The first time Paulina Borja ever saw snow fall to the ground, just this past fall, she was mesmerized for two weeks.
“Now it’s white, white, white, everywhere,” laughed the 17-year-old exchange student from Peru at her host family’s house in Orléans.
Borja is taking part in the Rotary Youth Exchange program from her hometown of Arequipa, Peru.
Having completed the graduation requirements in her home country, she is taking Grade 12 courses – including English and French – at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School.
She’s discovered skating on the canal and a Canadian favourite food: Beavertails.
When she landed in Ottawa in September, she only knew a few words of English. She was forced to pick up the language quickly, setting her Spanish aside for the year.
“The exchange is very difficult at the beginning because you miss everything, but you have to be positive because you’re only going to live this once,” Borja said. “I missed my family a lot. But now I’m thinking I’m going to miss my friends, my family here.”
The students live with three different host families during the school year, to get different experiences. Borja’s first host dad was a security guard on Parliament Hill, so she got the deluxe tour.
She now lives with Rotary exchange co-coordinator Carmen Larsen-Grijalva’s family. Larsen-Grijalva has hosted several of the exchange students that have come to Orléans – her seven-year-old son recently drew a family portrait at school that included all of the exchange students, who they consider family.
She’s excited for friends from Canada to visit Peru someday, and already has plans to come back to visit.
Already she’s travelled to Mont Tremblant, Que., Kingston, Ont., Montreal and New York City and will meet up with other Rotary exchange students in June to do a tour of the west coast of the United States.
Learning a new language was tough for Borja, but it was one of the main draws for the student, who will study communications in Peru next year.
“In Canada, you have the possibility to learn French and English,” she said. “But at first I didn’t understanding anything. Nothing.”
While she attends classes at Sir Wilfrid Laurier, other exchange students in Orléans have attended French high school to master that language.
During the exchange, which must be done in another language, students don’t generally earn high school credits that count towards their home diploma, but come home with a full second language.
Borja’s noticed several differences between her home high school and Orléans. While she’s used to classes of mostly Peruvian students, she said her friends in Canada are from all over the world.
She’s used to participating actively in extracurricular activities, with Peruvian schools offering a lot of after-school events, dances, and clubs. With work to rule, she’s noticed the lack of activities here.
And of course the cold.
Borja gasped when asked about the cold streak, something she’d definitely never experienced before.
“Dying, dying, dying!” she said. “The food, the weather, the people, everything is new.”
But she’s never regretted coming for the new experience and getting to see such a different culture.
“I wanted a new experience, I wanted to know more about the world,” she said. “And I have to come back to Canada.”
Last year, the Orléans Rotary Club sent a student from Barrhaven overseas when no Orléans student applied. It looked like no student was going to be going on exchange next year because they decided to only send a student if they were from Orléans.
St. Matthew High School student Colton Holmes will take the last available spot within the Ottawa area, leaving this summer for an entire year to Poland.
“Colton is getting the golden ticket to see the world, experience another culture, and make Orléans proud,” Larsen-Grijalva said.
The Rotary exchange is an affordable program she said, with families only responsible for airfare and an allowance while they are away.
Host families – both internationally and in Orléans – don’t receive any money for hosting the students.
Orléans Rotary is now looking for a student who will be 15 to 18 years old in the 2014-15 school year to sign up for the exchange.
Larsen-Grijalva said learning a second language fluently in only a year is worth it.
“They need to have leadership, the inner passion,” she said. “Everything is going to be different from what you know.”
Approved students attend Rotary meetings and training with other exchange students to prepare them for the move.
For every student Orléans sends, one is hosted in the community, but not necessarily at the travelling student’s home.
There are also short-term exchanges when students are paired with an international students. They live together in the host country and then back in Orléans for several weeks at a time.
“They get a new language and a priceless experience,” said Larsen-Grijalva.
Students wishing to get more information on a 2014-15 school year exchange can email Larsen-Grijalva by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.