The Rotary International Exchange program offers students the opportunity to experience foreign cultures, delve into personal growth and expand youthful boundaries and that was certainly true for Cheri Maisonneuve.
At 16, having a connection to a world traveller, Cheri had a glimpse of life beyond Quesnel and began looking for exchange opportunities, starting with her school counsellor.
“She told me about Rotary exchange,” Cheri said.
She and her parents were thoroughly evaluated for Cheri’s suitability for the program, and to her excitement she was selected.
“Rotary is one of the few exchange programs that is merit based with an extensive selection process,” she said.
“They try to prepare you for what you’ll experience.”
Cheri said one of the most important aspects to being a Rotary exchange student is your role as an ambassador for Canada, your community and Rotary.
“I took that very seriously and was proud to fulfil that role,” she said.
So, in 1995, Cheri headed to Oaxaca, Mexico where she ran headlong into a cultural shock she never expected.
“Back then we didn’t all have cell phones or the technology they have now to stay in touch with home,” she said.
“Once you arrived at your host family home you wrote lots of letters and might talk on the phone to your own family maybe once a month.”
It wasn’t long before Cheri felt grateful and really appreciated how good life is in Canada for most Canadians.
“Even as a middle class Canadian, I was better off than most Mexicans and that was a humbling realization,” she said.
Cheri, a veteran with 5 exchanges under her belt, said exchanges have a definite cycle with everything new and wonderful the first 3 – 4 months, but then the language challenges, the lack of modern conveniences you’re used to, missing family and adjusting to life in another country begins to take a toll. She said it was especially true at Christmas for her.
However, an aspect of life in Canada that she never expected to miss, really impacted her.
“I missed the B.C. trees, the greenery, the wildlife, life in Oaxaca is mostly desert with palm trees and only two seasons, rainy and hot,” she said.
“I missed the four seasons.”
Cheri attended a government high school and was enrolled in their tourism program. Students in Mexico either attend private school or government schools and there was no budget for private school for Cheri.
But she loved the experience.
“We had to wear uniforms and I thought I would hate that but I actually loved it. You didn’t have to think about what you’d wear and it takes away a lot of the distinction between students,” she said.
“I also played volleyball and a form of soccer called ‘baby foot’ which was played on a concrete court, sort of like a tennis court. I learned very good ball handling skills.”
In total, Cheri and three other North American Rotary exchange students rotated through four different host families and Cheri said as with any situation, some were good placements and some presented unique challenges, but each also presented learning and personal growth opportunities for this avid exchange student.
“The outbound exchange student has an obligation to interact with their host community, immerse themselves in the culture and really try to disconnect, even for a little while, with what they know to be home. It would seem that’s more difficult for today’s exchange students than it was for me, as we didn’t have those options,” she said.
“But it’s so important to get the most out of your exchange experience and to work to overcome language and culture challenges.”
For this teenage girl, her experience in Mexico kicked off her love of travel, culture and helping people.
She went on to achieve a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce with a major in International Business, a post graduate diploma in political science with a focus on Latin America and an MBA in International Business.
She’s visited about 45 countries now, has worked and studied in Peru, France and Malaysia. She’s worked in various international industries include commerce, mining, logistics and oil and gas.
“The Rotary exchange program was life-changing, there’s nothing like it,” she said.
“The passion that Rotary has is unparalleled. They’re invested in the program and they care about you as an individual, as an ambassador and want you to have the best experience.”
As Cheri matured and went on to live a full-filling life she realizes how many of the experiences she had in Mexico helped her develop compassion for people and a view of the world she wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“Living amongst people in real poverty helped me realize the importance of community, and how impactful international programs such as Rotary are and how micro-credit, education and empowering people help them help themselves get out of poverty,” she said.
“I also had to learn personal financing while I was there, something that prepared me for my studies and University in a way that I never would have had.”
For anyone considering a Rotary exchange, Cheri is very enthusiastic.
“It was mind-boggling and opens yours heart, mind and soul to new experiences.”
Today, Cheri continues to help people, is also a wife and mother and still finds time to be a committed Rotary member.
“I’m committed to Rotary and its ideals. Being involved has a real impact both locally and internationally.”
Anyone interested in either becoming a
Rotary exchange student or hosting a foreign Rotary exchange student can contact Rotarians Paul Mednis, 250-992-3402 or Cheri at 250-992-8531.