“I learned to trust my instincts” reflected a York House School student on her recent International Exchange experience in Australia in March of 2018. Michelle (Grade 9) travelled to Adelaide for one month to live with her exchange partner and family and to attend Seymour College. Shortly after arriving in Adelaide, Michelle’s exchange partner and family experienced the sad loss of an extended family member. Preparing for the funeral, the family kindly offered Michelle a choice to attend the service with them or to stay with a family friend for the afternoon. As Michelle reflected back on her decision, she explained, “I asked myself what I would have wanted if I were in my exchange partner’s shoes. I decided that I would want privacy, and so I stayed with the family friend for the afternoon to give my partner and her family the space to grieve and to be together. That was the right choice. And I realized then that I can trust my instincts.”
This is one gem of personal discovery of many quiet sorts that York House students make while on international exchange. Other students have expressed “feeling alive” through the experience, and growing in their confidence and independence by developing new insights about a local or global issue, overcoming feelings of homesickness, or communicating in Spanish with success with a host family at the dinner table. Adele discovered that she was stronger than she had previously thought by stretching outside of her comfort zone. Sofia, a second exchange student who journeyed to Adelaide this year, cherished making a new friend, Mia, and creating close relationships with her siblings – Hugo, aged six and Rory, aged twelve. As Sofia expressed, “I got along well with Mia’s parents, too. Living in a different household took a few days to adjust to, but after about a week, it felt like my home, and I didn’t want to leave.”
The aim of the program at YHS is for students to learn about themselves and the world through the experience of 1) hosting a visiting student for one month; 2) living with an exchange partner and attending school in another country for a month, and 3) reflecting on their growth. Currently, York House School offers this experience to ten Grade 9 students. Over the past two years, our program has grown from six to ten YHS student placements, and from three to five partner schools. YHS partners with two schools in England, two schools in Australia, and one school in Mexico. We understand that students and families are interested in having more of these opportunities, and we are in the process of expanding and diversifying these opportunities. Our commitment is to grow these partnerships with care to cultivate strong institutional relationships that support a safe and meaningful learning experience for students.
Over the years of exchange at YHS, students have expressed curiosity about the differences they encounter through their experiences with a new friend, family, school, and country. More often, however, they are struck what they have in common with others. Tash (Grade 9) shared her experiences with Alice from Abingdon, England: “When Alice first arrived in Vancouver, we were a bit awkward with one another, but by the last night in England we were up talking until two in the morning. There are differences in the ways we live and learn at school for sure. Tash laughed, “I say, ‘parkade’ and she says, ‘carpark’; I say ‘binder,’ and she says ‘folder.’ But we have so much in common: Alice and her friends talk about school, sports, …boys, and memes just like my friends and I do.”
Students have the opportunity to cultivate relationships through the experience. In most cases, students develop a positive relationship with their exchange partners and create a special memory. In some cases, these relationships continue to grow and deepen well beyond the exchange experience. Elizabeth Duxbury, a parent of a student at King Edward VI School for Girls in Birmingham, England recently wrote this about hosting a York House student: “We all had a great time with Mika, who is our third daughter, and the girls’ second sister!” Rachel’s (Grade 11) connection with her Mexico exchange partner, Constanza, has grown into a family affair. Since Constanza’s arrival to Vancouver in 2016, members of both families have travelled to and from Mexico and Canada. This summer, Constanza and her brother will join Rachel and her family for some holiday time in British Columbia. As Rachel feels, “One of the best parts of this program, is that we’ve stayed really close to their family. It sounds cheesy, but this is a relationship that will last forever.”
We hope that the International Exchange experience inspires students to stretch intellectually, socially, and emotionally, and to realize that they can create their lives with confidence. Mika (Grade 9) expressed this aspiration in this way: “On exchange, I loved learning how to make strong bonds with people. What makes this and any experience powerful is the realization that we can decide whether and how to get the most out of a situation. It really is a personal choice to create a good time while you’re at it. That’s what I discovered. It really is about a mindset. What we get out of any situation depends on how we approach the experience. Wonderful things really are possible.”
Australian exchange students Adele, Harriet, Georgia, and Tess.
Australian exchange students Harriet, Georgia, Adele, and Tess play in the snow.
