Micah Warner-Carey considered himself a well-traveled individual. But nothing could have prepared him for gathering with 300 exchange students in downtown Brussels one week into his seven-month study-abroad program in Belgium.
“I’d never met so many unique and interesting people at one time,” Warner-Carey recalled. “It was kind of overwhelming to meet so many people with different languages, ages and life experiences all coming together with this one thing we had in common, to put our lives on hold in our home countries and go experience the world for a year.”
That’s exactly what Warner-Carey, 19, did from August 2019 to March 2020 in Belgium. He lived and studied there for seven months, and though his trip was cut short by three months because of the coronavirus pandemic, his time abroad was a “life-changing experience” that altered his perception of what it means to be a global citizen. It also made him reconsider his career path.
Warner-Carey, Half Moon Bay High School class of 2019, first got the idea to travel abroad while he was an officer in the high school’s Interact Club, which is supported by the Rotary Club of Half Moon Bay. Through the high school club, he learned about the Rotary Club Youth Exchange Experience, an international network that sponsors students to live with local families while attending school full time in foreign countries.
Warner-Carey applied and was accepted to the program, which covered finding host families and school fees. The Rotary Club used its network in nearly 80 countries to connect him with a family that suited his interests and language preferences. Given his age, 18 at the time of applying, his options were somewhat limited. The Rotary Club eventually settled on Belgium because of the connection established a few years prior by Caroline Gossart, a former Rotary exchange student who came to Half Moon Bay from Belgium, and is now an honorary member.
It was a leap of faith for Warner-Carey. He knew very little French, having only taken Spanish for two years at the high school. In fact, learning a new language was “one of the biggest concerns for me,” Warner-Carey said.
After a surprise trip to Paris upon his arrival, he spent most of his time in La Louviere, a city of 80,000 people 50 minutes south of Brussels and the hometown of Gossart. Warner-Carey dove into learning how to speak French in the classroom first, then at home with the help of his host brother and sister. He said it felt frustrating to not be able to express himself the way he wanted while other students seemed to grasp the language out of thin air. But around the four-month mark something clicked, and he began thinking and dreaming in French.
“It definitely took some time,” he said. “My host family was extremely patient and gracious with me, even though it’s not their job to teach me.”
He also attended the local Rotary Club meetings. As Half Moon Bay’s ambassador, he was there for presentations, community service events and outreach opportunities. Rotary also helped with travel around Europe, according to Warner-Carey.
Warner-Carey believes the opportunity provided him with not only a new outlook on the international community, but the value of human connection.
“Connections are a very important pillar of an exchange student’s life,” he said. “Without connections, it’s almost impossible to complete the exchange year. It can be very lonely to leave all your friends and family and everything you knew from your culture. The small things get to you if you’re not careful.”
Warner-Carey found the best way to deal with the culture shock was to immerse himself in local customs and activities. Whether that included taking art classes, joining the Maison de Jeunesse — an after-school music program through which he could continue his lifelong enthusiasm for the drums — or taking an 18-hour bus ride from Belgium to Barcelona, Warner-Carey rarely seemed to pass up an opportunity. He made lifelong friends along the way and still messages his host family nearly every day.
Warner-Carey was impressed by the ease of travel across Europe. His newfound passion for European history, culture and lifestyle made him rethink his academic path. He plans to major in international studies at the University of Oregon, starting this fall.
“I think it inspired me to learn more about the world,” he said of his experience. “I’ve been pretty lucky to be well-traveled beforehand, and while I knew there were other languages and cultures out there that I could appreciate from the outside, being able to live a life in another culture, 100 percent immersed, really opened my eyes to being a global citizen.”