Ashleigh - University of Waterloo

B. Science, Biomed Major
Semester 1, 2016

Academic experience

First of all, congratulations on making the first step of applying for exchange! I had a fantastic time studying abroad, and even if you don’t choose Waterloo, I’m sure you will too. 

Whilst at the University of Waterloo, I studied five courses to match up with the UQ requirements. Heading overseas, I knew I had to study one subject that was the equivalent of a third-year course and was determined to study the rest as electives. This was surprisingly difficult as Waterloo did not think me eligible for several of their courses, both due to inexperience and due to too much experience. I realised very quickly that UQ’s biomedical science program is world standard for a reason, as it provides a much greater range of courses to study, and with better facilities. In the end, I studied the following courses:
BIOL 484 – Advanced Eukaryotic Genetics
BIOL 414 – Parasitology 
PSYC 257R – Psychopathology 
PSYC 207 – Cognitive Processes 
SPAN 101 – Introduction to Spanish 1 

These courses were all very interesting and with a much lighter study load than what I was used to at home. Unfortunately, they did not involve labs or tutorials, but many Waterloo courses turn their lectures into lectorials anyway so the professor-student dynamics are quite impressive. Spanish was by far the most interesting of the courses I took, as differed considerably from anything else I’ve ever studied. In saying this, I was not considered very good at this subject, as many other students came from a background of Spanish from high-school, or were fluent in French (the other official language of Canada) and were able to evolve easily. It was still very refreshing to study something new, however, and I would highly recommend taking electives that throw you into the deep end. 

Personal experience

Studying abroad gave me my first taste of solo international travel and a slew of new skills. I learned how to prioritise my time and funds, make the most of every opportunity and how to take a step back and see how important or trivial a situation might be. I made friends from all over the world, just by going up to people and asking if I could sit with them. Admittedly the closest friendships I made were with other Australians, but we are a curious bunch the world over, and it is hard to avoid a friend who offers you Vegemite and Milo. The most important thing I gained from exchange was the knowledge that I am capable of doing things, and doing them on my own. I have never been a very materialistic person, but travelling with just a backpack and a passport, you begin to appreciate the bonds you make with people and the memories you create much more than any souvenir.

Accommodation

I lived in one of the dorms offered to exchange and domestic students, called Village 1. This was a convenient option as I was able to organise my accommodation and food for the time I was at university before I’d even left Australia. It was also very convenient as living a 5-minute walk from your classroom could mean the difference between going to class or not in -20 degree temperatures and 50cm of snow on your doorstep, early in the morning. In the dorms, you have an option of single, double or interconnecting rooms, and food plans are compulsory, which can be seen as beneficial or disadvantageous, depending on how fussy you are, or how much of a terrible cook you are. Some of the only drawbacks of living in village 1 were that the students in my building were all underage and studied much harder than me, leading to me gravitating towards the exchange students in another building. It also leads to the habit of staying in the village bubble and sometimes forgetting that there are friends to be made and activities to do elsewhere. That being said, I loved village 1, its food, free gyms (the whole uni has free gyms,) activities and convenience.

Budget

I paid for my accommodation and food plan in advance, totalling about $4000. I did end up using up all my meal plan money and spending another $300 to top it up, but most of my friends had money left over on their cards. With your student ID buses in Waterloo and Kitchener are free (part of the student fees) so local transport wasn’t a worry. I joined the Waterloo Snowboard Coalition, which is the student ski/snowboarding society. If you’re there in Winter term, I would highly recommend this. We went on several trips to surrounding areas for day trips, which the society subsidised. I spent about $500 in total on trips, ski gear, and equipment hire, but it was definitely worth it. I had no idea how to snowboard, however, so the hills available to us were perfect for me. If you are an avid fan of snow sports, I’d say you would be quite disappointed in what is on offer in this small region. I travelled for over 2 months at the end of my exchange and spent about another $5000 on accommodation in hostels, car hire for a month-long road trip and food. All of my flights had already been taken care of, but cost around $2500. In total, I would recommend budgeting about $10 000 – 12 000 for your exchange and extra travel, but this depends entirely on what type of travel you do. I travelled through Eastern Canada for a month, The United States for 3 weeks and Europe for 3-4 weeks.

Professional development and employability

The two biggest things I took away from exchange in a professional sense were evaluating situations and communicating with a broad range of people. Travelling alone has cemented in my mind the idea that a problem is only as big as you let it get in your head. If you don’t give negativity real estate in your mind, then you will find that problems aren’t as overwhelming and solutions are much clearer. This is something that I have been immediately able to transfer into the workplace and uni since coming home. The second attribute, communicating with people, is also vastly important. I have always considered myself to be an open-minded person, and exchange helped me prove that, meeting people of different racial backgrounds, religions, socioeconomic status and sexuality. What I found most difficult however was dealing with people who did not have such an open outlook on others. Learning to overcome this, and learning that sometimes friends have to be let go, helped me become stronger as a person.

Highlight

Our group of exchange students at the top of Mont Royal, on our midsemester break in Montreal
Our group of exchange students at the top of Mont Royal, on our midsemester break in Montreal

The entirety of exchange was amazing, but if I had to put it down to one thing, I would say experiencing a Canadian Winter and learning how to snowboard was the highlight for me. I would never in my life be able to permanently live somewhere that cold, but just for a few months was amazing. I will definitely be planning a holiday to Canada’s West coast to see their famous Rocky Mountains for some more snowboarding.

Top tips

  • Get out of your comfort zone; whether it be with food, sports or the type of people you hang out with, give it all a go
  • Don’t be afraid to get support if you’re a bit overwhelmed
  • Keep your safety in mind and follow your instincts
  • Go with the flow – the best plans are the ones that make themselves 
  • Keep an open mind 
Ashleigh - University of Waterloo