’s important to have a world view,” she said. “During my interview [for RYE], however, I explained that I didn’t want to try to make huge changes. I think it’s better, and more realistic, to make small changes that will have ripple effects.”
Acceptance into RYE wasn’t the most challenging part of the process, even with two applications. Now that she’s in, Makie is spending the rest of winter and spring giving up Saturdays for several all-day orientation classes in Reno, as well as doing extra homework assignments in addition to her regular schoolwork. “I didn’t realize what I was getting into when I applied,” she said.
The day we met she had been working on a research paper about South Korea as part of her RYE homework even though she was on break from Mammoth High School for the Presidents holiday. The paper is meant to help her better understand the country and its culture. In addition, she is expected to work on learning the language before she leaves. The program suggests she spend two hours per day on language studies.
“They [RYE] really want to narrow it down to the kids who are serious,” Makie said. “Ones that will stick with it.” And Makie is serious. She will be the first student to represent Mammoth in RYE and is excited about paving the way for students in the future, even if that means learning a new alphabet and potentially being homesick.
“It’s going to be my first time away from my family,” she admitted. “I am really excited now but I think I will get more nervous as it approaches.”
As part of the program she was given a book called “The Exchange Student Survival Kit,” which, among other things breaks down the emotions of exchange into eight stages with the most predominant stage being homesickness.
“It’s a really good book because it tells you beforehand what to expect and that the feelings you might have are normal,” she said.
Makie, however, is looking at the experience as a good transition to college.
“When I started to think about college last year it was this thing looming before me, but exchange didn’t seem as scary,” she said.
By placing students with host families there is more support available to RYE participants than to college exchange students. Other exchange students might be in Makie’s school, but they won’t necessarily be English-speaking so there’s still that tricky language barrier to overcome.
There’s a little less pressure in Asian countries because they understand that the students are learning not only a new language but also a new alphabet. But the barrier might extend further than the walls of the school.
As we talked, Leslie pulled out a list of questions that Makie was given to discuss with her host families the first night she was with them. All of the questions were in English.
“Will your host families speak English?” I asked.
“There’s no guarantee that they will,” Makie said.
“So perhaps you won’t be able to ask them all these questions,” Leslie said.
According to Leslie, the biggest concern she and Dan have is being empty nesters. The family has traveled many times to many places including South Korea. Their eldest daughter, Kendall, is currently studying in South Korea as part of an exchange program through San Francisco State University.
“South Korea is safer than San Francisco,” Leslie said. “Plus, Makie has her head on straight, so we’re not worried.”
The Dawsons are helping organize host families for the exchange student that will be traveling to Mammoth, so contact them if you would like to help.
“It’s a very affordable program,” Leslie said. “If other Mammoth students are interested they should talk to us to learn more.”