Carlie Voigt must be having the time of her life. She just turned 18 and she’s in the middle of spending a full year in Thailand.
But Voigt isn’t there on the party vacation of a lifetime. She’s still in school and learning more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. She’s studying as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student, and she’s not alone, at least in the metaphorical sense.
“Every year, thousands of students from around the world participate in this program with the purpose of broadening their outlook, discovering a new way of living, creating international friendships, and promoting international understanding and solidarity,” she explained via email from her new home in the community of Phitsanulok, approximately 400 km north of the Thai capital of Bangkok.
She was the sole student sponsored by the Rotary Club of St. Albert for the 2014-15 school year, and she put her name forward, she explained, because there’s nothing else like it.
“I saw it as an invaluable experience – which has proven to be true – that would allow me to explore new cultures and ways of living, and to connect with a diverse group of people.”
“The objective is to get students exposed to other cultures and other worlds, and learn different languages while absorbing the culture and teaching our culture to other countries,” explained Rotary club member Jackie Heitzman, noting that it is an educational exchange so no one is exempt from attending classes.
Voigt’s role is to attend a local high school, live with three different Thai families – each for four months – and immerse herself in Thai culture, all while acting as a Canadian ambassador. She may have gained a bit of fame in Phitsanulok for how she did that last one.
Education through immersion
Voigt last made the pages of the St. Albert Gazette just over a year ago, after she returned from a trip to Ottawa as part of the Forum for Young Canadians. That was just around the same time that she was participating in a Model United Nations at the U of A.
She got involved with those programs when she was still going to class at Bellerose. Through the high school’s Student Life/Leadership program, she picked up an interest in global affairs and learning about the experiences of people around the world.
She has been in the Southeast Asian country since last August. As such, she has had ample opportunity to see the sights, eat the food, learn the language, and breathe in the hot Thai air.
“We’re currently transitioning into the hot season here, so the temperatures are slowly rising. I live in the hottest area of Thailand apparently, so I get to fully experience the heat!”
“I knew it was going to be hot, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for it,” she laughed, remarking, “I’m getting the hang of it now! Baby powder is key.”
As expected, things are a lot different in Phitsanulok than they are here in St. Albert. It’s not just the weather either.
“When I tell people about my time here, I think they often see it as a bit of a fairytale that I’m living,” she suggested.
“It is in many ways, but there are also some really difficult aspects, such as living away from your family and friends in an unfamiliar place, communicating and connecting with people whose language, values and lifestyle are different from your own, and trying to wholeheartedly embrace a culture that you don’t always completely understand. In the end, this is all part of the experience – arguably the most valuable part.”
Culture shock is inevitably going to be part of the equation. But that it went away in degrees for Voigt and she has since been able to really engage in Thai life, immersing herself in the mundane to the spiritual.
One of the facets of her experience is how spontaneous it can be. She said that one of her favourite activities is to ride around on her bicycle and see what she can see.
“Because everything is new, there is a never-ending supply of things to see and do.”
The local Rotary Club has been organizing many of her special activities and trips around the country. Thailand is a Buddhist country, so Voigt spent some time living in a temple and learning to meditate.
“Depending on how this works out, this may or may not result in me becoming a Buddhist nun for a bit, which would be really interesting.”
Thais on the run
When you’re trying to achieve a certain amount of cross-cultural edification, there are some aspects of Canadiana that cannot be avoided. Politeness, apparently, is priority one. Voigt said that a substantial but intangible part of her role as an ambassador for this country is to present herself well and always be on her best behaviour.
“Your behaviour reflects on your country when you’re in a foreign land. So this means being as friendly and helpful as possible – even when you aren’t feeling all that friendly and helpful – and sharing your Canadian perspective in discussions when it’s appropriate to do so. It can be tough!”
The good news is that the Thai people are always so friendly and welcoming. “It’s impossible not to reciprocate this,” she continued.
Sharing Canada with her new families and friends started with sports. Voigt helped to bring a bit of our two national sports – lacrosse and hockey. To the young adult, it also meant offering a somewhat recreational charity event that has existed here for more than 30 years and continues on as a tribute to the man who tried to run across the country after cancer took one of his legs.
She always loved the Terry Fox Run, she said, and simply wanted to organize a similar event for her school in Thailand. With the permission of the school’s administrators and help from local Rotarians and a fellow exchange student from Germany, she put on a huge event that set aside an entire day for activities.
It was a greater success than she had anticipated, she stated.
“In the month before the run, I had given speeches to the different grade levels, explaining the event and its connection to Canada. The event took place at the beginning of December, and was run by all students, around 3,000 students total.”
Classes were cancelled for the entire day as the school called it a sports day, where the student body just played games all day.
“It was super fun!”
While it remained unofficial, it stayed true to the spirit of the Terry Fox Run, even collecting approximately $1,300 in donations that were offered to the Thai National Cancer Institute. Voigt was even interviewed by a local news station regarding the event.
Voigt returns to St. Albert soil at the end of July. While she prepares for the final months of her international adventure, she spent a moment to reflect on how the experience has changed her so far.
It seems that she has not only caught the travel bug, she said, but she has also become a richer person for being so far away from home.
“This exchange has already proven to be a defining aspect of my life. I think it’s a well-known fact that getting out of your comfort zone is really conducive to personal growth. The vulnerability involved in being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people and unfamiliar customs has made me realize some of my own preconceived attitudes instilled by my culture,” she began.
“This has allowed me to discover and focus more on the values I truly identify with. I’ve become more familiar with the importance of compassion, resilience, generosity, and I’ve gained a lot of confidence since I came here. I feel more at ease with my decisions … what I’m doing and where I’m going with my life. I know it sounds outrageously cheesy, but I feel like what I’ve learned here has better equipped me to uphold my commitment to positive contribution in my community and the world.”
Voigt’s mother, Kim, is also impressed by what the whole adventure has meant, and not just to her daughter. Kim said that everyone is proud of what Voigt has done and is still doing.
“Even her brother and sister have expressed how impressed they are that she has the confidence and the courage to embark on this adventure – it’s not an easy thing to head off by yourself to live in a foreign land for a year.”
Heitzman added that Voigt is doing “exceptionally well” and her language skills have become very good. She’s not surprised, after all, because one of the most important criteria for the club to select a student who is self-motivated and has a positive personality.
“They’re go-getters. They’re eager to be involved. They have to be well rounded. You can’t send a student away for 10 or 11 months and not have them be an independent, self-starting kind of person. If they’re shy, retiring, and introverted, it’s not going to be good.”
Voigt said that she had a huge debt of gratitude to the Rotary Club of St. Albert for selecting her out of the group of applicants to take on this life-changing challenge. Voigt said that she still has to finish high school after she returns, but she plans on telling everybody about the benefits of her experience.
“It is because of them that I have been able to have this incredible year, and I am extremely grateful for what they have done for me, and the trust they have placed in me in representing our community in Thailand.”
That’s about all she has plans for now, however. Her horizons have been expanded and she now has a whole world to explore. She said that she has a few ideas, but nothing concrete just yet.
“I’m excited by the possibilities of what lays ahead for me.”
People can learn more about the program at www.rotary.org/en/get-involved/exchange-ideas/youth-exchanges.