Welcome to the second edition of WEP's 20th Anniversary Newsletter series.

This newsletter is filled with the stories of some of the adventurous, resilient Australian students who made the brave decision of leaving everything behind for a period of time, to undertake a WEP student exchange program.

In the hope that many more Australian students will soon be able to head overseas for a life-changing cultural experience, we hope you will be inspired by the heart-warming testimonials below.

Greta Whyte, Belgium (2006)

So, wow, it’s been 15 years since my exchange! Gosh, lots has happened. I think I reference WEP in almost any article that’s written up (either at work, uni or school when they profile the alumni!)

I do honestly think the confidence I’ve developed today in living abroad stems entirely from my WEP exchange. I’ve actually just turned 30 and am living in the Middle East, based in Jordan, Amman. I’m working in humanitarian response, coordinating information updates from our operations to institutions like the UN.

Recent photos of Greta, living and working in Jordan.

Following my high school exchange in Belgium, I went to France for a semester abroad program at the University of Strasbourg Law School. My professional career started by working on a DFAT funded program in Fiji and then for the humanitarian organisation I’m currently working for at their headquarter in London.

I do miss home, particularly during a pandemic when options to return are limited, but I have the confidence that at 15 years old, I went to school trying to make friends and learn at school entirely in a foreign language. I’ve often been impressed by younger me in getting on with it and making the most of an incredible opportunity to learn a new language, make incredible lifelong friendships and set a strong precedent that I can do some extraordinary things outside of the comfort zone.

I still speak and work in French and have the warmest memories of Belgium as a true home away from home.

Josephine Gardner-Marlin, Italy (2010)

When I was 16, going on exchange was a scary but exciting thought. Without having previously studied Italian at school, I knew it was going to be a challenge to learn another language while also trying to fit into a new way of life. It turned out to be such an influential time of my life, where I was blessed with a beautiful Italian family, an opportunity to really experience another culture and no shortage of delicious food.

One of my favourite memories was experiencing an Italian Christmas, spent quite differently to how I would back home – A Christmas eve feast and celebration with the extended family, followed by present sharing at midnight. Christmas day was a day for sleep-ins and leftovers 😊

What I enjoyed most about the whole experience was building relationships with my host family, who were incredibly supportive (and always finding creative ways to act out words that I did not know). I have been lucky enough to be back to visit them since, and I think this lifelong connection is one of the most amazing things I got out of the experience. Learning another language by being immersed in it is also an incredible opportunity and one that I am so grateful for.

Eloise Lyndon, Belgium (2012)

Nine years ago, I took a leap of faith and convinced my parents to allow me to travel halfway across the world to complete a 6-month exchange in a country I knew nothing about. As a very timid 16-year-old it still baffles me that I wanted to put myself so far out of my comfort zone, but I am so glad I decided to embark on this amazing opportunity.

My best memories of my exchange are my weekly routines of going to Zumba with friends, playing badminton with my host siblings and sightseeing around Belgium on the weekends. The highlight of my exchange was Christmas Day at the end of time in Belgium, where I was able to communicate fluently in French with extended family members and experience new traditions.

My exchange had such a positive impact on my life that I have now dedicated my career towards supporting international students in the higher education sector in Melbourne.

I am forever grateful to WEP for the ongoing support they provided me and my family during my exchange and for helping me to get the most out of such an incredible experience. Here’s to many more years of WEP student exchange!

A word from Eloise's parents, Kathy and Mark

When Eloise sought approval to complete an overseas student exchange at age 16, we were very hesitant due to her age and the uncertainty of her living with another family for such a long period. We spoke with WEP staff who offered strong re-assurances and together we decided that completing an exchange in Belgium would be an incredible experience for her.

Yes, the exchange had many challenges, both for us and for Eloise but there is no doubt that the experience was a resounding success. Not only did she grasp a language that was completely foreign to her but she gained adult resilience skills well beyond her years.

Thank you to WEP for facilitating this life changing experience for Eloise and for providing unwavering support from the moment of our first enquiry.