International Exchange Team and Ms McDonald carving pumpkins (October 2017).
Tess (Gr. 10), Harriet, Adele (Gr. 10), and Georgia carving pumpkins at YHS (October 2017.
Olivia with exchange partner in Melbourne, Australia.
Sofia and friends swimming in Adelaide, Australia.
Sophie, Gr. 9, and friends in Melbourne, Australia.
Students on the Spring Break Service Trip to Guatemala wrote reflections on their trip. Read three of those essays below, and listen to the podcast hosted by Dana and Nina. In this podcast, the girls discuss some guiding questions and themes surrounding their trip to Guatemala, such as “The Path to Freedom”. They are joined throughout the discussion by several of their peers who participated in the trip.
Emma, Grade 10:
After travelling to Guatemala, I can truly say that it has been a life-changing experience for me. Not only has it been eye-opening, but I have created so many memories that will stay with me for my entire life. After taking some time to reflect, I would like to highlight a few moments that I believe had a positive impact on my life. When we first arrived in Guatemala, I was shocked by the amount of garbage on the streets. I started to think about how much I take for granted throwing away my garbage without thinking about it. Living in a developed country, it becomes second nature to throw your garbage in a garbage can and expect a garbage truck to come pick it up. Once leaving my garbage in the can, I do not think about the aftermath and what impact my garbage has on the environment. However, after spending time in Guatemala and reflecting afterwards, life in a developing country is vastly different. If you were to be living in a small house, with a tin roof, dirt floors, and a wood oven, you would not have a garbage can where a garbage truck drives by and picks up your trash. So, where do you put your garbage? Well, the easy answer is the street. This leads to a tremendous amount of trash on the streets. For me, this was very eye-opening. I am now more aware of the amount of garbage I throw away, I think about alternate solutions, and try to recycle more. At Project Somos, they have demonstrated an excellent example of recycling garbage by using plastic water bottles to build buildings. The water bottles are filled with garbage from around the community to help clean the neighbourhood and also reuse the garbage.
Another moment that was a highlight of the trip for me was Community Day at Project Somos. After playing with the kids at the project for about two hours, I really felt like I had built a connection with these children. They brought so much joy to my day – smiles, laughs, and fun. As the day came to an end, we had to walk the children home and back to their village. One boy was so sad he didn’t want to go home he burst out into tears. We took the kids by their hands and walked through the village and noticed what was missing. Leaving the kids that we had been playing with all afternoon was a very challenging moment for me. I noticed the conditions that they were living in without access to quality education, water, and food. This leads me to think about what would set these people free.
For many of the people living in a developing country like Guatemala, the access to education is limited. I believe this is a major step up for young children living in a developing country. With an education, afterwards, a job is a possibility. Both the mamas and the children at Project Somos are being educated in school and by other professionals. This is an incredible step towards freedom. For myself, I am very privileged living in a country where education at York House is taken for granted. I believe that awareness of other cultures around the world is something that would lead me on my path to freedom. Living in a small bubble of luxury compared to the rest of the world, having the opportunity to travel and study other cultures around the world would increase my awareness and help me better understand the different beliefs and people throughout the globe. With this education, I can use my privileged life to help others in a situation different from my own.
Dana, Grade 10:
Upon visiting a small village outside of Tecpán, Chimaltenango, Guatemala, I was able to make several profound and insightful realizations relevant to the theme of our trip: The Path to Freedom. To define, this theme speaks to improving the quality of one’s life and in turn, leading the most satisfying life possible. Now in the context of the mamas at Project Somos, it can be assumed that some physical characteristics of their path to freedom include a source of stable income, the ability to provide sufficiently for their children, and ultimately, breaking out of the cycle of poverty. In addition, escaping this vicious cycle can be marked by independence and self-sufficiency – a trait that will transition into the next few points regarding more metaphysical and abstract concepts.
As the founder of an NGO once said, it is simply impossible to help people that do not possess the genuine desire to be helped. Thus, it can be argued that faith in oneself in order to evoke change is the very first step that must be taken in order to be set on the path to freedom. For instance, seeking support by contacting the nearest non-profit in one’s area is inherently an extremely courageous action and is definitely one of the longest strides that one can take in embarking upon the path to freedom. This would also tie into having the strength to stand up against any oppressive figures that may be present in one’s life. Further, the provision of any form of significant, empowering aid can, at times, entail the ability to hope for the future and dream about one’s aspirations – an invaluable aspect in living one’s best life.
