Jill Morrison will go a long way to improve her French, about a thousand kilometres to be exact.
The Grade 10 student at Northumberland Regional High School recently returned from three months in St. François, a tiny community about an hour west of Quebec City, where she attended a French high school and lived with a francophone family.
“It was a good experience, very challenging but I’m not sorry I did it.”
Jill was in Grade 9 when she began thinking about participating in an exchange after listening to a presentation at school.
“My mother said she thought it was a great idea. That surprised me a little, I was expecting her to have more concerns. My father didn’t say much, just went along.”
Parents Pam and Jamie Morrison actually had lots of concerns, they just decided not to let them get in the way if Jill was really serious.
Jill sent in her application and by last summer she was corresponding with Cynthia Li Beaulieu of St. François who wanted to come to Nova Scotia to improve her English.
“We started to get to know each other over the summer and she arrived in the fall. We got her room ready, baked a cake for her and picked her up at the airport.”
Cynthia Li’s family lives in a rural area so the Morrisons’ Stellarton subdivision was a change for her.
“My friends were friendly with her and she made friends quickly. She also became friends with a German exchange student at our school. English class was quite difficult at first but she really improved.”
While the program strives for compatible matches, Jill said it did not take long to learn she and Cynthia Li were very different.
“We both like music but I sing and she plays an instrument. That seemed to be the way with us, we’d have something in common but we’d still be quite different. We often didn’t feel the same way about things because our personalities were so different.”
Their commitment to improving their second languages helped them work through their differences.
Cynthia Li’s visit ended in November and in February Jill left for St. François.
“I had some worries because by then I knew how different we were but I really wanted to go through with it because I believed it was the best way to learn French.”
Fortunately, the Beaulieu family, which consisted of parents and an older brother and his girlfriend, was very welcoming.
“They made spaghetti for our first meal because they knew that is my favourite food.”
Jill remembers Cynthia’s mother cooking and explaining each step in French.
“That was comforting because I could understand a lot of what she was saying.”
It was a different story the next morning on the 40-minute bus ride to school with teenagers engaged in a dozen different conversations. One of the first differences that struck her about her new school had nothing to do with the language.
“There the students don’t carry their backpacks to class. They leave them in their lockers and if you carry your backpack you get sent back to your locker.”
The teachers were helpful while the students were generally curious. Jill thought she’d be attending classes with her “Twin” for the first week, as had happened at NRHS, but instead she moved to her own schedule after a single day. She also had to manage getting onto three different buses for the drive home after her first day because Cynthia Li had to stay after school for an activity.
“It was not very easy in the beginning. Everybody knew I was the exchange student so I got a lot of attention and I didn’t really like that. I only understood key words in anything that was said to me. Sometimes I wondered if I made the right decision. I had to remind myself I was there to improve my French and then my determination came back.”
By the end of two weeks Morrison was much more comfortable, understanding quite a bit at school and experiencing life with the Beaulieus. Two months into her three-month stint she realized she had made a lot of progress.
“In the beginning I’d go to the library during lunch because I needed to have that time to myself, to think or read. By the last weeks I was staying with friends through lunch and talking with them so I guess that shows I was more comfortable with the language and with the students.”
A self-described introvert, Morrison said the exchange forced her into many situations she would likely have avoided.
“I’m not exactly shy but I’m definitely introverted. I don’t really like to be called on in class and to try to find the right vocabulary under pressure is difficult but your confidence grows. It is definitely possible for an introvert like me to have a great experience.”
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org