Emma Campbell, France (2010)

It’s 5 years since I was last in France, and 11 years since my exchange. As I was younger than my class cohort, after completing my Higher School Certificate, I went to France in 2010 on a year-long exchange. Choosing an exchange between finishing school and starting University allowed me to rediscover the joys of learning, after experiencing a very challenging Year 12 year due to illness, and meant that I escaped the ‘reverse culture shock’ of having to fit back into a school routine, as I was able to start afresh at university. It was satisfying and encouraging to gauge my developing language skills by my results and engagement in classes, particularly in subjects like biology which I had not studied previously.

It is almost impossible to identify the highlights of an 11-month experience because there are so many! I have amazing memories of visiting Disneyland Paris, where I learnt that rides with sudden drops are not for me, a beach holiday in le Grau-du-Roi on the Mediterranean and the nearby Medieval city of Aigues-Mortes situated amongst flamingo-filled salt marches, and a 21st birthday party with all the extended family at my host great-uncle’s farm in the mountains, where I was ‘strongly encouraged’ to taste a cheese which uses maggots in the maturation process – surprisingly not as bad as you’d think! Even the countless day-to-day experiences, like catching the bus with my friends Doriane and Héloïse, eating lunch with Théo and Amandine in the cafeteria, and doing homework in the library with Laura and Jordan, were special, as they led to lasting connections which I still cherish, and allowed me a special insight into what it means to ‘be French’.

Emma with host sister Ambre in 2010

I had not considered studying a language at university, however on my return to Australia, I couldn’t imagine not learning and speaking French. I graduated with a double major in French and Psychology, as well as Psychology Honours, and was able to continue my love of both subjects through completion of Master of Teaching in School Counselling and French.

Since my exchange, I’ve returned to spend a fabulous French mountain Christmas with my host family, skiing for the first time and enjoying wild boar and home-made foie gras for Christmas lunch; my plans to visit again were unfortunately put on hold last year due to Covid. During that trip, I also visited Edinburgh to see my Austrian friend Bella, who I met at Lycée Métiers du Dauphiné.

Emma's French Christmas in 2015

I loved showing my friend Jordan some of my favourite east coast spots on his holiday to Australia, and am hoping that my recently 18-year-old host sister Ambre will be able to visit me sometime soon.

Life transitions, like starting university, and more recently, moving 3 hours away from family and friends to take up my first school counselling role in a rural area, were made easier by reminding myself of the challenges 17-year-old me had successfully faced in France. I knew I could establish myself in a new community and make friends because I had done it before; I felt confident to the take the risk, because I knew I could do it again.

Stephanie Kelly, France (2006)

About fifteen years ago I went on a 5-month exchange to a small provincial town in the south of France, and had the time of my life. More than 10 years later, looking back at the experience, it’s amazing to reflect on how much the experience has shaped me.

As I came home fluent in French, I thoroughly enjoyed and excelled in VCE French – being my best subject overall. With a love of learning languages, experiencing other cultures and trying new things, I took up a range of opportunities during my university years – including studying Spanish, spending six months volunteering in Cambodia and traveling to South Africa and Rwanda to learn about post-war reconciliation.

Beyond the love of languages and travel that stemmed from my exchange, it’s difficult to put into words the impact my exchange has had on my attitude and perspective. It helped me develop a greater sense of self-confidence, a resilience to face whatever life throws at me, and a stronger ability to think and understand other perspectives. All of these have served me well in my chosen profession as a management consultant, and in life in general.

Lizzie Roche, Germany (2016)

My exchange year was one of the most influential of my life to date. Whilst it was as tough at times, I relished the opportunity to overcome the daily challenges of living and breathing another culture. Travelling to Germany for the first time, I could barely string together a sentence in German. However, by the end of the year, I was speaking like a local, often engaging in conversations with strangers without them realising I was Australian! I am immensely proud of the language skills I gained in my exchange year and still take every opportunity to speak in German today.

One of the highlights of my exchange happened a year and a half after I had returned to Australia. I was lucky enough to be invited back for Abiball (formal/graduation) and was able to honorarily graduate with my class. It was a beautiful time to be able to strengthen the fantastic connections I already had with my friends and host family. My host mum is still a second mum to me and my friends and I planning to meet up again once international travel opens up again. The frustations, culture shock and homesickness was all worth the beautiful memories and strong connections I now have with Germany.

