Family returns after year-long exchange ‘Down Under’

Peggy Revell

After an “amazing” year-and-a-half living in the land “Down Under,” the Kunkel family returned home to Canadian soil last month.
“I think the biggest message I’d give anyone is to do it. It’s absolutely amazing,” Willa Kunkel enthused about the trek which she, her husband, Fred, and daughter, Emma, took to Australia as part of an exchange program for teachers.
“It’s so creative,” the Fort High teacher remarked. “I mean, we certainly love our jobs in Fort Frances, so we certainly didn’t want to quit them or leave—so how can you have a wonderful adventure and come home and get paid?
“And we wanted to show our daughter that the world is big, it’s a huge place,” Kunkel added about why they originally signed up for the exchange, which saw the Callaway family from Australia live here for a year.
Overall, it was a “very different experience,” said Emma Kunkel, noting they arrived in time for Australia Day (Jan. 26), when the country celebrates all things “Aussie.”
The Australian climate was “exquisite,” Willa Kunkel recalled.
“It was pouring rain when we arrived,” she noted. “But it’s really cool there—it just rains and then the sun comes out, and it rains and the sun comes out.
Kunkel also said the area where she and the family stayed—in Cairns, North Queensland—was beautiful.
“You’re living in this area of beaches, daintree forests, gorgeous table lands that look like the hills of England and Scotland, and then further inland is the Outback.
“So just a beautiful, beautiful area.”
And unlike Northwestern Ontario, Kunkel said there were hardly any mosquitoes, so everyone lives outside, just “in and out” all the time.
“They have this community that has these evening outdoor movie series, so you would take your picnic, your blanket, and pillows and lie under the stars in the botanical gardens and just watch movies,” she recounted.
“That was really magical.”
Besides her teaching position, Kunkel was hired on to write curriculum. She took on senior drama, bringing in shows and speakers while helping out with the school’s musical.
As a teacher, Kunkel found the Australian school system different—likening it more to the British one.
“The students stand and they greet you before they sit down,” she described. “[They] wear uniforms—I love that, it was an equalizer in the classroom.”
The kids were “funny and earthy and really responsive,” Kunkel added, noting it was a very different system where there only was one major task per term that students were required to perform.
She also had no issues with truancies or lates.
“For instance in English, 99 percent of the kids handed the task in on time.
“It was great, it was just a great experience,” she enthused.
Being in the tropics, Kunkel said the school was designed as an open campus.
“So there I’d be with an umbrella in one hand, when it would be pouring rain, and my suitcase on wheels because you have to travel from class to class—that was neat.”
While she was against uniforms at first, Emma Kunkel said she began to “really, really, really” like them after a while.
“Because I know in Fort Frances there’s so much pressure about having the right brand name in high school, and [uniforms] kind of alleviated that,” she remarked.
“You could just kind of put on your uniform and not worry about what you look like really, and just be yourself more.”
The change in school system also meant a lot less pressure, she added, with fewer assignments per term­—but many other opportunities, such as the school camps which they went on one week every year.
“I really appreciated that because everybody got to know each other and the teachers, as well, in an off-campus setting,” the teen said about the annual three-day camp.
“So it was really interesting.
“I feel that people got a lot closer to each other there, people who would never really hang out outside of school,” she added.
“From a teacher’s point of view, the camps were amazing,” agreed her mom.
“I wish we had publicly had the money to do it. Because you get to leave school, you get to know the kids in a different settings.”
“In Australian schools, debating is really, really, really big,” added Emma, noting she was chosen to be part of one of her school’s debating teams during her time there.
“It was a really cool experience, and that’s definitely something I would like to do again in the future, although Fort Frances doesn’t have one.
“But that can change.
“And there was a fabulous music program at my school which I got to be a part of,” she added, referring to her experience of playing the trombone in both the concert and jazz band.
She also had the opportunity to compete in the Cairns-wide competition similar to the Rainy River District of the Performing Arts­—except with 9,000 people in it.
Sports were also “very, very big there” for kids, Emma said—but different kinds are popular, such as netball, shotput, discus, and javelin.
During their stay, the family travelled­­­—visiting the daintree and table lands, Sydney, and the Blue Mountains, as well as spending time on the south island of New Zealand and snorkeling on little Green Island.
“It was an amazing experience,” Willa Kunkel reiterated. “And my husband was fabulous—he was just willing to do anything.
“So he worked for a landscaping company, which was just five minutes from the school where I taught and my daughter attended.
“Everything just fell into place for us.”
But mostly it was the people they met that made the trip memorable for the Kunkels.
“We made life-long friends, and I think when you travel and you’re away from your homes and your family, people open up to you, at least that was our experience,” Kunkel said, adding she will miss those friends and the kids she taught.
Yet at the same time, coming home was a something the family also welcomed.
“It would be great if I could have both worlds­—it’s funny, but going away, at least in our case, certainly made us appreciate what we have.
“And it’s been wonderful to come home,” she added, noting they arrived just in time to attend a friend’s wedding.
“I’m really, really glad [we went] because I got to experience a different school. It changes your perspective on everything when you get to do something different,” echoed Emma.
“It made me realize how lucky I was to live in Canada and how much I really love Canada,” she added, noting she always was talking about Canada with her Australian friends.
“It kind of just made us realize how lucky we were to live where we live.
“It was definitely an experience anybody who can do it should do it.”
“I would just strongly suggest to anyone to do it,” agreed her mom.
“If you have an opportunity to live in another country, and then when you’re there just accept any invitation you’re given­­—be open to all the possible opportunities,” she urged.