Daniel Caicedo woke up one morning to find a castle outside his window. He went to Norwich, England, on academic exchange through the University of British Columbia’s Go Global program and had arrived the night before.
“That building,” he says “is older than any of my grandparents … than the entire country of Canada, older than anything I’ve ever seen in my life.”
There are a variety of exchange programs in Canada for those interested in learning or volunteering abroad. Although the goals of each program are unique, all of them aim to provide young people with the opportunity to experience other cultures, make a positive impact in their host community and develop interpersonal skills.
New Love and Salsa Club
Now in his final year as an undergraduate student at UBC, Caicedo happily recalls his adventure in England. In his second year at university, Caicedo met extraordinary new friends who were international students.
“[They] reawakened my love for Europe … I just thought now it’s my turn.”
After what Caicedo calls “a bit of a tough application process” he was accepted to the University of Eastern Anglia.
Although it was a positive experience overall, Caicedo says there were difficult moments, such as being far away from his family and friends. After receiving yet another invitation to a party in Vancouver which he could not attend, he decided to start his own salsa dance group in Norwich.
“There wasn’t much salsa going on there so I said, I’m going to make it happen here,” he says.
The International Students’ Society at UEA was a great resource, says Caicedo. The society organized an orientation for new students within a few days of his arrival and he found their events a great place to connect with others.
“Some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met were at those events,” says Caicedo.
International Internships with AIESEC
Although a student exchange program implies that there is a reciprocal swapping of people taking place, this is not a requirement.
AIESEC is known to be the world’s largest non-profit, student-run organization. Margaret Kim, incoming president at AIESEC UBC Chapter says that although the program used to aim for a one to one ratio, where for every student that went abroad another one came to Canada, it’s not like that anymore.
Kim says that “AIESEC was set up after the Second World War in the hopes that people will experience different cultures” which would help to promote understanding and decrease future conflict.
“‘All the major universities have a chapter,’ says Kim, noting that AIESEC members are present in 110 countries and territories around the world.” AIESEC offers the global internship program, which is for students whose management or technical skills match the host country’s needs. This includes education internships where students teach a language or cultural awareness in another country.
AIESEC also has a global community development program, which is project-based and involves students working with international groups.
According to Kim, these opportunities to experience other cultures are important.
“They impact society and they impact you,” says Kim.
She says that students who attend internships abroad are socially integrated into their new community with a variety of social events organized by their host chapter. AIESEC also brings young people to Canada to experience internships with local businesses here.
Adventures in Thailand
The Global Youth Volunteer Network (GYVN) also involves students in development projects abroad. Kim Ross, is doing a master of Music Therapy in Ireland, recalls her month of volunteering in Thailand, and how she had to become a “busker” to get there.
A native of Saskatchewan, Ross says that fundraising for her trip to Thailand was a very positive experience. She decided to busk in her workplace, a gym in downtown Vancouver.
“I set up my keyboard at 6:30 a.m. and played throughout the day, she says. “It was a cool way to talk to the gym members about where I was going, and why, and to hear their stories as well. I even played music with some of them.”
Ross raised a total of $1,200 that day, just from donations at the gym.
When she arrived in Thailand, she felt that the experience was a whirlwind. Her volunteer group first went to northern Thailand, where entire villages were made up of Burmese refugees. Although living in such close proximity to Thai culture, the refugees were excluded from it, and had no access to education or medical care.
“The local NGO consisted of one person,” says Ross, “a doctor from Burma.”
According to Ross, the doctor greeted the volunteers at the airport and taught them how to provide access to clean water and sanitation in the villages.
Ross says that they lived in the villagers’ bamboo huts. “They cooked amazing food for us, we climbed a waterfall and ate fresh fruit off the trees. It was work too, but it was amazing.”
Afterwards, the volunteers went to live in a town along the border with Burma. A group called Compasio, who collaborated with the GYVN was building a safe house for homeless refugee children.
Ross says that they discovered that in the developing world there wasn’t a distinction between work and play.
“[In Thailand] we would take breaks whenever we wanted…yet, because everyone was helping each other, the process was really enjoyable.” says Ross. “… it was fun, and we got an awful lot done.”
Exchange programs are one way to discover the world, another way is completely moving to another country.
Milena Colovic left her native Montenegro at 17 and went to study in Hong Kong at the United World Colleges (UWC).
She applied to Simon Fraser University last year as an international student and was able to go because of a scholarship the UWC gives out to six students each year.
Colovic says she didn’t feel overwhelmed when she first arrived in Vancouver.
“People and nature here were close to [her]… it was easy to settle down” and become acquainted with the city.
Asked if she would recommend going to live and study abroad, she said that she would.
“It’s not the same as traveling or being a tourist, [which can be] more artificial, as everything is arranged for you.”
Colovic says living in another country can seem intimidating and scary.
“[Travelling] allows you to experience so many new things … it enriches your personality.”