If you’re 16 or 17 years old and you’re looking to branch out and have a real experience this summer, there’s an exciting program you should know about.
The YMCA Summer Work Student Exchange (SWSE) is a national exchange program, funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage. It offers youth 16 to 17 years old the opportunity to experience another community, culture and second official language.
First held in the summer of 1996, the program was created to increase Canadian youth’s knowledge and awareness of the country, helping them to develop second-language skills and deepen their knowledge of inclusion and diversity by living in diverse Canadian communities.
It also provides an opportunity for participants to obtain meaningful work experience.
Participants spend six weeks in July and August living with a local family in another community, in a different region of the country where the second official language is spoken. They work in a paid summer job in the public sector or at a local non-profit while taking part in meaningful social activities alongside their peers.
SWSE is a great opportunity for youth to challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zone, acquire new skills and form lifelong connections with new people.
Juli Valderrama works for the YMCA in London. She participated in this program in the summer of 2015, staying with a family in Sherbrooke, Quebec and working as a day camp counselor. It was her first job experience, her first time away from home on her own and an experience she will never forget.
“I had a wonderful time. It was a lot of independence and self-development. I didn't have any friends or family and we were a 16-hour drive away,” she says.
Juli grew up speaking French but went to an English high school. Still, she didn’t use the language day to day, and welcomed the opportunity to brush up her skills. “You pick it up really quickly,” she says, “especially when you're working there. From my experience in the day camp, the kids would just forget that you don't speak French as fluently as they do and they start telling you stories with abbreviations and terms and vocab from that area. Within one week your French is a lot better than you’d ever think it could be.”
She definitely found it hard at first, as a shy 16-year-old kid who was very introverted. She was nervous but had support in the form of a great local coordinator.
“The local coordinator is the person that basically takes care of you, they're like your mom abroad, your leader or camp counselor. She was really great at listening to me and comforting me. Whenever I was anxious or nervous, she really helped me feel comfortable and helped me become more extroverted. She was incredible.”
The once-shy teen quickly morphed into an extroverted camp counselor. It was a really eye-opening experience, says Juli, who soon discovered how much she loves meeting new people and talking to them. The success of that summer exchange is why, years later as a university student, she chose to do a semester abroad in France. “That experience is one of the reasons why I travel and I say yes to any travel opportunity—any chance that allows me to meet other people from different cultures,” she says.
She learned a great deal from her host family too, who was very kind. Juli admits she is a picky eater; she had different flavour and texture preferences from her host family, but they immediately accommodated her.
“It was interesting to see different family dynamics, how their family worked in comparison to mine, how the parents spoke to each other, how the parents spoke to the kids. It was eye-opening to see and experience another culture, to live in the household. That’s really great for a 16-year-old to learn, because it helps prepare you for the global world. You will be working with other cultures in the future, going to school and meeting new people from different backgrounds,” she says.
She remembers the activities fondly, especially weekend camping “Quebec-style” and riding rollercoasters at an amusement park in Montreal. The team-building activities and adventures went a long way towards solidifying friendships amongst the group.
She would wholeheartedly recommend the Summer Work Student Exchange program, saying, “It’s a guarantee that you’re going to have a job, you get to travel and eat food that you’ve never tried before, meet new people and learn about their experiences.”
The YMCA is dedicated to preventing or reducing obstacles to participation. Wherever possible, their team will collaborate with program participants and their families to resolve any concerns they may have regarding medical conditions, disabilities, religious beliefs, or other factors that might cause concern among participants.
As always, the wellbeing of the youth, personnel, hosts, and community members is top priority in program preparation and implementation. For the duration of the exchange, a YMCA local coordinator is appointed to support participating youth and enhance their exchange experience in their new community. In the Guelph region, that go-to resource this summer is Ashley Hynes.
All staff and host families undergo a strict screening process and must adhere to extensive occupational safety standards. Additionally, this year, extra precautions are being taken to maintain the health of all program participants. As robust program modifications and improvements are introduced, they will continue to monitor local, regional, and national health officials regarding travel and other health-related measures.
The YMCA is dedicated to providing youth with empowering programs, resources and safe spaces to be with their friends, as well as the opportunity to rediscover themselves. Each year communities across Canada come together through the Summer Work Student Exchange program to support youth across the country in realizing their full potential. This year, as they continue to follow health and safety precautions, they invite you to join them on this rewarding adventure.
A summer spent in the SWSE Program promises a mix of adventure, friendships, new challenges and lots of fun. Past exchanges have included activities such as white-water rafting, boat cruises, music festivals, hiking and rock climbing. All of the activities are organized taking into consideration all of the participants’ abilities and fitness levels and are included in the program cost.
For more information, contact Kai Kachan, Ontario Regional Coordinator, Summer Work Student Exchange at Kai.Kachan@YMCAGTA.ORG or call 416-473-1103.