Rachel Woodruff speaks so passionately about her wartime studies and discoveries you can understand why she was among the select few chosen for a prestigious international award from the Vimy Foundation.
The Chemainus resident and Cowichan Secondary School student was one of just 14 students from across Canada – and one of only two from Vancouver Island – plus one each from France and the United Kingdom picked for the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize to tour historical sites in Europe Aug. 9-23. Hundreds applied.
“It’s going to be incredible,” enthused Woodruff, 17, who’s going into Grade 12. “It’s a huge honour.”
The experience will be extra special because “it’s my first airplane ride ever,” she added.
Woodruff and Victoria’s John Evans will fly from Victoria to Vancouver and on to Montreal to meet the rest of the Canadian group. They land in London and then head to Belgium and France before finishing the educational opportunity of a lifetime in Paris.
The Beaverbrook Vimy Prize consists of a fully funded, two-week educational program to study the intertwined history of Canada, England, France and Belgium during the First and Second World Wars, according to Jennifer Blake, communications manager for the Vimy Foundation.
Students will attend intimate history lectures at Oxford, pay their respects at the stunning Canadian National Vimy Memorial, learn from experts at Ypres, Passchendaele, and Beaumont Hamel, walk along Juno Beach and other key sites in Normandy, and participate in unique commemoration ceremonies at the Menin Gate (First World War) and at Dieppe (Second World War).
It’s a unique chance for Woodruff and this year’s group to visit many of the First World War sites a century after the battles took place. The students will be at key locations from the Last 100 Days campaign, including Amiens, Cambrai and Mons.
With no veterans from the First World War remaining alive, the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize program exists to keep their legacy going by engaging today’s youth.
“It’s up to us now,” said Woodruff. “That’s a big part of being an ambassador.”
She not only excels academically, but also contributes to the community through service and leadership. Woodruff is actively involved in Remembrance Day services at the Chemainus cenotaph, singing the national anthem the last three years, entering the Royal Canadian Legion’s poster and literary contest, and volunteering at the Chemainus Valley Museum.
The application process for the Beaverbrook honour was extensive, but she went into it with abundant enthusiasm, at the urging of teacher Rhonda Aloisi to enter, because it’s a subject that interests her so much.
Woodruff’s application essay, Blake noted, included a thoughtful analysis of Canada’s diagnosis and treatment of soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder from the First World War through to today.
“I had to do a lot of research,” Woodruff explained.
She also had to write a motivational letter, among other things, about why she wanted to go and what she would bring to the program.
Woodruff knows she’ll be more than ready, willing and able to share stories from what will amount to a living history classroom.
“It’s one thing to read it in a textbook, it’s another to hear it from someone who’s been there,” she conceded.
One of her conditions since being accepted in May was to complete a biography on someone from the community who fought in the war. She selected Benjamin Bonsall whose name is on the Chemainus cenotaph.
“I wanted to get to know personal things about him,” Woodruff indicated.
She managed to contact a nephew of Bonsall’s who provided an interesting insight. Woodruff also prepared a presentation she’ll be making to the group on the assigned topic of how aircraft technology changed the Second World War.
The preliminary work is all done now and Woodruff only needed to pack.
“I haven’t had much of a summer, but this is what I’ve been waiting for for months,” she noted. “It still doesn’t feel real. It’s going to be neat to meet like-minded people like me who are passionate about it.
“I’ve heard from other recipients, it’s life-changing. I’m going to be a different person when I come back to a point.”