In January 2020, Mildura teenager Genevieve Mitcham arrived in Minden, Germany ready to explore and learn.
She was part of the Rotary Club of Mildura Deakin’s ongoing participation in an international exchange program, however, when COVID-19 hit just two months later, her experience drastically changed.
The exchange program, which has been ongoing for 60 years, is run through Rotary International, and allows members of rotary clubs around the world to exchange to multiple destinations and experience life in those countries.
Genevieve, now 18, settled in quickly and was enjoying attending her new high school and living with her first host family, but saw her life overseas change quickly when the first lockdown started.
“I mostly went there out of interest, to try and learn more of the language and have an experience overseas,” Genevieve said.
“I had already heard a bit about COVID but by late March, when the first lockdown started, everything shut down completely so we had to stay home with our host families.We were all having those initial thoughts of maybe having to go back home.
“It stayed like that for a couple months and we were trying to figure out the situation between governments and rotary clubs and then everything sort of opened up again, which was good.”
While life was momentarily back to normal, and Genevieve got back to enjoying school and her exploration of German cities, most notably Munich, she was to experience a few more lockdowns through the year.
She remains grateful to her supportive and friendly host families, and was comforted by the fact she could contact her friends and family back home in Mildura through social media.
“No one really knew what was happening during the lockdowns, and in November it got really bad – that was when Dan Andrews said everyone overseas should go back home or they’d be stuck for an indefinite amount of time,” Genevieve explained.
“It was quite confusing and scary but I had contact with my family and I knew everything in Australia wasn’t overly bad, as well as in Germany, so I stuck it out.
“It was a stressful time for my family and I, but we all managed to stay level-headed and made sure I had plans in place to get home if I needed. Both of my host families were quite worried for me too but they were amazing and so supportive, as was Rotary.”
Genevieve arrived back home in January and described the feeling of touching down as “relieving and settling.”
However, despite all the challenges COVID posed for her, she looks back on her exchange as a great experience, and one she is unlikely ever to forget.
“I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get to spend much time with other exchange students as a lot went home but I got to do a fair bit of travel considering the circumstances, and just experiencing everyday life there, going to school, seeing how things were done differently, it was great,” Genevieve said.
“The language was one of the best things I got out of it as well, I’m happy with what I learned in that regard.
“I’m proud I was able to stick it out, it was a really good experience and I’d definitely encourage anyone else to do it if they have the chance.”