“It was really tough to leave so abruptly” says the Burns Lake Rotary exchange student

What was supposed to be a year-long exchange experience, turned into an abrupt seven-month stint for two Rotary exchange students Ema Culberson and Hélène Georges.

Last fall, on Aug. 20, 2019 local Burns Lake student Ema Culberson landed in Belgium as a part of her exchange year with the Burns Lake RotaryClub. “My experience during my stay was amazing, I got to meet so many people, see lots of beautiful places,” she said. However this stay was cut midway due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the initial days of the pandemic, several students rushed back home and Rotary supported their decision and, “they told us that we had the option to stay or go home, and they would support either decision”.

Hélène Georges, the Belgian student who was visiting Burns Lake as a part of her exchange, was in a similar boat. “For about two weeks, my family and I were thinking that staying in Canada was a better choice for me. After that, the Belgian Rotary Club strongly recommended us to come back home. Considering that we didn’t know when and for how long the borders would be closed, we decided to follow those recommendations while the planes were still running,” said Georges.

Culberson also had to come back to Burns Lake as the COVID situation started shaping up into something much bigger. She was one of the students who had decided to stay back but within three days of her decision, the chair of her host district decided to send all the exchange students back to their respective homes. “I remember receiving the email that I had to get home and not long after, a message from my mom telling me my flight was in under 12 hours,” said Culberson.

Brent Peterson, a Burns Lake Rotary club member has been actively involved in the exchange program. He confirmed that all the exchange students in the district were repatriated in March. “This was a decision made at the district level for a variety of reasons, all with student safety in mind,” he said.

Culberson, who went to Belgium for her Grade 12 year, will be doing another Grade 12 in Fall with Lakes District Secondary School (LDSS). “I have not resumed studies with my Canadian school. The reason I am doing Grade 12 twice is because the Grade 12 that I did in Belgium cannot transfer to Canadian credits, so technically I have not yet completed Grade 12,” said Culberson. She would’ve been able to complete her coursework online while she was in Belgium, however, Culberson chose to focus on her exchange and resume her studies once she would return. And even though it was an easy decision to make for her, to go to Belgium, what was difficult was to hear from her friends enjoying and living it up in their senior year while she was away, “I felt like I was missing out on things with my friends at home.”

Georges on the other hand, came to Burns Lake after graduating and repeated her Grade 12 with LDSS but this time in English. “Thanks to LDSS, I got to play in a volleyball team, went to Vancouver for WE Day, and joined the ski team. I also joined the Burns Lake choir and travelled across B.C. thanks to Rotary,” said Georges. In September, she will be going for a five-year program to a University in Louvain-La-Neuve, a Belgian city, to become a speech therapist.

Both girls who are back in their homes and are making plans for their future, still look back and reminisce on the seven-months they spent in the different countries.

“I miss Belgium a lot, I miss the ease of travel throughout Belgium, it was easy to get to the train station and hop on to another city to visit friends, or just explore the country more. I also miss the people, my host families, friends, and other exchange students. I miss being an exchange student, meeting new people every day, the freedom to explore a new country with others, and many more things,” said Culberson.

Georges also often feels the urge to come back to Burns Lake to meet her host families and the new friends she made here. “What I miss the most is definitely my Canadian friends and host families. I also miss the amazing scenes and activities the Burns Lake area offers. Cross-country skiing and swimming or walking on Tchesinkut Lake were some of my best memories,” she said.

The rotary exchange program has been suspended for the rest of the year and the girls won’t be returning on the exchange program post-COVID. The Burns Lake Rotary Club is hopeful that the 2021-2022 year will be different and that the club is able to participate again in the exchange program.

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