People & Culture

Team Canada wins silver and bronze at the International Geography Olympiad

Ontario students uphold Canada’s legacy of excellence at annual student competition held in Indonesia

  • Aug 16, 2023
  • 1,136 words
  • 5 minutes
Photo: Paul VanZant/iGeo
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Trekking through a tropical rainforest to conduct fieldwork observations at an active stratovolcano is not how most Canadian students spend their summer vacation, but for four young geographers this opportunity had been a long time in coming. The International Geography Olympiad (iGeo) is an annual competition for the top 16 to 19 year old geography students from all over the world. This year was the first time since 2019 that the competition has been able to be held in person and Team Canada travelled all the way around the world — to Bandung, Indonesia — to compete.

“The members of Team Canada have shown that they are among the brightest young geographers in the world,” says Paul VanZant, Chair of Canadian Geographic Education (Can Geo Education). “They are a credit to their country, their schools and teachers, and their parents. We are so proud of all the hard work the students have put in to prepare for the iGeo competition.”

Team Canada, from left to right: Matthew Stasiw, Julian Bal, Xavier Spano, and Brayden Zhang. (Photo: Paul VanZant)
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Long-haul flights aside, it’s been a long road for Team Canada. Xavier Spano, Matthew Stasiw, Brayden Zhang, and Julian Bal have put in an incredible amount of work to make it onto Team Canada. The team was selected through the Canadian Geographic Challenge (Challenge), a national competition run by Can Geo Education which includes tests and independent fieldwork that rely on geographic analysis — all as a precursor to prepare students for what they will encounter at iGeo. Once Team Canada was chosen, the four students spent weeks preparing with their coaches in the lead up to the competition.

VanZant and his fellow Team Canada coach Janet Ruest are both Fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) and have been volunteering their time and expertise for the past several years to train and guide incoming cohorts of young geographers. Under their leadership, Team Canada has performed brilliantly over the years, regularly bringing home medals and amazing stories. This year was no exception.

(Photo: Paul VanZant)
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(Photo: Paul VanZant)
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“I know it seems cheesy, but the moment when I saw the Canadian flag pop up with my name under it announcing the silver medalists was a dream come true for me,” says 18-year-old Xavier Spano, from Nelson High School in Burlington, Ont.

Although this was his first time competing on the international stage, Spano has a lot of national experience under his belt, having placed fourth in the 2019 Challenge before going on to become National Champion in 2020. He is not alone in his accomplishments either. Teammate Matthew Stasiw, from University of Toronto Schools, Ont., is no stranger to the pressures of competition, having competed in the 2022 iGeo.

Brayden Zhang, Matthew Stasiw, and Xavier Spano show off their medal wins at iGeo 2023. (Photo: Paul VanZant)
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“I am proud to bring home a bronze medal for Team Canada and am honoured to have been a part of Team Canada at iGeo 2022 and 2023,” says Stasiw. “Competing in iGeo has been a highlight of my high school career.”

Stasiw’s schoolmate, Brayden Zhang, also joined him on Team Canada this year and earned a bronze medal. Zhang’s first experience at an international competition left a strong impression.

“Traveling to a country 30 hours away, meeting people from places like Nigeria and Hungary, and witnessing fabulous musical performances from the Indonesians, all while immersing myself in my passion of geography is something I will probably never have the chance to do again,” says Zhang.

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The iGeo competition is a whirlwind of events, consisting of a written test, a multimedia test, and fieldwork, as well as team poster presentations and cultural exchanges. During the fieldwork exercise, Team Canada had the opportunity to visit the Tangkuban Perahu volcano and take in the stunning views of the Bandung Basin, which cradles the capital city of Indonesia’s West Java province.

“Although we were well prepared by Janet and Paul to answer the questions, walking up 40-degree inclines in the rainforest to view beautiful valleys and rock outcrops are things that are unique from any regular test we could experience in Canada,” says Zhang. “Experiencing the real Indonesia — both natural and societal — through these walks and analysis questions was quite the experience and really tested our ability to think geographically.”

The format of this in-person competition also allowed students to become immersed in the culture of their host nation. During the cultural activities, they learned how to play a traditional Indonesian musical instrument called the angklung, made from bamboo pipes. The musical notes from hundreds of instruments filled an entire auditorium with a vibrating chorus. Traditional Indonesian dance, food, and customs were on full display throughout the week of iGeo, which ran from August 8 to 14.

“The opportunity for Canada’s top geographers to attend iGeo is literally life-changing,” explains Ruest. “Meeting like-minded students from other countries forges friendships, encourages the sharing and coming together of ideas and thoughts, and leads to greater understandings. It also allows the Canadian team to make Canada better known to the world.”

Staying in the same location afforded students the opportunity to get to know their fellow competitors outside the stress and rigours of testing. Team Canada connected with peers from around the world who shared in their passion for geography, comparing stories about their school lives and finding common ground outside the world of academics.

Matthew Stasiw shares a photo with the iGeo team from Portugal. (Photo: Matthew Stasiw)
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“Everyone had amazing stories to tell about their home countries. I’ll never forget trading Australian dollars to buy a friend fish and chips, or cheering on new friends from other countries, or the karaoke rides and how much fun we had,” recalls Spano. “Special shout-out to all of the liaison officers who helped out, who were all amazing people with such unique stories. Everyone was so kind and for me that is what made the trip memorable more than anything else.”

Julian Bal, from Hillfield Strathallan College in Cambridge, Ont., another veteran Challenge competitor, echoes the sentiment. This was Bal’s first time attending iGeo and, although he didn’t earn a medal, Bal’s enthusiasm is undampened and he’s already looking towards the future.

“The opportunity to be surrounded by the world’s top student geographers and test our skills is one that I will forever be appreciative of. I am thrilled to say that I am in contact with many of them and hope to strengthen the friendships made at iGeo for life,” says Bal. “Having given my best effort both in preparation and in the competition, I feel proud of my growth as a geographer and of the efforts I made. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to have the opportunity to try again and put forth a medal-winning performance at iGeo.”

Team Canada with coaches Paul VanZant (far left) and Janet Ruest (far right) at the 2023 International Geography Olympiad. (Photo: Paul VanZant)
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