As drastic as the disparity is between daily life in Guatemala compared to Canada, I believe that certain aspects of the path to freedom are, indeed, universal. For instance, the desire for equality of human rights and freedoms is not bound to any single culture, race, or religion; however, as each individual’s situation will differ, their beliefs and ideals will, of course, be influenced by such factors. As for a more personal example, I hope to learn and grow from my surroundings and experiences in the future so that I can work towards becoming my best self – something I strive towards every day. I want to live with passion and ambition so that I can dare to push myself beyond my limits and what I believe I can achieve. Further, I would like to believe that these two overarching milestones are also applicable to many other individuals around the world. I dream for a just world in which each and every individual possesses the equal opportunity to embark upon their personal paths to freedom, however that may be defined.
Arissa, Grade 10:
Over Spring Break, I, along with thirteen girls in my grade, as well as the teacher chaperones, Sra. Marte and Ms. Robin, travelled to Guatemala. This trip left an everlasting impact on me, and it is one trip that I will never forget. In Guatemala, my peers and I had the amazing opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Guatemalan culture, as well as to take in the scenic views of the country, and be a part of the warm and friendly native local community. We were able to go out of our comfort zones and experience a third-world country first hand, which was a big change from our normal lives in Vancouver.
We volunteered at Project Somos, which is an organization that takes in single moms and their children who have been living in harsh circumstances. Project Somos is located on a high plateau in Guatemala, and it covers around 145 acres of land, in addition to being surrounded by seven volcanoes. During our stay at the Project, we had the opportunity to see one of the volcanoes erupt multiple times. Project Somos is directed by Heather and Greg, and, upon our arrival, both Heather and Greg greeted us very warmly and with great enthusiasm. My peers and I were able to feel completely at home at the Project, and we were able to help to the best of our abilities.
During our stay at the Project, we were pushed out of our comfort zones. We were all very eager to work and help out. The jobs we had to do consisted of painting, building a bike path for the kids, helping at the preschool, gardening, as well as many more. My favourite part of the project was seeing the kids smile and enjoy themselves. Even though the kids may live in tough living conditions, they always had a smile on their faces, and they were always having fun and working hard at school. For instance, after Community Day, we walked the visiting children to their villages, and I realized how different their lifestyles are in comparison to ours. These children live in major poverty but were still happy when spending time at the Project. This made me feel very happy and I was extremely pleased that I was able to spend time with these children and learn more about them and their lives.
The theme of our trip was “The Path to Freedom”, and I found that many things were on the path to freedom for the mamas and for their children at the Project. Some things that I found that were on their path included jobs with good pay, or an experience with better tools and materials, for working in the kitchen, for instance, or for creating different types of art. However, I also found that respect and kindness were also on their path to freedom. These mamas and their children have gone through so much in their lives, and have experienced harsh ways of life with no respect and no appreciation whatsoever. I feel that the mamas need to be acknowledged, not only by the people at Project, but by others living in the Guatemalan community. Respect and recognition by others in their community are what I believe the families living at the Project need in order to live a free life, with no limitations or restrictions.
Personally, what would be on my path to freedom would include exploring new communities and cultures around the world. I feel like by doing this, as well as by disconnecting from technology and from the internet, I would be set free from all that is happening in society today. By meeting new people around the world, as well as by exploring new cultures and customs, I would be able to change my perceptions and views that I have of the different environments and communities around me. I believe that this would cause me to change into a more mindful and knowledgeable individual. By travelling to Guatemala, I was given the chance to be on my path to freedom, and this was an amazing experience that I would do again in a heartbeat.
Our time in Guatemala, and at the project, consisted of new experiences, and new adventures. I had so much fun shopping at the markets and playing with the children at the Project, and I was able to spend my Spring Break in a very positive way. My peers and I were pushed to our limits on this trip and we were able to try new exotic foods, talk with the locals, and embrace their amazing culture. Guatemala is a trip that I will never forget, and it is one that will stay close to my heart.