The Rocky Mountain International Program — which enables students from all over the world to live and go to school in Kimberley, Invermere and Golden — is growing. Last year the program had 55 students. This year, there are around 130 international students attending Selkirk, David Thompson and Golden Secondary Schools.
With this kind of growth comes the creation of a new position with the program in Golden. Tom Ristimaki is the new International Student Program Coordinator, working alongside Duncan McLeod (the International Education Manager), homestay co-ordinators, host families, and of course, the students themselves.
“Tom is a huge asset to the program, with the combinations of his background, education, personality and enthusiasm,” said McLeod. “We’re lucky to have him on board.”
Ristimaki does seem like a perfect fit for the job. He grew up in Kimberley and his first real international experience was through a year long Rotary exchange to Japan during high-school. There, he was the only white person in a town of 10,000 people and went through culture shock twice — first, when moving to Japan and trying to express himself in a language he couldn’t speak and then, when he returned back to his cozy town in the Kootenays, where “everything felt familiar but nothing made sense.”
Ristimaki has spoken at several international conferences about the value and long-term benefit of early intercultural experience. This is what he said at the 2007 Rotary International World Convention:
“These experiences shatter your worldview. They challenge the cultural assumptions you’ve been raised with and force you to radically redefine your social identity. Afterwards, there is often a prolonged period of adjustment and inner turmoil, but that chaos and confusion is a clear sign of personal growth.”
Ristimaki firmly believes that these opportunities are fundamentally different than going on vacation with parents, travelling as a tourist or living abroad later in life as an adult.
“What many people don’t realize is that going on an exchange like this isn’t just a year away from home,” said Ristimaki. “These are turning points in young people’s lives, and from that point on the entire path is different. Immersion in another language and culture may be the catalyst for change, but the learning continues long after you’ve gone home and making sense of that experience fundamentally affects your identity, choices, and long-term goals.”
Since his exchange in high school, Risimaki has done extensive volunteer work throughout Canada and abroad, lived or travelled in over a dozen different countries, and earned three university degrees in linguistics. As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and Commonwealth Scholar to the United Kingdom he conducted original independent research into language use, possibility, and personal empowerment – successfully completing his PhD in 2008.
Ristimaki’s position with the Rocky Mountain International Student program allows him to wear many hats. Although his position does include administrative support and international recruitment, the real emphasis is on supporting the students who are studying in Canada by trying to understand their perspective and enhance their educational experience.
He’s interested in tapping into what each community has to offer and really making use of those resources. For example, Ristimaki wants to enhance the connection between international education and aboriginal education. Strong educational opportunities exist on both sides and it’s about creating the connection between the two.
At the same time, Ristimaki explained, we need to look at the students and see how they can enrich the community.
So why does he think this international program is experiencing so much growth now?
Ristimaki breaks it down to a few reasons, some of them being the unique programs offered in the schools, the exceptional student support (including homestay parents and co-ordinators, teachers, international program staff and the community as a whole) and all the benefits of living in a safe, scenic and vibrant community in the BC Rockies.
“I think people are really starting to become aware of this part of the world,” said Ristimaki. “Everyone knows about Vancouver and Calgary and Banff. A program like this is starting to put our region on the map.”
Duncan McLeod agrees that a big draw for the students comes from the eclectic and often hands-on courses the school district offers, which includes everything from outdoor education, equine studies and culinary arts.
“A lot of these courses are very experiential,” said McLeod, explaining that a lot of these students wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience them if they’re from a school dedicated strictly to academics.
But Ristimaki thinks that the strength and real draw of the program is its intimacy.
Teachers and co-ordinators have the opportunity to really get to know each student. Homestay co-ordinators not only work hard to make the students’ home life as comfortable as possible, but set up activities and act as a liaison between students, teachers, homestay families and the community. Homestay families provide emotional and educational support while introducing the students to Canadian culture.
“All the people involved in the program genuinely believe in it,” said Ristimaki. “It’s more that just a job for everyone involved.”
As for the future of the program, McLeod says the intent isn’t going to be as much on increasing numbers, but on diversification and engagement. The more countries the program can attract the more diverse experience for everyone involved. At the same time, the stronger the relationship between Canadian and international students, the more solid and lasting relationships will be formed.
And this, according to McLeod, is one of the most important aspects for students as they finish high school and venture out into the world.