Lizzie in Germany with friend Fina and host mum Ines

Jarrod Barke, USA (2014)

My day to day was pretty exciting. I had the best host parents EVER! I’d wake up on a school morning to some crazy and wacky American breakfast cooked by my host dad such as a mountain of bacon or pancakes covered in syrup. I’d head to school and it literally felt like I’d meet a new person every morning when I walked through the door because there was always someone who wanted to chat to “that boy from down under”.

Every school day was lauded out in the same order of classes, which made the schedule easy to understand but each day was still different. I’d walk into chorus class and learn some new harmony to a song, head off to American history and learn about three former presidents of the USA before heading to PE and playing classic American sports that us Aussies only see in movies such as kickball or that other strange sport they call “football”. Once the school day was over, I’d generally go to basketball practice, musical rehearsal or just relaxing and always attending to my homework of course.

Weekends were always filled with adventure, whether it was heading to St Louis for a baseball game or speaking to community groups which I loved. It was always a pleasure sharing about my beautiful country and the awesome opportunities offered to me.

Today I’m a Lead Vocalist at Universal Studios Beijing. I also toured as a Hi-5 cast member, worked on Disney Cruise Line and performed in a Christmas show in Indonesia.

Exchange photos to the left - to the right, Jarrod in a recent performance

Madelin Strupitis-Haddrick, France (2011)

At a dark Lyonnaise train station in 2011, my host family met a timid fifteen year old, unsure of her place, desperately seeking to connect but not having the words to do so. The next three months saw me puzzling my way through a world I only partially understood. The time was peppered with exciting moments of discovery and frustrating times where I was excluded by others and by my lack of voice. With the space to be independent, I fumbled through, studying the language, learning the culture, engaging with people and learning to me débrouiller – to get by on my own. Fond memories include the Festival of Lights and travels with my host family, yet what have stayed with me far more are the souvenirs that became part of me: I learnt to advocate for myself, navigate unfamiliar places, learn the rules of engagement and adapt.

Madeline with her host sisters in 2011

I have carried this with me on each step of the past ten years. I’ve lived abroad again, travelled solo, and used my degree in global governance to represent Australian youth at an APEC forum in the Philippines and UN climate conference in Morocco. Currently I am living and working in Canberra, developing environmental legislation for the ACT. My love of languages has expanded to include German, Russian and Spanish. In the next ten years I look forward to taking my policy work global. I gaze towards this with self-assurance knowing that wherever I go, whatever dark train station I land at, I will adapt and thrive.

Madeline today, living in Canberra

Georgia Oakley, Italy (2015)

My student exchange to Italy has been the best thing I’ve ever done! In 2015 I went on a journey of a life time and spent 5 months living in a little picturesque town called Malnate, in Northern Italy. I lived with the most beautiful host family who I still talk to regularly and absolutely adore. I attended an Italian scientific school where I made incredible friendships that I cherish to this day. I fell in love with the culture, the kind people, the beautiful landscapes and the delicious food!

Going on Student Exchange to Italy was the most amazing experience that quite literally changed my life. Luckily, not long after my own exchange, my Australian family decided to host an Italian girl named Sara. The minute we picked her up from the airport she was instantly my sister for life. We did absolutely everything together and we still talk all the time! I truly believe it was just as rewarding to host a student as it was to go on exchange. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to go back and visit my host family & Sara’s family multiple times, including bringing my own family over to meet everyone & explore the beautiful country of Italy!

My exchange helped me gain confidence, independence & individuality which pushed me to follow my dream of travelling all around the world and working overseas.

Nowadays you will find me working as the Guest Experience Manager in the ski fields of Falls Creek, where I save all my money for my next trip to Italy!

I am so thankful to WEP for igniting a passion for travel within me & giving me the opportunity to explore the world and meet incredible people every step of the way. Going on student exchange enriched my life beyond words & shaped me to be the person I am today.

Georgia Gardner-Marlin, Italy (2013)

I was on exchange in Northern Italy for 10 months, and I was so lucky to get the family I did. My host family consisted of my host parents and their five cats. They treated me like family, a daughter and a friend and worked so hard for me to become integrated in their community and to feel at home!

