The student exchange season is in full bloom when high school students wing off to another province or country on a class or cultural exchange.
Their purpose might be to compete in a skill like band, to learn another language while attending school and billeting with a family who lives in the second language, or to tour a foreign country and experience their cuisine and lifestyle.
Lengths of exchanges can vary from a few weeks to many months. Yet even after a brief time away, some teens come back with their priorities and outlook so rearranged we scarcely recognize our offspring.
At the age of 17, our firstborn joined Canada World Youth for a six month exchange to India. The plan was to divide the time equally between Canada and India but the assassination of Indira Gandhi juggled her travel dates.
You can imagine our misgivings, letting our daughter go off in the company of strangers to a distant country wracked by civil unrest.
Our girl departed leaving behind a wardrobe more coordinated than Sheldon Cooper’s, and a room with her belongings arranged as precisely as Sheldon’s boxes of breakfast cereal. He lines them up by percentage of fibre content.
When young people share lives of families in other cultures, they change in subtle ways. Canada World Youth is known for influencing their values and attitudes, increasing open-mindedness and confidence, as well as allowing them to hone their communication, learning, and organizational skills.
She returned robbed of organizational skills, upended her suitcase on her bedroom floor and for days walked over her clothes as though they were a throw rug. Gone were her coordinated outfits in styles sanctioned by her age group. She wore mismatched colours and gauzy skirts down to her ankles. I fretted, “Our daughter has become a flower child!”
She had also become a strict vegetarian – no more bacon, pork chops, fried chicken or hamburgers.
A major benefit of letting young people travel is parents’ realization their children are far more capable than we think. Our daughter told of eating foods I couldn’t even spell; had coped with monkeys screaming at the bars of her bedroom window, fed silkworms, and ridden trains notorious for overcrowding.
At the time our daughter embarked on an introductory three months with her Indian counterparts at an outdoor camp in the Kootenays, thanks to overprotective parents she had never so much as slept over at a friend’s house.
Nonetheless, she undertook the distant sojourn undaunted by my last minute caution – “If things go wrong, don’t panic. Think first, then seek help.” I might have been counselling myself.
This was years before laptops, cell phones and other social media. In India, the participants bunked with families living in rudimentary rural homes. Any notion of phoning Mom and Dad was out. During her months away, we received three letters from her. Well acquainted with anxious parents, Canada World Youth gave us only their main access number. I phoned it once to check on her safety after a flood.
With today’s media access, chances are every exchange student carries a laptop or smartphone capable of updating Mom and Dad multiple times a day.
Though my memory of her first weeks home have faded, I do recall worrying she might have lost her career drive.
I worried needlessly. Although she chose a new career goal, she reset her compass and drove for it full tilt, enrolled mostly in distance education courses. Through student loans and flipping hamburgers, she financed her way to two degrees and eventually a Masters.