Two youth exchange students from the Elk Valley will soon return from their year-long Rotary youth exchanges in Japan and New Zealand.
Fernie’s Astrid Bloemink (17) and Sparwood’s Alexis Winter (18) left in July of last year, ready to further their education in a foreign country.
Cast into an unknown land, the girls were challenged with not only learning a new language, but also adapting to the many cultural differences.
Looking back on the past year, Winter acknowledged that there have been challenging moments, but rewarding ones at the same time. Coming from a small town to a big city brought with it a large learning curve. Winter was required to use the bus system, a foreign concept to Sparwood youth. Winter also had to transition from a school of 300, to a school of 3000.
“Overall, the experience has been well-worth all the challenges,” she said.
Winter was motivated to participate in the youth exchange after having a German exchange student stay with them for one year. Winter is also the youngest of two older sisters who have seen their fair share of Asia and Central America.
Winter acknowledged that the school system in New Zealand is more centralized around one culture. In school, they learn about customs, song and dance.
She believes that her travels have changed her as a person.
“I definitely have a better perspective of the world, all the different cultures, and how easy it is to communicate with people even when they speak different languages,” said Winter. “I really do think it’s changed me.”
District outbound chair for youth exchange in district 5080, Lorraine Hartson, hopes that the main lesson students leave with is tolerance and understanding. Rotary hopes the students also come back fluent in another language.
Although the youth were responsible for all costs, Rotary District 5080 played a large role in organizing the exchanges. District 5080 has an expansive reach, which starts in Golden, includes West and East Kootenay and reaches over to Tri-Cities in Washington. For each student they send out, Rotary accepts one back into Canada for the same one-year term. This year, Rotary sent out 16 students, and brought 17 in. Throughout the year, the inbound students spend their time with three different families. Fernie received one inbound student this year, 16-year-old Manon Leroux.
Hartson herself never went on an exchange, but has hosted 17 inbound students over the years, and says this in itself has been incredibly rewarding.
Before leaving Canada, outbound students are told that they are Rotary ambassadors, and that they represent their country, their community, their school, their family and themselves.
“They’re there to put their best effort forward, they’re there to learn about another country culture and language, but also to share their culture and their country with others,” said Hartson. “It’s to promote peace, good will and understanding.”
Since the program was initiated in 1970, Rotary District 5080 has hosted students from Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Bolivia, Brazil, Chili and Ecuador.