WHS student completes five-month exchange, earns top marks

A personally enriching part of Symone’s trip was the chance to learn about Australia and New Zealand’s Indigenous peoples, something she said she had not been familiar with previously. One of these learning opportunities came when she visited the Māori village in Rotorua, New Zealand.

WIIKWEMKOONG – Wikwemikong High School (WHS) student Symone Peltier spent her winter semester of Grade 12 on an exchange to Australia and New Zealand, an experience that she embraced fully to end up graduating at the top of her class at the commencement held last month.

“You gain a lot of maturity through an exchange. I definitely grew as a person in all aspects; I have a lot of self-advocacy and it taught me independent problem solving. Confidence was big, too,” Symone told The Expositor after returning from her exchange. 

The program was run through YES Canada, an organization that helps to co-ordinate Canadian student exchanges in 23 countries around the world. Participants have to pay their way overseas and complete their mandated courses from their home school in Canada as well as any extra courses they may wish to take abroad. They also are responsible for co-ordinating their flights, navigating layovers and arranging any accommodations they may require.

Symone was the first student from WHS to participate in an exchange through YES Canada. The school had to learn the process of sponsoring the trip; they had to certify that they would be supportive of their student’s efforts to take part in the trip. According to Symone and her mother Natasha, WHS was very much interested in the exchange and principal Maureen Peltier was “very much on board.”

“I’ve wanted to go to Australia for five years now. With the exchange program, I got to spend 10 weeks in Australia and 10 weeks in New Zealand, so it was kind of like two birds with one stone,” Symone said.

The trip offered both academic and cultural enrichment for Symone. She said she learned about Indigenous peoples in Australia, something with which she was not previously familiar.

“I learned the value of home, and about all the small things at home that I took for granted,” she said. “And about having an open mind, being open to different interpretations of things from other cultures, beliefs and values.”

Students in exchanges have to work hard at their academics to maintain a minimum 75 percent average in all their classes, something that Symone far exceeded. She took on a higher course load in the fall semester while working part-time on weekends and by the time September rolled around, she only required one credit from home while she attended school abroad.

That dedication to academics was on full display at the WHS grad on Tuesday, June 18, when Symone was not only presented with the Ontario Scholar award but also the Governor General’s Academic Medal for having the highest marks in the graduating class, offering a rather humorous expression of amazement upon seeing the medal for the first time.

“I was really surprised; I didn’t know what the medal was before I saw it,” she said.

This is not the first time Symone has spent time away from home for academic purposes. Last March she participated in the Soar Indigenous Youth Gathering, a program at the University of Toronto’s kinesiology department. Then, this past summer she went back to U of T for its student mentorship program through the school of medicine. She ranked seventh out of 78 people taking part in the program.

Her mother has always reinforced the value of following one’s passions and embracing challenges due to the long-term impacts of making positive decisions.

“What you do today will determine what you’ll be eight days from now, eight months from now and eight years from now,” said Ms. Peltier.

“I had a single parent approach me a few days ago saying that, thanks to Symone’s example and her encouragement, her usually timid daughter applied and got accepted to the summer mentorship program at U of T,” Ms. Peltier added.

Symone credits those U of T programs for arming her with the skills she needed to succeed on her five-month exchange, such as independence, communication, and self-advocacy. This fall, Symone will be returning to U of T to study psychology at its Mississauga campus.