“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.”