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story.lead_photo.caption Fulton High School senior Hope Gowin holds her gift from the Rotary Club in Tournai, Belgium, that she presented to the Fulton Rotary Club. Gowin spent 11 months living in Belgium as a part of the Rotary Youth Exchange program. Photo by Quinn Wilson / Fulton Sun.

One Fulton High School senior has returned from a year studying abroad in Belgium with a new perspective on the world.

Hope Gowin spent August 2018 to this July living and studying in Belgium as a part of the Rotary Youth Exchange program. At Wednesday's meeting of the Fulton Rotary Club at The Copper Mine Fulton, Gowin shared her experience.

"After the exchange, my standpoint of how I view the world is a lot different," Gowin explained. "Before, I considered every problem I had from an American standpoint, and now, I have different ways to solve problems because I've seen different lifestyles and how they live, think and function."

Gowin spent most of her time and schooling in Tournai, Belgium, in the primarily French speaking region of Wallonia. Throughout her stay, she was able to visit many of the other major cities in Belgium and even neighboring Paris, France, as the country's small size and extensive public transportation system allowed easy travel.

"Belgium is only about one-fifth of the size of Missouri but their population is about 11 million, while Missouri's is only about 7 million," Gowin said.

In addition to experiencing Belgian culture while abroad, Gowin visited Belgian Rotary Clubs and found they are quite a bit different than the Fulton Rotary Club.

"There wasn't as much as an emphasis on service at the Belgian Rotary Club, which is a lot different than it is here. The club was primarily more about status, which I kind of thought defeated the purpose of it," she said.

While the Fulton Rotary Club is mixed with men and women of different ages and walks of life, Gowin said the Belgian Rotary Club she was paired with was primarily wealthy older men. She explained most clubs in Belgium were single-sex.

Gowin said her inspiration to study abroad stemmed from a best friend of hers, who was an exchange student from India during her freshman year of high school. This sparked her own eagerness to travel.

"I talked to my dad and he told me that, with Rotary, you can go on a youth exchange so I began to look more into it," Gowin said.

Gowin took French classes in high school, and this influenced her decision to go to Belgium. However, her small French education in America proved less than useful upon her arrival in Belgium.

"When I first arrived, I barely spoke any French, and that caused a lot of difficulties with language and communication," Gowin explained.

When she arrived, Gowin described her knowledge of French as being close to zero. She would now describe herself as being nearly fluent.

Language was not the only barrier during her stay abroad. Gowin explained there were many cultural differences between the United States and Belgium that caused some difficulties during her experience.

"Here in the U.S., if there's a group of people talking, you usually wait until they're done to say 'hi' to them. In Belgium, you have to say 'hi' immediately when you see someone and you have to say 'hi' to everyone in the room, and if you miss one person, it's a big problem," Gowin said.

Gowin described the trip as a great "maturing" experience. She had to deal with hardships on her own without the close support of her family in Fulton.

"Even though I was living with families, they're not my actual family. (The host families will) support you when you need things and you can live with them and they'll take you to school, but it's not the same as the emotional support you get her from your family," she said.

Thanks to her studies abroad, Gowin has a much better idea of what she wants to do in her life. She's met her goals of planning for college and has begun working toward her future career.

"I now know that I want to study international relations and do my work around that," Gowin said.

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