Rotary Exchange: 'You just have to go for it'

Can you find Rotary exchange student Mackenzie Simmonds? A hint... she's holding the Canadian flag! (Contributed photo) jpg, TN

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Jason Weiler

Tillsonburg Rotary Club

The Rotary Youth Exchange program has been sending and hosting young individuals for more than 50 years.

This year we continue that tradition. Rachel Mann is our outbound representative, and has been in Switzerland since August. Ryo Matsumoto has joined us from Japan and is enjoying all the experiences Canada affords.

Last year, the Rotary Club of Tillsonburg organized Madelyn Bolton’s stay in Thailand, and Rebecca Fink travelled to Peru.

The Rotary Club of Ingersoll had an unexpected opening and Mackenzie Simmonds of Tillsonburg was able to fill the spot and spend the better part of a year in Australia. The exchange turned out to be an incredible and life changing experience for Mackenzie; she has returned from her year abroad with a new accent, new friends and a slew of new experiences.

Mackenzie left for Australia in July 2018. She flew into Melbourne then traveled to her host town of Swan Hill. The trip door-to-door was approximately 30 hours, a long trip for even the most experienced traveller. One of Mackenzie’s early impressions was of the language and understanding the slang.

When her counselor asked her to “chuck (her) stuff in the boot” she had no idea what she was being asked. However, over time she said, “I came to understand the expressions, and some people even say I started to pick up the Australian accent!”


Tillsonburg’s Mackenzie Simmonds described her Rotary exchange to Australia as the ‘best experience of her life.’ (Contributed photo) jpg, TN


Swan Hill, with a population of about 12,000, is located in southeast Australia between Adelaide and Melbourne. Ironically the geography is very flat, dry and hot.

Mackenzie was hosted by five families (two or three is more typical). Staying with five families provided the opportunity to meet many great people.

“My host families were amazing, they welcomed me into their homes and treated me like family and I will always be so grateful for what they’ve done for me.”

During her stay, she witnessed the hottest day on record in Swan Hill, with temperatures reaching 47.2°C. As we now know, those temperatures returned in late 2019, setting the conditions for the devastating fires. There have not been any fires in the immediate vicinity of Swan Lake – Mackenzie indicated the closest have been approximately two hours away. Poor air quality caused by the smoke has been the primary effect on the town. Bushfires are a frequent occurrence in Australia, but this is one of the country’s worst fire seasons on record.

As with the seasons, the school year follows a different annual cycle that we’re used to here in Ontario. The school year runs from February through November, with the summer break in December and January. Mackenzie’s stay bridged two school years, so she took a variety of courses at both the Grade 11 and 12 levels. Classes included Drama, Art, English, Math, Phys Ed and Food Studies.

How much can you see and experience in one year? The Rotary Club has a saying about exchange… “It’s not a year in your life, it’s a life in a year.”


Tillsonburg Rotary exchange student Mackenzie Simmonds, right, learned to surf in Australia. (Contributed photo) jpg, TN


Mackenzie, with the support of the local Rotary Club, host families, and her friends, did their best to squeeze in as much of the Australian experience as possible. Melbourne was a frequent destination with both host families and fellow exchange students. In Melbourne, she visited the Victoria Markets, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Museum, and the Eureka Sky Deck (the tallest building in Melbourne).

“My favourite was the Shrine of Remembrance,” she said.

It was originally built to honour men and women that served in World War I, but is now a memorial for all Australians that have served in any war.

“It serves as an important reminder of the damage war has caused the world, and to remind us all it should never happen again. It was really interesting to read about it from Australians’ point of view,” she said.

During summer holidays, in addition to staying near the beach in Warrnambool, Mackenzie participated in a Mini Safari with fellow exchange students. The Mini Safari is a week-long trip with all the exchange students in the district travelling the Great Ocean Road, a road along the southern coast of Australia. Mackenzie recalls, “We did so many things during the mini safari – surfing and sightseeing, including the 12 Apostles (limestone stacks just off the coast) – but my favourite thing about it was spending time with my second family, because I did not get to see them enough.

“The best experience of my trip was the End of Year Safari. Along with 42 exchange students and six chaperones, we travelled nearly 10,000 km over three weeks, seeing the most famous parts of Australia. We began in Melbourne and from there we visited Adelaide, then on to the outback. While in central Australia we went to Coober Pedy (a town nearly completely underground), Uluru, Kings Canyon, Alice Springs, Airlie Beach, the Great Barrier Reef, Gold Coast, Movie World, Surfers Paradise, Sydney, and Canberra, Australia’s Capital.


Mackenzie Simmonds waves the Canadian flag in front of Uluru, a famous Australian landmark. (Contributed photo) jpg, TN


“I can now say that I’ve climbed Uluru, and scuba dived at the Great Barrier Reef, which most Australians can’t even say they’ve done.”

Even though all the travel was amazing, the best part about Safari was meeting so many people from all corners of the world and making friendships that will last a lifetime.

After returning home, Mackenzie was already planning her next visit. She got the opportunity to return in November, and was able to attend her Grade 12 graduation, and spend two weeks in Swan Hill visiting with friends and Rotary members.

What would she say to someone who is considering going on exchange?

“You just have to go for it. Some people are scared to be away from family, but you’ll be fine. You just have to dive into it. When I applied, I only thought about it for a day. It was the best experience of my life, I would 100% do it again in a heartbeat. All of my exchange peers I have talked to say the same thing.”

The Rotary Club is very proud of how Mackenzie has represented us on the world stage, and are thankful she has shared all of her experiences with us. We are also excited that Mackenzie’s sister Danielle will be our outbound representative to Brazil in 2020-21.

If you know someone who may be interested in participating in a short-term (two months) or long-term (one year) exchange, you can contact the Rotary Club of Tillsonburg on Facebook, or contact either Bob Marsden (519-983-2498) or Rick Cox (226-377-1429).