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Bemidji Rotary: Exchange program gives insight into cultures, common job

Six young professionals from the Australian island of Tasmania are currently touring the Bemidji area as part of Rotary International's group study exchange program. Local Rotarian Larry Young, right, sits with Tasmanian participants Emma Fyfe, left, Ryan Harris and Julia Baxter, Friday at Bemidji State University's American Indian Resource Center. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - The Australian island of Tasmania, with its many rounded mountain ranges, tall gum trees and unique wildlife like the Tasmanian Devil, looks very different from Bemidji, and yet a handful of Tasmanians have been impressed by the First City on the Mississippi.

Ryan Harris, 35, an account executive for Tasmania's leading telecommunications provider, was intrigued by the folklore stories of Paul Bunyan and his steed, Babe the Blue Ox.

Emma Fyfe, 28, a marking project manager for the Tasmanian government, was overjoyed when she saw a groundhog and chipmunk for the first time in her life. She hopes to see a black bear soon.

Harris, Fyfe and three other young professionals from Tasmania are participating in a traveling tour of Rotary District 5580, which encompasses northern Minnesota, North Dakota, part of northwestern Wisconsin and southern Ontario, Canada.

As part of their trip, sponsored by Rotary International, the group is spending nearly one week in Bemidji.

Each year, Rotary District 5580 extends an invitation to a rotary district from another country to participate in a group exchange program. As part of the program, a rotary representative takes a team of young professionals on a six-week exchange.

In past years, Rotary District 5580 has exchanged teams with Sweden, Korea, Denmark, India, Australia, Lithuania, Iceland, France, Taiwan and Japan.

Next month, Gary Johnson with the Bemidji Rotary Club will take five young professionals from the district to tour Tasmania.

Rotary International pays for the cost of travel for those selected to participate in the exchange program, but it is up to the local rotary clubs within a district to help accommodate the room and board for the individuals.

In Bemidji, members of the Bemidji Rotary Club, which has roughly 115 members, and the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club, which has about 30 members, assist participants by volunteering to serve as host families.

"What makes this exchange program so unique is it allows young professionals between the ages of 25 and 40 to better understand different cultures and meet people from other countries who work in their same profession," Johnson said.

For Fyfe, meeting other professionals in her field of expertise has been one of the highlights of her tour so far.

Last week, the marking professional from the Tasmanian capitol of Hobart, a city of about 215,000 people, met with regional communication coordinators who work for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Thunder Bay.

"The one thing I have discovered on this trip is there is someone doing my job all across the world," she said. "The people I sat with in Thunder Bay, we face the same challenges."

Fyfe said she found common themes between what she does in Tasmania to promote "Australia Day" and what is being done in Thunder Bay to promote "Canada Day."

"I talked to a person about how to cut up an 8 feet by 4 feet Canadian flag cake and distribute it to 1,000 people and I learned it only takes 30 minutes," she said, smiling. "I was impressed. So, we might have to cut an Australian cake."

Harris, a telecommunications account executive from West Launceston, Tasmania, a city about the same size as Duluth, said he was looking forward to meeting representatives from Paul Bunyan Communications.

One of the highlights of the tour so far, he said, has been learning about different cultures, such as American Indians. The group was given a tour on Friday of Bemidji State University's American Indian Resource Center.

"It's an opportunity for us to learn a lot about different cultures, and at the same time, more about ourselves," he said. "When you're put into an environment outside of your own country, you learn what you're all about and situations you're capable of handling."

Before heading to Brainerd later this week, the Tasmanians will toured Norbord's wood products plant in Solway, Concordia Language Villages, Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Forensics Science Laboratory and Itasca State Park.

In addition, the group will make presentations to both rotary clubs in Bemidji.

When Bemidji residents think of Rotary, they often think of events like the Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, which the Rotary clubs in Bemidji sponsor, or the Rotary pavilion located near Bemidji's waterfront, Johnson said. Few people know about rotary's international projects, he added.

"It's not as apparent to people how much international work we do," he said. "Not only do we do these group exchange programs, but our club also works in Honduras every year to repair schools. Rotary International is in more than 200 countries worldwide."

For more information about the rotary group exchange program, visit