When Charles Mak first arrived to Selkirk College from Hong Kong in late-1986, international education was a virtually unknown post-secondary entity in the West Kootenay. Much has changed over the last 33 years.
Now working for a successful Shanghai-based office furniture company, Mak spends half his year traveling to all parts of the world where his time spent getting an English language education in British Columbia comes in handy. On his way to Chicago from Vancouver in early-June, Mak touched down in Castlegar for the first time since he left in 1989.
“As soon as I arrived to the airport, there was lots of good memories,” says Mak, who was 18-years-old the first time he stepped foot in Castlegar. “It made me think of all the teachers and homestay friends that I made while I studied at Selkirk College.”
With excitement building for Expo ’86 in the mid-1980s, the British Columbia government started a push towards international education with a focus on Asia. The direction in post-secondary was embraced by Selkirk College’s former President Dr. Leo Perra and former Board Chair Dr. Jack Colbert who traveled to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore to build relationships.
The first group of seven students from Hong Kong arrived in July 1986. Landing in late-December 1986, Mak was a member of the second international education cohort to study at Selkirk College. His group included a total of nine students from Hong Kong and Macau that focused on studying English as a Second Language and in the School of University Arts & Sciences.
By the time Mak left in 1989, Selkirk International had started to blossom with students arriving from all parts of the world. Today, there are more than 750 international students from 21 countries who study in a wide variety of Selkirk College programs on all campuses and online.
“It was an important multi-cultural experience, not just with getting to know the Canadians but also within the program I got to meet people from Japan, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia,” Mak says. “The homestay makes you communicate with different cultures and a different age group.”
Lacking the multi-cultural mix which exists in the region today, Mak recalls that he was embraced by folks in the Castlegar community who greeted him with a mix of curiosity and kindness.
“The people were very friendly right from the start,” he says. “Whenever I went downtown to the stores, everyone seemed to know me and would always say hi to me.”
The timing of Mak’s return to Castlegar was at the prompting of an old friend. Lola Sherstobitoff started her 23-year career at Selkirk College as an on-call switchboard operator in 1974. By the mid-1980s, she was part of the Selkirk International team that welcomed students from around the globe and helped keep them on track while studying in their new community.
At her home just east of Castlegar, Sherstobitoff has photo albums packed with memories from her days with Selkirk International. Over the years, she has been invited to weddings, traveled to see former students and continues to keep in touch with a few of her most cherished bonds. Mak is one of the stand-out alumni and she set up the mid-June visit.
“It’s emotional for me,” says Sherstobitoff. “Charles became very close, he would stop by and visit my office all the time. We would just sit and talk. I learned so much, it was the first time I had any contact with people from overseas. When they all first came, we knew nothing. We treated them like our own kids, it was pretty special.”
Mak’s roots in the region extend much deeper than simply gaining an education and building new bonds with Canadian friends. In 2000, he reconnected with another former student from his Selkirk College days in Castlegar, a woman from Japan. They were soon married and the couple now has two sons aged 13 and 16.
With the couple’s oldest son getting set to make decisions about post-secondary himself, Mak says there is a strong possibility that he will attend the University of British Columbia. He continues to be an advocate for international education and the welcoming arms of Canada. When asked by his son and others about his time spent in Castlegar, Mak is sure to highlight the beauty of the region.
“One of the things that I tell people is about the weather,” he says. “In many parts of the world you don’t see a big difference between spring, summer, autumn and winter. Here you can feel the four seasons very obviously and along with that you get to do all of the outdoor things like fishing and skiing and watching hockey. It’s a beautiful part of the world.”
Though he only spent a couple of days in Castlegar, Sherstobitoff is confident he will be back again. Until Mak or another former student returns, she will hold onto the memories of a wonderful career in international education.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, it was the best job,” says Sherstobitoff. “I traveled around the world just by coming to work.”
Learn more about Selkirk International at: www.selkirk.ca/international.