Rotarians open hearts and homes to students

Being a new student can be tough. Being a new student in a new country thousands of kilometres from home can be even tougher.

  • Sep. 20, 2011 7:00 p.m.

Being a new student can be tough.

Being a new student in a new country thousands of kilometres from home can be even tougher.

Rotarians have been working to lighten the back-to-school load a little for international students through a decades-old tradition set to play out in Penticton this weekend.

Rotary clubs in Penticton and South Vancouver have joined forces for 56 years to expose University of B.C. students who are new to the country to the warm welcome of a smaller community in the province through the Global Connections program.

International House at UBC selects 25 students from all over the world to visit Penticton for a weekend. The selection process is competitive, and the young men and women chosen are working on their bachelor’s or graduate studies and are often on scholarship. Some have come to Canada from war-torn countries.

“At UBC campus, there are as many students there as there are residents of Penticton. It’s a big place,” Penticton Rotary member Rory McIvor said. “The youngsters are a long ways away from home. A lot of them, they’re almost overwhelmed by it and sometimes really lonely. It really breaks the ice for a lot of them.”

The newest crop of future leaders is set to arrive on Friday. McIvor said chapter members from South Vancouver load up students at the Vancouver campus and drive them out to Penticton, where they will meet their billet families.

“At the end of the day, despite all the seriousness of the program, it’s a heck of a lot of fun,” he said. “We don’t have any problems getting billets for them because many of the host families have done it for years, and they love having these young people in. It gives you a different weekend.”

They spend the evening connecting with Okanagan families so they can experience Canadian life from the inside.

Saturday, however, is a jam-packed day of activities to show students varying facets of what British Columbia and the Okanagan region are about. This year, students will visit the White Lake Observatory, Hardy Falls to watch the salmon run, local wineries and fruit stands.

Their billets will pick them up that afternoon and bring them home to get ready for a dinner and celebration at Okanagan College that night. Students are introduced and often share stories about their home country, what they are studying and their impressions of Canada.

Students are transported back on Sunday, but that’s often not the last time Rotarians hear from them. The connections forged over the weekend often last a lifetime, McIvor said.

“The stories we have, personally and friends of mine who are Rotarians, they come back time and time again,” he said. “My wife and I, we’ve attended christenings, weddings and convocations. We’ve visited them in their home countries. We’re not unusual.

“One young lady said to me that her Christmas card list just tripled.”

The experience also reminds young and old alike why they volunteer for causes, he said.

“The bottom line is the world is kind of a messy place at the moment. I don’t want to be trite, but this is a small way to recognize the fact that we’re all the same under the sun,” he said.