For Senior Hana Chouinard, voyaging to faraway lands was a lifelong dream, which she has already accomplished at a young age. She embarked on her journey to the exotic realm of New Zealand, a small country south of Australia, with crystal blue waters and a vast variety of wildlife. While she was 9,200 miles away from Dartmouth, not only did she have an adventure rich with thrills and breathtaking moments, but she also created friendships that will last a lifetime.
The long process of making her way to New Zealand began with simple wanderlust. “I remember thinking about traveling, and it just sort of dawned on me, why not start now?” said Hana. She researched various organizations, finally stumbling upon Youth for Understanding, an intercultural exchange program that assisted Hana throughout her journey. They have pre-departure orientations to set expectations for students, as well as staff sent to meet them at airports, and frequent calls to confirm that the experience is going smoothly. “Overall, the organization was amazing and so helpful during my time abroad,” said Hana.
Youth For Understanding offers trips to a vast variety of countries; however, Hana didn’t want to struggle with a language barrier during her time overseas. Along with being an English-speaking country, New Zealand appealed to her because of its mountains, photography, and laid-back lifestyle.
As a part of the application process, Hana wrote a letter to her future host family, describing her personality and interests. Through Youth For Understanding, the family received a file of many different applicants’ letters, before selecting to house Hana, along with Lara Franco, a seventeen year old Brazilian exchange student.
New Zealand citizens Bruce Robertson and Rebecca Minnell, along with their six-year-old daughter Danielle, welcomed them into their home with warm hospitality. “They were incredible,” Hana said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better host family.” Nestled in the confines of a tightly- packed house, they were more than pleased with one another’s company.
Bruce and Rebecca gave Hana the opportunity to explore all of Masterton, the town in which she stayed, through frequent bushwalks (New Zealand lingo for strolls through nature). She and Lara, along with Hanna Liestol of Norway, frequented Wellington, the country’s capital. Accompanied by 50 other exchange students from a variety of programs and countries, they toured the South Island for 10 days from the view of a tour bus and on horseback.
Hana enjoyed sightseeing in cities such as Auckland, Rotorua, and Taupo, with her favorite stop being Queenstown, a coastal city tucked into the Southern Alps mountains. The South Island Tour guide allowed the students to explore the city for two days. During their sojourn, they were entertained by live music and visits to sweet gelato shops. A favorite moment of Hana’s included ascending halfway up Bob’s Peak to view the city aglow and then strolling along the powder white sand of Lake Wakatipu, spotting salmon swimming under the streetlights. “Everything about Queenstown was magical,” said Hana, “and I’d absolutely love to find my way there again.”
Even with all the picturesque scenery and riveting activities, Hana said that the best part of the whole experience was school. Classes started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 3:00 p.m. Contained within that time frame were six classes, a 20-minute break for morning tea, and an hour break for lunch that could be spent in any classroom or the Oval, a field surrounded by mountains. While the curriculum and the rigor of the courses were similar to an American school, Hana felt that it was “a lot more laid back. Everyone was so friendly and carefree, as opposed to American high school where I see a lot more stress and exhaustion.”
Since she has returned home, Hana has had mixed feelings about saying farewell to New Zealand. “It’s been weird,” she said. “Nothing really seems to have changed here, which is a strange feeling, because so much has changed for me.” As glad as she is to be home and reunited with her Dartmouth friends and family, it was hard to accept the end of her journey and say goodbye to all the new people who had entered her life.
Surrounded by the scenic views of natural wonders, Hana realized a lot about herself and the world around her. She was fully capable of adjusting to a new situation as well as initiating independence. And this is only the beginning. “I can’t wait to start planning my next adventure and start working towards making it a reality,” said Hana.
Let her courage and passion serve as an inspiration to us all as we work to pursue our dreams.