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Save GSE Article by: Steve Coleman, PP, RC of Danbury (TX, USA)Rotary Emblem

The Personal Impact of Losing Group Study Exchange 

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Group Study Exchange (GSE) has been one of the major initiatives of The Rotary Foundation for decades.  For many clubs, GSE has been their primary emphasis, and their only exposure to the international aspects of Rotary.  GSE team members, team leaders, and host families have universally reported life changing experiences and the formation of life long friendships as a result of the program.  Group Study Exchange is designed to attract young professionals who are the very demographic RI needs if it is to thrive.  Critics report that GSE is a dying program that has failed to attract a significant number of new Rotarians.  They advance this as a compelling reason for the program to be eliminated. This is a problem that can and should be fixed, however eliminating corporate support of the Group Study Exchange is not the answer; nor is the substitution of Vocational Training Teams (a worthwhile program in its own right, but with different goals and focus).

The Rotary Foundation correctly reports that districts are allowed to continue GSE, but they must either self fund the exchange, or utilize part of their District Grant allocation.  For districts that have limited resources and  limited DDF, this is all but impossible.  Some affluent districts have reported that they will continue GSE, and will in fact fund both ends of the program.  This is commendable, however districts that have average or below average DDF will not be able to engage in this practice.  Many districts, including my own have found it more and more difficult to attract partners.  For example, my district had been hosting two GSE teams per year prior to the Future Vision Pilot, and has hosted zero since pilot implementation.  Clearly, GSE is facing a major hurdle if it is going to continue.  

How can Group Study Exchange survive in such an environment?  The following is a letter I wrote in 2010 to then RI President Ray Klinginsmith.  Unfortunately, history has proven this to be tragically prophetic.

August 13, 2010

Ray Klinginsmith, President
Rotary International
One Rotary Center
1560 Sherman Avenue
Evanston, IL 60201

Dear President Klinginsmith:

Along with this letter you will find enclosed Paul Harris awards I have received during my time in Rotary. I am in a Future Vision Pilot District (5890) and, with the Foundation's abandonment of Group Study Exchange, it has become apparent that my vision and expectations are no longer those of the Rotary Foundation and Rotary.

I am beginning my twentieth year as a Rotarian and I am now a member of a small club in District 5890 that twenty of my good friends and I started three years ago. Despite the Foundation's sales pitch to the contrary, Future Vision's removal of funding for GSE will kill it as a Rotary Program.For me, for my family and for most in my club this will substantively change what Rotary means to us or, as one of my fellow Rotarians said, "Now Rotary is just a Lions Club with more meetings."

Fourteen years ago my wife and my two young daughters hosted our first GSE team member, a young lady from the Czech Republic. That visit started an education for my daughters by exposing them to a world beyond our rural southeast Texas home that I could have provided to them in no other way. I still remember the looks on my daughter's fourth grade class when she took "Miss Martina" to school and this Czech attorney explained that the biggest personal change for her after the end of the Cold War was that her family could now display their Christmas Tree in the open.

My daughters have moved on to college and veterinary school and each carries with them an element of understanding of the world that they have gained by having the world live for a week in their home. It has instilled in them a love of Rotary that should have led them into a future that included Rotary membership. With their response after learning of the loss of GSE, that is now questionable.

From the moment I spoke with a fellow Rotarian about starting our current club I knew one challenge facing us would be the education of 19 or 20 new Rotarians as to what makes Rotary different and better than other service organizations. Tome the answer was obvious, we had to host a GSE team as soon as possible. Before our club was even chartered we were committed to hosting a team from Brazil. Understand that this club is in Danbury, Texas, a very small town, a blue collar and agricultural community making the change to a suburb of Houston much slower than its larger neighbors. The response of many was, "You mean we'll have foreigners we don't know come live in our homes for five days." My selling job was not easy.

As I expected, the result was absolutely wonderful. From that experience the small elementary school in Danbury has a group of fifth graders who are pen pals with fifth graders in Paraiso Do Norte, Brazil. Our little club participated in an international grant with the team leader's club to purchase a laparoscope for a charity hospital in Brazil. More importantly from the Foundation's standpoint, when I brought up the topic of 100% sustaining membership the Board realized that the current economy and the working class nature of our members might make even $100 dollars a stretch. No problem, the club voted to donate that $100 dollars on behalf of each member to assure our place as a 100% sustaining membership club. To top it off, we are awaiting the arrival of our first youth exchange student on Monday. To summarize, with that GSE team we built communities and we bridged continents.

Now both I, my family and my club feel the rug has been jerked from under us with the loss of GSE. My daughters were at a going away party for this year's GSE team from India when they learned that this would be the last GSE team. They were crushed. My club learned of the change before they hosted a team from India and now their connection to the Rotary Foundation is shaken. Future Vision shows a significant divide between many in the leadership of Rotary and the average member. It appears that the Foundation has become so enamored ofthe Bill and Melinda Gates of the world that they've forgotten about us Rotarians down her at the bottom ofthe flow chart. They seem to care so much about the big donors that us Rotarians of lesser means who fry the fish and sell the raffle tickets don't matter. They take away GSE, a tool we use to build Rotary and it's international community and then expect us to continue raising funds to support their whims and egos.

Some who are in leadership at the District Level or higher adhere to the company story that loss of GSE and the rest of Future Vision are necessary for the future of Rotary. Their response seems designed more to ingratiate themselves with those who will determine their next step up the Rotary ladder without appreciating what these changes mean to the definition of Rotary at the club level. What do I now tell the young Rotarians to whom I've sold Rotary on the basis of what GSE will do for the family they are raising?

At a time when I thought I would have more time to grow our little club and spread the enjoyment and fulfillment of Rotary to other families I am instead left with a dilemma. Do I just walk away from Rotary or do I stand up to the steamroller that is Future Vision and spend the next three years fighting to save the wonders of Rotary for the young Rotarians we need so desperately? Obviously I would not have spent the time on this letter if! didn't intend to fight. As for the Paul Harris Awards, I would ask that you dispose of them however you see fit. It is apparent that they no longer represent what I thought they stood for and, to be honest, I do not want them in my home anymore.


Stephen M. Coleman
Rotary Club of Danbury, Texas

The loss of Group Study exchange will have a more wide reaching effect than the simple loss of a popular RI program.   

Please join Rotarians Matter Most in an effort to save GSE.

Click here to view our Ten Step Plan to Fix Future Vision.