Tierney - University of Toronto

B. Engineering (Civil) and Business Management
Semester 2, 2016

Academic experience

I studied four engineering courses in Toronto, CIV280, CIV331, CME368, CME321 and an additional course that was not counted towards my degree. U of T Engineering, or Skule, prides itself on being the best in Canada, and as such you will get to experience an intense and rewarding academic system. I found my courses more time-demanding than UQ but less conceptually difficult. The courses I took were very practical and included essays, research and poster assignments, much more applied and communication-based than at UQ. For me, this was amazing, and I was easily able to perform well. The final exams were worth 45-55%, far less than I was used to at home, although “mid-term” exams lasted from week 3 to week 10. While demanding, it is a good incentive to stay on top of your coursework.

The assignments were often research or project based, and the courses were set up to enable students to look at topics that interested them. I really loved this approach to learning and far out-performed any work I'd done at UQ. I had a really spectacular course, CIV280, that required students to form groups and look at construction projects around the downtown core. This was excellent as an exchange student, to be given the chance to make friends and explore the city while learning things you'd never get to see in a classroom. 

In Fall, engineering students were not given a mid-term break or SWOTVAC, which was very different to UQ and made finals a little stressful. Luckily, the constant mid-terms meant I was already fairly well prepared for the time finals came, and they actually required less study than I would normally do during SWOTVAC at home. 

The students at UofT are extremely dedicated to their studies. This can be daunting as an exchange student, but once you introduce yourself to people and start asking questions, you’ll start to find your way into study groups and more. I found it hard to make connections with locals at first, especially as they all knew each other well. However, this means the cohort is actually just one big friendship group, and you’ll get to meet so many people!

Personal experience

I gained so much from this exchange, and am constantly wanting to be back in Canada! I made an amazing group of exchange and local friends and was able to explore the parks of Canada, cities of the USA and the ins-and-outs of Toronto. Purchasing a pair of skates enabled me to ice skate every day, which was really an outstanding part of the trip. The winter also allowed me to learn how to ski! While Toronto is predominantly English speaking, a four-hour drive away I was able to experience the Quebecois culture and pick up some basic French skills.

Toronto is a big city and there’s always something happening, events are especially popular including the Toronto International Film Festival, where the whole of Downtown becomes Hollywood for two weeks. The city rallies around its sports teams, and I’d highly recommend getting to a game or two if you can. Baseball is the most affordable option by far, and the Blue Jays do quite well! Each neighbourhood of Toronto has its own character to explore, so you always have something to do.

Outside the city, it was incredible to watch the seasons change from summer through fall and winter. No doubt – fall is the most magnificent time of year, and I had the best time camping in national parks and exploring Canada’s beauty. 

Winter is special too, with snowfall bringing a purpose to all the cold. Outdoor skating at Nathan Phillips Square, free and just outside Chestnut, became my favourite pastime! Be sure to indulge in the nation’s favourite sport and catch a hockey game, watching a good game is really unforgettable.

From Toronto I was easily able to travel to Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa as well as a bit further to Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York. Flights are extremely expensive in Canada, but if you can visit more of Canada (the Rockies and Northwest Territories/Alaska) I would strongly urge you to do so. Canada is such a beautiful country, so just hiring a car and heading to a national or provincial park can make for the best weekends!

I was also able to take the opportunity to visit Europe at the end of my exchange, a much shorter trip from North America than home. If you're interested in doing so, I would recommend looking into Round-the-World tickets as they can be very flexible. In fact, my time in Toronto was considered a 4-month "stopover"!

Accommodation 

Chestnut's backyard
Chestnut's backyard

I lived at Chestnut Residence, an old hotel that was converted into a student dorm. The rooms are single for exchange students, although spaces are very limited in some years so it is best to apply ASAP. The residence was in a great position in the middle of Downtown, close to the main shopping centre, bus terminal and the Uni. It was a 15-minute walk to the bottom of campus (engineering/science area) but 30 mins to the top of campus (sports arenas, various classrooms). This was really bearable right till the end of the semester, although a few days it may be necessary to use the subway to get to the top of campus if it is snowing or raining heavily.
I found that some students at Chestnut were difficult to connect with, but was able to make friends who have stayed with me beyond exchange, so it is just a bit of a mixed barrel. I think for a 1-semester stay, Chestnut is the best option, however, I would advise students staying longer to look into renting or another residence with more exchange students.

Budget

Toronto is expensive, not unlike Australia. I particularly found groceries pricey and a serious lack of Kmart-like stores. Dollarama will be your friend. I budgeted $200 a week while in residence (so, not including food or accommodation, which was around $9000). This allowed me to travel basically every weekend. $15 000 should suffice for the whole trip.

Prices do not include tax or tips. It is essentially mandatory to tip about 13-18% at restaurants, cafes and bars (but not fast food) depending on your experience. Tax in Ontario is 13% but varies elsewhere.

You will need a good winter coat/ski jacket ($120 - $250) and snow boots ($80 – $160). Winners (kind of like Trade Secret) is a good place to start, their stock varies from store-to-store. Kathmandu or other brands from home will also do you well, but there's not really any need to spend more than $300.

Phone plans are very expensive in Canada, but Fido does a good deal on data sims. You most likely won’t need calls or text, and opting out of that will save you $40 a month. Look for student deals around $15 for 1-3 GB

Professional development and employability

At a Blue Jays game!
At a Blue Jays game!

I was extremely fortunate in this experience to have had the opportunity to explore the fields that genuinely interest me, and have been able to structure the rest of my degree around this. I don't think I would have reached this point without the mentorship of my lecturers on exchange.

I have learned about how the greatest cities in the world (New York, London, Toronto, etc.) tackle the problems that Australia is yet to face and have grasped a deeper understanding of the world beyond our shores. I have learned how to network, how to research the latest developments in my field and how to ask the right questions. Importantly, I understand with clarity what I want from my education and how I can use my interests to drive my career choices.

Highlight

A highlight of my semester was getting to know my lecturers. All of the academics I encountered at U of T were more than eager to help and provide feedback and support whenever you needed. I can seriously recommend introducing yourself to your teachers (you might even notice that Australia starts to get brought up in class examples).

Travelling and making friends abroad has given me so many experiences and magical moments I can hardly begin to count them. Above all, seeing the beautiful natural wonders of Canada has to be the best part, but you really just have to experience it for yourself!

Top tips

  • Students at U of T are generally very high achieving and are serious about their studies. This can be a barrier at times when you are looking to travel and have fun with classmates. However, there will always be other exchange students looking to travel on weekends and so on.
  • Join groups/clubs! Clubs and uni events are such a good way to meet locals and exchange students. Clubs that go on trips are especially awesome because they often attract lots of exchange students and like-minded locals and are cheap!
  • The application process is stressful, but the rewards are worth it and you will absolutely fall in love with Canada, just as I have!
Tierney - University of Toronto