International students from Mexico enjoy freedom and snow

This article appeared in the Dec. 22, 2006 issue of the Interlake Spectator… 

Enrique Davila, a grade seven student, is happy he gets to sleep in until 7:30 a.m. on a school day, instead of five-minutes-to-six, as is the usual back in Mexico.  He is one of four Mexican international students attending school in Gimli this year, and he has been getting a taste of how different life is for students in Canada.

Enrique attends a private boys’ school in San Luics Potosi, a mining city of about 1 million population in central Mexico, where the teachers are strict and the children wear uniforms to school. The Mexican school day starts at eight a.m. and lets out at two-thirty p.m.  Parents pick up their children.  Unlike here, students do not take a school bus home.

“School is [what is] most different [about life here],” said Enrique. “There is also a lot less group work in Mexican schools, and much more formality,” Enrique’s homestay mom, Kathy Campbell, helped explain.

The general consensus among all of the four Mexican students is that schoolwork in their homeland is much more demanding, and grade eight student, Juan Manuel Carreras Valle, is finding the mathematics very easy.  He claims that Mexican children do in grade four what the Gimli students are doing in grade eight.  “Work in Mexico is much harder,” Juan said. “You need more effort.  Teachers are very strict.”

Despite the language barriers, all of the students report that they are performing well at school.  By all accounts, they have adjusted well socially, and feel very welcomed by the Gimli community.

Fifteen-year-old Pedro Gonalez, and his 16-year-old cousin, Jaime Talamantes, both from Aguascalientes, say they have made lots of friends here.  “We have lots in common [with the kids in Gimli],” said Pedro, “sports, movies, food,” and they have enjoyed the many activities that are available in the Interlake.

Jaime’s homestay family lives near Arnes, and he has been able to take in activities such as swimming, horseback riding, and ice-fishing at the camp. Pedro has enjoyed some good snowball fights and went snowmobiling recently with his homestay family who live near Malonton.

Surprisingly, none of the boys had even a single complaint about the cold and snow.   In fact, Juan says he prefers the cold.  “The cold makes my body feel better,” and, like all the other boys, he is especially looking forward to learning how to snowboard.

Another activity which is very important to these students is attending church.  While visiting, they regularly attend St. Michael’s Catholic church in Gimli. “The culture is different here, most especially religion,” Jaime commented.  “There are a lot of different [denominations of] churches here.  We respect that, but it’s very different for us,” he said, “Mexico is about 98 per cent Catholic.”

Two boys are enrolled at the Dr. George Johnson Middle School, and two others are enrolled at the Gimli High School.  A total of 12 Mexican students, aged 12 to 19, are taking part in this cultural program in various school divisions in the Interlake region.

The program, called “Canadian Education Adventure Programma”, incorporated in 1997, is based in Fisher Branch.  It is being run by Lorne Zegrodnick and his wife, Adrienna Ceja de Zegrodnick, a native of Mexico herself.

Lorne Zegrodnick became involved with students after being approached by political leaders in Mexico.  Zegrodnick, as a director with the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association, had been visiting Mexico during a trade-promoting initiative after the signing of NAFTA.  He developed  relationships of trust with the Mexicans, partly because he can speak Spanish, and found they were very concerned about the future of Mexican Students.  They wanted their children to have the opportunity to study English, and some Mexican families were willing to pay in order to give their children the opportunity to visit Canada.  Thus, the “programma” was born.

The cost to send a child through the “Canadian Education Adventure Programma” is $12,000, which the children’s families contribute in full.  This fee covers the transportation, insurance, a night in Winnipeg with dinner and lunch, activities such as a ski trip, hockey game,  Christmas party, and a farewell party in June. A $550 stipend is paid to the homestay family, as well as the Zegrodniks’ fee, and monies for the school division.  In addition, the international students are given exposure to other ethnic groups which comprise Manitoba culture.  In the past, they have taken in performances and demonstrations by Ukrainian and Japanese groups.

In speaking with the homestay parents, it is evident that this is a good experience for, both, the students and the families they stay with.  They are unanimous in their praise of the Mexican children’s polite and respectful manner, and feel that the selection process for choosing homestay families is thorough and in the best interests of the child.

Prospective homestay families are required to get a criminal records check, a child abuse registry check, and fill out a four-page survey about their lifestyles and activities.  Every effort is made to match interests between the two parties.  If, after the fact, the child is unhappy with the family, he or she will be moved into a more suitable situation.

One of the requirements for being a homestay family is internet access so that the child can communicate often with their families back home.  Good communication across the miles helps day-to-day living run more smoothly, and the children do not feel cut off from their parents and siblings in Mexico.

Homestay families are needed in the Interlake region, and often the demand exceeds the supply.  Anyone wanting more information about this program, or who would like to be a homestay family for a student, from Mexico or another country, is asked to contact Doug Anderson, Student Services Coordinator with the Evergreen School Division, at (204) 642-6267

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About Teresa

Teresa Carey is a ceramic artist, writer, photographer, journalist, publisher and nature lover. She lives in Manitoba's Interlake on a small acreage close to the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

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