From Belgium and Back again 

When Melie Genicot returned to Belgium on August 5th, 2016, she took back much more than she left with.

The 18 year old spent a year immersed in Canadian culture as part of the Rotary Club of Whitby Sunrise’s youth exchange program. She now speaks English fluently, has formed lifelong friendships, and learned life lessons she never expected when she stepped off the plane last August.

“It’s the best experience you could have in life to learn about yourself and learn about other people,” she said, reflecting on the past year during her last few days in Canada.


“You learn how to deal with sadness and being alone, and how to open yourself up and discover new people and places.”

The Rotary Club of Whitby Sunrise is an organization whose members who provide humanitarian services throughout the community. The youth exchange program sends students under the age of 18 to a non english speaking country as an ambassador to live and study there for almost 12 months. Families who agree to send a child away for the experience also often commit to hosting an exchange student from another country.

During her stay, Ms. Genicot lived with four different host families, attended classes at Sinclair Secondary School, and even had the opportunity to travel to the east coast with about 40 other Rotary Youth exchange students from three different Rotary Districts. While she was nervous about being on her own in a foreign place, she said she was also excited to experience all the new sights and sounds.

“Houses and buildings and stuff like that -- everything is so big and it just really looks like the movies so I was impressed with that,” she said on her first impressions upon arriving.

She was surprised by the number of restaurant chains everywhere compared to what she’s seen in Europe, she added, and differences in modes of transportation.

“There’s not a lot of trains and buses and you have to drive everywhere because everything is so far away.”

Deborah Murray, a member of the Rotary Club of Whitby Sunrise and past president 2013-2014, welcomed Ms. Genicot into her home for her last few months. She said the program allows youth to expand their horizons by embracing a way of life that’s different from their own.

“It helps them to develop an understanding of other cultures but it also helps them to learn tolerance,” she explained.

This was Ms. Murray’s fourth time hosting an exchange student since 2010 when her daughter, Heather, travelled to Italy to live for a year as part of the program.

“Every student is different and you get something from each one. You learn about a different culture from them and you see things in your own culture and your own kids differently. It opens your eyes to other ways of life, habits and understandings.”

Ms. Genicot said she has many fond memories of Canada but what she’ll miss most is the “casual lifestyle,” shorter school days, and how well she was treated by everyone.

“I (had heard) before I came that Canadians were really nice people and that’s not a lie,” she said. “Canadians are actually really nice and really welcoming and life is pretty happy here.

Story adapted from Whitby This Week story by Parvanen Pessian click here to view