My host parents gave me so many opportunities to explore the beautiful country and I was so lucky – however I have to say my best memories were the ones made at home, learning to cook new meals with my host parents or friend from school, making patterns and sewing with a (host) family friend down the road, and having big family dinners with the nonni.

My host mum knew that the students back in Australia were doing year 10 work placement, so she organised for me to do some at a local veterinary clinic, I became close friends with the veterinarian and learnt so much about my passions. Previously, I thought I would never work in that industry, I thought it would be too gory for me or I wouldn’t have the skills – I am now a veterinary nurse and absolutely love my job, and owe a lot of that to the support and encouragement from my host parents and the clinic owner.

Georgia today, working as a vet nurse.
Phoebe's French family

Phoebe Gibson, France (2015)

I went on a semester exchange in 2015 to France. I lived in Pessac, about 30mins from Bordeaux with my host family of 4, Babeth and Loïc, my host parents, and my two host sisters Valentine and Charlotte, and the family dog Fabio! My host family is super family orientated so we were always around the extended family, and I am still in touch with everyone today!

I was lucky enough to visit my host family in December 2016, about a year after I left, which was so great to see them again, and I had planned to stay with them during my winter break last year and surprise my host cousin for her 21st birthday, but COVID had other plans! Even though I couldn’t get there, we still message and video chat often to catch up on everything.

My exchange experience improved my confidence and independence and gave me a greater appreciation for different cultures and lifestyles. Ever since I’ve been back, I have been looking forward to travelling and living in other countries, to integrate in more cultures and languages, and experience life somewhere else again! I started learning Spanish and have kept learning French as electives throughout my Biomedical Science degree, and next year or the year after I’m hoping to take a break for studies to travel through Europe and stay with my host family for a while!

Josie Rees, USA (2017)

So I graduated high school as part of the class of 2020, and recently was offered a spot in the University of Melbourne’s Bachelor of Arts, which has been my dream course since Year 7! I’m hoping to major in politics and international relations, though I don’t know exactly what field I want to work in after I graduate. I hope to do another exchange in the future and potentially even live overseas.

I’m planning to return to see my host family in the States for Thanksgiving or to go and stay with Celina, who my family hosted in 2018/19, in Norway for Christmas.

I still keep in very close contact with them both and I am also still really close friends with students from my New York orientation. I have caught up with a few within Australia since returning and was planning on staying with some from Spain and Belgium when I can visit Europe again!

As I’ve been making some friends at uni, I’ve met a few who have come from international schools and it’s been great to be able to sort of share out different experiences living overseas and going to different types of school compared to Australian high school.

Overall, exchange has helped me open many doors and make so many new friends and I don’t know who or where I’d be today without those people or experiences. I recommend exchange to anyone and everyone, and even when they point out that I had not the most enjoyable experience for the first bit, I remind them that it’s all part of the journey and of the amazing support I got from WEP.

Exchange photos to the left - Josie today to the right
Exchange isn't a year in your life, it's a LIFE in a YEAR.

Jordan Cunningham, France (2010)

When I was 16 years old, I went on exchange to a high school in Bordeaux, France. Being a quiet and introverted person, I'm still not sure what prompted me to consider something so far outside my comfort zone as going to live overseas for a few months, but to this day I am so glad I did as it was an incredible experience. It helped build my confidence and taught me to be comfortable trying new things.

Going on exchange presents so many amazing opportunities to live somewhere completely new and experience different cultures and languages. Immersing yourself in another country's culture is the fastest way to learn and allows you to improve your knowledge and language skills much quicker than you would ever get in an Australian classroom.

An exchange also helps you make lifelong relationships. During my trip to Bordeaux, I lived with a host family of two parents and a son around my age. We formed genuine bonds of friendship over the course of my stay and we keep in touch even now, eleven years on. This has given me not only good friends, but also people with whom I can hone my language skills on a regular basis.

I had such a positive experience going on exchange that I did it a second time while at university. I would wholeheartedly recommend an exchange to everyone, as it's one of the most unforgettable experiences you will ever have.

Stay tuned for the next edition of WEP Australia's 20th Anniversary Newsletter Series!

© World Education Program Australia Limited 2021