I vividly and fondly remember bits and pieces of my first experience as an exchange student. I was in grade 6 at École St. Noël-Chabanel in North York, Ontario.  Our class had been paired with a group from an alternative middle school located in what seemed like an exotic and far-off jewel of a city: Montréal. I can still envision my host family’s rambling three story century home near the Henri-Bourrassa metro, remember my first taste of fondue bourguignonne, and picture the lightly freckled face of my “twin”. Her name was Dominique, and at the time, she was definitely the coolest kid that I had ever met!  In retrospect, that one week living with my new “famille”, immersed in their day-to-day, may very well have trumped 8 years of French schooling (sorry mom!). The whole experience left me wanting to learn more about a language that I had been studying my entire life, and to become more deeply connected to a culture that was part of my personal heritage.

SEVEC exchange participants

SEVEC participants

Fast forward 30 years, and my son, who is now in grade 6, has just spent the week hosting his exchange twin.   This time (definitely older, questionably wiser), I now recognize and am able to appreciate how the experiential learning tied to an exchange program can significantly influence a person’s worldview…and have documented a small sampling of the participants’ reflections in this post.

Here at home, from a pool of local Pontiac youth, 23 grade 6 & 7 students were chosen to participate in this year’s SEVEC (Society for Educational Visits and Exchanges in Canada) program. These student adventurers were carefully matched with equally intrepid travellers from Scott Bateman Middle School in The Pas, Manitoba. For one week, each group would play host to the other, sharing their “best of” in terms of historical, cultural, regional and local highlights. And perhaps of even greater significance,  students would be invited to stay in the homes of their twins and experience what it really means to be part of another and sometimes very different community.

SEVEC exchanges are funded in part by Heritage Canada, and the participants bear no financial responsibility for travel costs.  However, the investment in time and effort involved in both planning and implementing each exchange is truly immeasurable. In Manitoba, teacher Korrie Hopper took on the lead organizing role for her school’s contingent. Here in the Pontiac, Barry McGowan, a retired teacher and former WQSB administrator, was this year (as he has been for many years), the driving force behind the exchange.

SEVEC exchange organizers

Organizers: Barry McGowan and Korrie Hopper

New experiences often provide new insights, which develop and refine how we make sense of the world…and our place in it.  For the exchange participants, these insights seem to speak of personal growth, of a heightened sense of self-awareness, of an appreciation for cultural uniqueness as well as commonalities, and of a strong desire to make and maintain connections. Here is what some of them shared:

When I went to The Pas I really didn’t know much about Native culture but by the time I left…I had learned a ton. I had never heard about the Northern Trapper’s festival but it was awesome to participate in some of the activities they had. SEVEC has given me a chance to learn about different cultures, as well as my own.  At home, we went on the Wakefield steam train and to the Parliament Buildings. I really fell in love with travelling! And, I am now  friends with people from all over the Western provinces. I still speak with my twin from last year on almost a daily basis. -Erika from Shawville QC

I got to see a different part of Canada that I probably would not ordinarily visit. I really liked my host family even though they were not my twin’s family.  It was hard to get to know my twin because I didn’t stay with him. I had a better experience with the exchange (last year) because my twin and I were a better match. But I still think that I anyone who has the chance to participate should. You get to see a different part of our country and understand how other people live. -William B. from Shawville QC

It was really fun to be here in Quebec because most of the time everybody was really nice to me. And that gives me the confidence to know that I could do this again. The experience also makes me realize that everybody is different…and that’s okay. I know that we’ll stay connected. -David from The Pas MB

Some things that I have learned: how to make new friends, to have more fun and…to live life! SEVEC made it possible for me to fly on a plane for the first time, and is a great experience for those who don’t travel much. I’m sad that it is over but I know that I have come out of it with more new friends and stronger ties to some of my old ones. -Emma from Shawville QC

I would definitely go back to The Pas…a place that I didn’t even know existed before visiting. I’ll always remember the family I stayed with and think of them every time I look at a map of Canada. I can’t wait to do this again…hopefully next year! -William H. from Shawville QC

I was surprised at how much extra time organizing this trip required. With two small kids at home and working full time, it was a lot, but worth it all. I really liked being able to get out of the confines of the classroom and experience positive things with the kids. It’s always nice to see the other side of your students and have fun with them; not always be the ‘big bad teacher’! I also liked seeing them experience so many new things. I had kids that had never been on a plane, never been out of the province, and for some it was their first time away from home. I feel as if  I got to watch some of the kids mature so much in such a short period of time. I had one girl that was so afraid of going that she almost backed out. I never once saw her without a smile on her face while we were gone; I think she proved a lot to herself on this trip. I felt very proud of a lot of our students. That is my favourite part, for sure.  -Teacher K. Hopper, Scott Bateman Middle School, The Pas MB

As this school year winds down, dedicated teachers across the province are already gearing up mentally for next fall. Why not consider taking your students on a cultural exchange? Yes, the commitment may seem daunting, but the impact of the experience on all of those who share in it can resonate for a lifetime.

Kristine Thibeault

SEVEC is currently accepting applications for 2012-2013 exchanges. You can find out more at www.sevec.ca.