Gateway: Living

Gig Harbor Rotary exchange students gear up for big year abroad

Gig Harbor High School sophomore Alexa Walker is ready to take to the skies for Thailand.
Gig Harbor High School sophomore Alexa Walker is ready to take to the skies for Thailand. Courtesy

Several weeks ago, good friend Dick Vanberg, a fellow Communities In Schools of Peninsula board member, alerted me to the impending departure on Rotary Club scholarships to Italy and Thailand of two of our promising young students, Annina Liebner and Alexa Walker. Dick happens to be a member of the sponsoring Gig Harbor Morning Rotary Club, which selected Annina, the outbound Italian exchange student for the school year of 2017-2018. The Rotary Club of Gig Harbor Midday selected Alexa.

Annina got involved with the Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) Program, “out of pure luck,” she said. “The Rotary Youth Exchange Program announced over the Peninsula High School intercom they would be meeting those who wanted to be involved with a study abroad program for the upcoming year. I went to the meeting. They gave me information about their program, and I was interested. In fact, I had tried to be an exchange student the year before but my family believed I was too young and I should wait. I waited the previous year, so I went to the meeting for the exchange,” said Annina, a junior at PHS.

“I became involved with the exchange because I always wanted to travel, meet new people and create new experiences,” she added. “I also want to travel in the future. This exchange allows me to learn one or two new languages, make connections with individuals from a different culture, and I will have to learn about the new geographical area. Last, and most importantly, the Rotary International is a service-based group that helps others throughout the world.

Annina applied and was accepted into the program after several rigorous interview sessions. The interviews asked her about her life, hobbies, interests, grades, and much more.

“Not only did they interview me but they interviewed my family as well,” Annina said. “The whole process was very thorough and swift.”

Since then, she has had the pleasure of interacting with the Gig Harbor Rotary Morning club, especially Richard Vanberg, Jeanie Simmons and Betty Felker.

“I want very much to thank them for helping me along the way! Grazie Mille!” she said.

See! Annina is well on her way to fluency in Italian!

Annina also works with Purdy Elementary School students from Purdy’s STEM club, which is hosted by Peninsula High School’s HOSA club (Health Occupation Students of America), of which Annina is an active member.

Alexa, a fellow Rotary exchange student from Gig Harbor High School, said, “When I was 10, my sister stumbled upon Rotary Youth Exchange by chance. For fun, she applied in an attempt to learn more about the process. She ended up being accepted and completed an exchange in Norway from 2012 to 2013. I was able to see the process firsthand and become more involved in Rotary-sponsored events at a young age.

“At my age, many people aren’t given the opportunity to embark on such an amazing adventure. I have an idea of the kind of accomplishments and struggles I will run into but my main goal is to grow.”

When Alexa became old enough, she knew it was something she wanted to pursue.

“I’m proud of the efforts, from not only myself, but my entire family, and the Gig Harbor Midday Rotary Club,” she said. “They got me to where I am today. I know the collaboration has really shaped me as a person, and I am thrilled to be spending the next 12 months in Thailand.”

Alexa’s mother and father, David and Hope, are “two very educated and loving people who worked very hard for their education and for the lifestyle my sister and I have today,” she said. “They have always made sure that diversity and knowledge are two things that have a lot of meaning in our household. Being a mixed race family also means that we are big on acceptance and showing people that being different is never bad!”

“Diversity and knowledge are two things that have a lot of meaning in my household,” Alexa added. “Being able to travel as well as share and receive knowledge from different cultures and groups is something I find extremely intriguing and necessary to grow as a person. I am a very hands-on person —that’s how I learn best — so being able to completely immerse myself in something unfamiliar to me is exciting.”

Alexa’s had amazing experiences with the Gig Harbor Midday Rotary Club. Her two youth exchange officers, Bob Anderson and Mary Gorman, have been supportive and helpful. While she was in the application process, Anderson made sure she had every morsel of information he could provide, and toward the end, Gorman was ready to go with pins, flags and warm wishes.

“I believe mutual understanding and tolerance are key to integrating your life into anything new,” said Alexa. “My goal throughout this year is to gain an understanding and passion for this new culture and really embrace everything around me. I know the world has amazing paths in store for all of us, and I am grateful to be starting my quest at this age.”

Hugh McMillan is a longtime contributing writer for the Gateway. He can be reached at