Friday, April 15, 2005

North American Youth Exchange

Every generation of youth passes through a rite of passage. In one form or another this "coming of age" experience is often anticipated by young adults as they prepare for life upon completion of secondary school. Like many other parents of graduating teenagers, I have been witnessing the wonderful excitement of my child’s plans for travel abroad. Taking a year off before entering university studies has been a time honoured tradition of many generations of young Canadians who take on the world with their backpacks. They travel abroad to Europe mostly, but many take to Oceana. My daughter is heading to Australia and New Zealand. Intent to take to the other side of the planet, she eagerly awaits the chance to commence with her adventure. But I am wondering…why do not young Canadians take to traveling across North America. Does not the adventures of Kerouac and previous generations of youthful travelers who crisscrossed the great expanse of America captivate the imagination of today’s youth?

I think it would be wonderful if young North Americans were encouraged to travel and work freely across the continent. The people of every region would be that much more enriched by the exchange of youth. Canadians traveling to Louisiana and Mexico City. Americans discovering the old fortress of Quebec, and the lost cities of the Maya. Young Mexicans camping in Banff, and visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. Yes, there should be a universal program for young adults from all three member countries of NAFTA that facilitates an active mingling of our cultures, that encourages North American youth to see the vast community of culture here that is so sadly underestimated.

One of the chief objectives of leaders in North America should be to encourage cultural ties among the nations. Such ties are developed through travel. But more importantly, the youth
who are able to take their precious time and energy to risk on adventure should have the ability to live and work in the lands they travel to. Student Work Abroad Programs (SWAP) are popular for youth traveling abroad, but there should be a more institutionalized swapping of youth across the continent. Canadians would learn more about their neighbours, and like any exchange program the benefits would be reciprocal.

I find it sad that my daughter feels she must travel to Australia to live out her adventure. North America is full of much natural beauty, many cultural interests. And there is much fun to be had. It is unfortunate that we do not promote this kind of homegrown adventure. There would be such a wonderful expression of community if our youth discovered the world at their feet, the cultures at their doorstep. Alas, maybe it is just me in my advancing middle age. Perhaps it is I who simply wants to drive around the continent in a RV. Perhaps the grown adult in me has simply learned that there is much to see across this continent. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was great annual migration of young Canadians, Americans, and Mexicans across our continent. To see them traveling about with their backpacks, to see them all open-eyed and excited. I for one will always remember the Pope’s visit to Toronto for World Youth Day a couple of summers ago. There were thousands of young people from all over the world moving about the city - on sidewalks, and subways, in parks and restaurants, in museums and libraries. It was almost magical. It certainly was inspirational, too. I think we could use a lot more of that. And I think we would be much better off for it.

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