Learning: Experiencing Canada through Exchange Programs

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by Sylvia Moscovitz

All parents share the same concerns. They want their children to make friends at school and in the community, and to become part of the Canadian social fabric while retaining, and feeling free to express who they are and where they came from.

As the face of Canada evolves, our youth needs opportunities to explore the rich and diverse culture that this nation offers. For over 70 years, the Society for Educational Visits and Exchanges in Canada (SEVEC) has made youth exchanges across the country possible. With Governor General Michaelle Jean as its current Patron and the Department of Canadian Heritage as its major funder, SEVEC is committed to providing subsidized opportunities for youth from the thirteen provinces and territories to take part in two-week linguistic/cultural, thematic or volunteer exchanges.

To date, more than 300,000 young Canadians between 12 and 17 have participated in SEVEC exchanges, educational trips, and roundtables. SEVEC strongly believes that linguistic and cultural exchanges are an excellent way to celebrate diversity and, at the same time, create a strong sense of identity.

SEVEC’s language and cultural exchanges are short-term programs, one week long. Youth are “twinned” (matched) with one another and stay with the twin’s host family for a week, immersed in the language and culture of that community. The following week, the host twin visits the other community and experiences that culture.

Months before the face-to-face exchange, group organizers (teachers, educators and leaders of recognized community groups) encourage participants to exchange photos and information about their families, homes and communities, in preparation.

Safety is a top concern and SEVEC has a proven track record in providing secure, closely-chaperoned exchanges and structured, inclusive activities. The learning component is determined by the group organizer and reflects the needs and goals of the youth participants. All youth participants sign a Code of Conduct which describes appropriate behaviour.

In August 2008, 12 dynamic young people between 14 and 16 from across Ontario took part in Volunteer Youth Experience (VYE), volunteering at two cultural festivals – one Scottish, the other Francophone. Along with two experienced group leaders, the kids teamed up to live, learn and volunteer together, discovering one another’s culture. They practised their second language skills, engaged in leadership and teambuilding exercises and handled various volunteer tasks.

“It was an awesome experience,” said Crystal, one of the participants. “We got to meet new people, make new friends, learn about a new community, volunteer at festivals and have a lot of fun!”

June Duong, a Chinese-Canadian student from Ontario, had such a positive experience that she decided to become a member of SEVEC’s Youth Advisory Committee (YAC), a group of youth from all provinces and territories who link with their peers across Canada through in-school presentations and social networking. YAC members are committed to developing awareness and appreciation of the great diversity of languages and cultures to be found in Canada.

June shared her thoughts in a speech which she delivered in December 2008 to delegates at SEVEC’s Annual General Meeting. “During the Volunteer Youth Experience in Ontario, we got to explore a completely different culture while learning teamwork and getting to know one another a lot better. We were assigned various jobs, from looking after children in an arts and crafts centre to helping Scottish families trace their kin back to their roots. In Fergus we took part in many different workshops involving the French language, and we learned vital communication skills.”

June added, “After that experience, we moved to Casselman. It is a francophone town, yet a lot of them speak English as well. This was really inspiring because I want to be fl uently bilingual. We volunteered at a French play called “L’echo d’un peuple” and we felt privileged to be able to support it. By the second week of our trip, our French skills had improved drastically. At the start we were not able to have a full conversation in French. We each kept a journal during the VYE program and, by the time we left Cassleman, most of us were writing our journal entries in French, instead of English!”

SEVEC regularly receives many similar testimonials from young people of diverse cultural backgrounds who have participated in exchanges. These experiences are a wonderful way for youth to interact and learn with their counterparts across Canada, forging strong friendships and ties which will continue into their adult lives.

For more information, please visit SEVEC’s website at www.sevec.ca or call its toll-free number at 1-800-382-3832.

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