Alongside the rest of his International School class in Tokyo, Japan, Reo (pronounced Léo) Hashimoto spent six months preparing for his study abroad trip to Canada. The 16 year-old arrived in January, amazed at the sheer amount of greenery and trees in Campbell River. He was looking forward to spending time with other international students, playing for the senior boys basketball team and experiencing life in a coastal town on Vancouver Island.
But just 1.5 months in, something unexpected happened. Schools closed their doors, ordered to do so by public health and the Ministry of Education. The world was on the verge of a pandemic.
In September last year, the Campbell River School District’s Campbell River Schools International program welcomed 72 students into the community. Mostly teens, they came from Europe – mainly Germany and Spain. They seek out the nature that Campbell River has to offer, says Mercedes Hayduk, global engagement officer. Students also come from Japan and Taiwan, as well as Brazil and Mexico, but in smaller numbers.
“No matter where they’re coming from, school here is very, very different,” she says. “They have access to electives and (a) less formal environment that the students really appreciate.”
Students join clubs and sports; they volunteer.
“They really embrace being a part of the community,” she says.
So when class didn’t resume after spring break, it was tough on students like Hashimoto.
“I came here for experiences,” he says, “to go to school.”
International students were faced with a tough choice: stay in Campbell River with their host families, or return to their families in their home countries.
“Every student was different,” says Hayduk. “Nobody knew what was going to happen.”
The district didn’t ask anyone to leave because they knew they could support them, she says, but many were worried about flights being available come June, others wanted to be closer to their families.
While just over half the students did return home, Hashimoto was among the group who stayed. He never thought about going back.
Hashimoto’s program is different than most international students’ who choose to study in Campbell River. He’s able to communicate with his family back in Japan solely through written letters. No Zoom. No Facebook Messenger. Just regular ol’ snail mail.
He has four siblings. His older sister actually took part in the same study abroad program he’s in and also chose Campbell River, that’s part of why he decided to come. His younger brother is on the cusp of entering their school in Tokyo and Hashimoto thinks he may also choose to study in Campbell River.
The program has had siblings before, but never three from the same family.
And so Hashimoto spent quarantine with his host family. They went on walks, just talking about life and getting out around the neighbourhood. He played basketball in the driveway with a Taiwanese student also staying with the host family.
Hayduk says the students who did stay had a “very unique experience.” In addition to getting set up with the online learning opportunities domestic students had, they had “an amazing opportunity to bond with their host families because everybody was home,” she says. “It allowed for a lot more family time than you would typically have because there were no sports or acitivities, or anything.”
It was on one of those walks with his host family that Hashimoto spotted a sign on Hilchey Road requesting volunteer help for a construction project.
He signed up. For three days over the summer, he volunteered with Habitat for Humanity.
“It was kind of impressive,” he says. “I installed windows, I made staircases, I put up walls. It was beyond my expectations. I didn’t expect to learn these skills in Canada.”
To say Hashimoto is excited to be back in class would be an understatement. It was all he wanted back in quarantine.
“So now everything is fun for me,” he says. He gets to go to school and play basketball with his friends. Hashimoto started the semester with an english class and is now taking Law Studies 12.
“It kind of sounds scary for me, but I hope I’m going to make it,” he says.
But things haven’t always been rosy.
Back in the spring, Hashimoto was playing basketball in his driveway when someone passing by threw an egg at him. When he’s in a car, he notices people pointing at him. And when out for walks, he can hear camera shutters going off.
He thinks it’s because the coronavirus originated in China. Although he’s Japanese, people just see “Asian.”
“It was tough back in quarantine days,” he says. “I think from those experiences, I got to know that these things are for real and I think those things strengthened my mind. Yeah, I could have gone back to Japan then. I was kind of down.”
But his family sent him letters of encouragement and he recalled some things he’d learned in Japan.
“Those experiences make me appreciate family,” he says.
Hashimoto joined seven other students in the program this fall. The four students who did return home, came back mid-August and completed a supervised quarantine with Hayduk.
“It’s not lost on us that these are minors who are choosing to travel and it requires that they be supervised 24/7,” she says. “They are children. They’re very mature and they’re wonderful kids, but it wouldn’t have felt appropriate to leave them on their own to quarantine.”
This fall’s normally big boisterous welcome party was toned down. They held a beach fire for just the eight of them as a new school year started up.
Hashimoto feels bittersweet about returning to Japan as the end of his study abroad year in December approaches.
“I’m looking forward to returning to Japan, but I also want to stay here,” he says. He’d love a chance to play with Timberline’s basketball team, but school sports still remain a giant question mark. But even just playing with his friends after school has been great.
He says he’s developped better communications skills and a different style of playing.
The players would typically be quiet on the court, but here in Campbell River chatter is endless. Players will encourage each other, even when shots are missed.
“As a Japanese, I think in my culture, respect is really important,” he says. “And through playing basketball and sports, I learned to respect people.”
And despite only having eight international students this semester, the future of the program is bright.
Hayduk had 30 students who were still willing to travel this September. But only those with existing study permits were allowed to enter Canada. Most of the students have deferred their applications. Even on the day of our interview, Hayduk received another application for February.
Now, it’s a waiting game. A legislation change could see more international students coming to study in Campbell River, but it will depend on how it’s rolled out. Hayduk is still waiting for details on how many students can come, from where, and under what conditions.
Until then, she says, “it’s just wait and see right now.”