Taylor Hunter, a Kwalikum Secondary student, returned from a nearly year-long trip to the Netherlands arranged by the Rotary Club of Qualicum Beach and a Rotary Club in the Netherlands this past July.
It’s a trip that’s changed who she is, and her direction in life.
Even now, months after returning, Hunter said she misses the country she had never visited before August 2016, but which became her home, and the strangers that became even more than friends.
“I have an international family, now,” she said.
The Rotary Club of Qualicum Beach’s Long Term Exchange Program sponsors one School District 69 (Qualicum) student going into Grade 11 or 12 to live and go to school in one of more than 25 countries from August to the following July each year.
The countries students can travel to include Colombia, Japan, Spain, France, Sweden, Hungary, Taiwan, Thailand and others.
Each student stays with Rotary families in the country they are visiting and goes to school there, with their school tuition, accommodation, food and a monthly allowance provided by Rotary clubs in the host country. This amounts to up to $24,000 in assistance.
Students and their families must cover airfare and other expenses.
Hunter, who was already interested in travel, found out about the program through a family friend and local Rotary Club member.
After health check-ups and an interview and review process that runs from September to December, Hunter was told she would get to take the year-long trip.
Though Switzerland had been Hunter’s first choice, her exchange was with the Netherlands — her second choice.
“I am so thankful I got the Netherlands,” she said, calling the trip an “amazing, life-changing experience.”
At 17 years old, Hunter arrived at the Amsterdam airport, greeted by a family she had spoken with for the first time only a week earlier.
“It was just amazing, walking into one of the biggest airports in the world, and never having travelled on your own,” said Hunter.
“Everyone is speaking to me in Dutch, (so there is) major culture shock when I got off the plane… (and there are) lots of emotions, because you’re missing your family already.”
From then on, there was plenty to get used to, she said, like riding a bike everywhere.
“Biking in wind and rain, I couldn’t figure out why all the little children biking to school were all huddled behind me with their bikes,” said Hunter with a smile. “But it’s because the first person who gets the wind blocks it for the rest. They were the longest bike rides of my life, but I did it every day. It was great. I’m glad I did it. I miss it.”
The food was also quite different, she said — often meat, potatoes and steamed veggies all mixed together.
On occasion the smaller things were most difficult to get used to.
“Dutch stairs are tiny,” she said with a laugh.
“At Christmastime I fell down the stairs, and I was stuck with my Dutch family in the house for at least two weeks.” The fall left her unable to venture outdoors, and away from friends who would speak English with her, said Hunter.
“I basically heard Dutch 24-7… That was my cracking point when I started learning the language, and everything started happening from there on.”
Hunter stayed with four families while she was in the Netherlands, and travelled to nine different countries, sometimes with groups of exchange students, and to Spain on her own.
She described the experience as having a second life, and said she now plans to attend school in Germany, two hours away from where she lived in the Netherlands.
The deadline for applications for the 2018/2019 Rotary exchange is Oct. 27.
“Don’t miss the opportunity,” said Hunter.
Her advice for the student who does the exchange is, “Every day is a new day.
“Of course there are some hard days. You’re like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But the next day is always 100 per cent better, and when you look back, you’re going to realize those bad days you had were some of the best days of your life.”
For more information, and to find an application, go to http://rye5020.org/page/long-term-exchange-program.