When 17-year-old Wachira Laonipon – better known as Mint – delivered her farewell speech as a Rotary Exchange Student recently, the room was filled with tears, laughter and admiration for this remarkably brave young visitor from Thailand.
“Imagine if you had to leave your country for a whole year. And you had so many incredible experiences you could talk about them for days and days. If you have done that you would know how hard it is … to say goodbye,” she began.
In her first few months in Miami, not only did Mint struggle to learn English, she “found it hard to make friends with Hispanics because they were a big group and only spoke in Spanish. It was difficult to fit in, but I overcame that, so what else I can say. No problem a, amigos. (No problem, friends.)”
I met Mint soon after she arrived and in the past nine months helped her put together three speeches, marveling during all of our times together how committed she was to practicing, to being the most outstanding speaker she could be, and to finding the best photographs for her slides. Her first speech was an introduction to her homeland’s culture, history, the all-girl school she attended there, and her family, for the South Miami Rotary Club, her host club.
In January, with compassion, directness, and sobering images, Mint described some of her country’s most pressing social issues to Professor Robert Hacker’s social entrepreneurship class at Florida International University.
And in her final speech, Mint revealed that “Rotary changed me from the girl I was into a young adult. I feel more confident, braver, knowing English better and I feel as though I know myself better,” she said.
“Rotary has given me the biggest opportunity in my life so far. To come and live in the United States of America, the country that has a tall woman holding the torch of liberty. A country that doesn’t allow elephants to walk on the street. A country where people watch many kinds of sports except soccer. And a country that is a democracy model for the whole world. A country which still based on freedom of speech. A country that is dreamed about by people all over the world. And I was one of them.”
With her words and spirit, Mint touched everyone lucky enough to spend time with her.