Sonia - University of Toronto

B. Engineering
Semester 2, 2017

Academic experience

The courses I took (and UQ equivalents) were: AER301 (MECH3200), AER307 (MECH3410), AER315 (AERO4450), MIE488 (ENGG4900), and FOR421. Since 4/5 of my courses were engineering courses, my advice is probably more relevant to anyone studying a similar degree - my friends from other faculties had different experiences, which I myself found when taking FOR421. Overall, my workload was less than at UQ - I was able to finish most/all of my work during the week, and take at least a day off to explore each weekend.

Since UQ requires that you take 2.5 credits (5 courses) to get full credit, you get to choose anything for your 5th course. I recommend taking something from a different faculty that interests you - I chose to do FOR421, which is about urban forestry, and it ended up being my favourite course of the semester. Taking a class in such a different topic was also a great way to take my mind off my more difficult courses during the week. 

The UofT academic system is similar to UQ's - expect regular assignments, 1-2 midterms scheduled any time during semester, and a final exam weighted 40-60%. I found the exams to be slightly harder. Tutorials are usually lecture sessions with someone going through examples, rather than providing tutorial sheets. For engineering, assignments are generally 'problem sets' consisting of tutorial-style questions, rather than reports, and these could be difficult due to the lack of examples available. Only some engineering courses have pracs, (I had none). Other general differences included no SWOTVAC, no mid-sem break for engineering students, and lectures aren't recorded. 

There are 2 engineering faculties at UofT - Engineering and Engineering Science. They both offer similar courses, but EngSci courses are generally much more theoretical as they emphasise the fundamental maths and physics. Therefore, if you study aerospace, mechatronics, electrical, or software engineering, you may unknowingly sign on to an EngSci course (look for AER, ROB, or ECE course codes). I found that my EngSci courses focused a lot more on mathematical derivations and linear algebra than I was used to at UQ, and this could be quite challenging at times.

Personal experience

As with everyone else who goes on exchange, the best part is making friends with people from all over the world, learning about their cultures, and sharing your own. 

I met most of my friends in the first few weeks - UofT organises many events for exchange students, especially during orientation (Frosh) week. I would highly recommend joining the CIE Facebook group because they advertise events through there, and other exchange students also post to look for people to go to events or travel with. It is likely that most of the friends you make will be other exchange students, as you are all in the same situation where you don't know anyone, everyone wants to explore the new city, and most only want to pass their courses, unlike local students. 

That being said, I was lucky enough that half of my classes were all shared with the same cohort, so I made great friends with my classmates. If you have access to a common room, it is a great way to make friends with local students (you will probably find yourself in there working together a lot), and they are usually stocked with microwaves, foosball/ping pong tables, and video game consoles for when you want to unwind; they also often offer free printing. Making friends with local students is great - they are always excited to meet you, and they have the best advice about things to do, food to eat, and places to go nearby. 

Because I wanted to spend as much time exploring Toronto as possible, I was quite strict with my time management and it was easier to motivate myself to finish work. Knowing I just had to pass was better for stress levels - I could enjoy myself more when I went out on the weekends. During semester, I mostly limited my trips to within the Greater Toronto Area - I highly recommend checking out BlogTO for tips on what to do in the GTA.

Accommodation

I lived off-campus in the Spadina Guesthouse. While it was very expensive, it was extremely convenient as it was right next to a main subway station, just up the road from the north of campus, and on the doorstep of Bloor St West, which is a major road housing a variety of restaurants, convenience stores, as well as shopping and cultural opportunities. I had my own room and bathroom but shared kitchen and laundry facilities. 

As a warning, it is quite difficult to find a place to live in Toronto for only one semester. Even considering student residences, the only places I knew offering 4-month leases were the UofT-affiliated Chestnut, Tartu, and Campus Co-Op. Most of my friends were at Tartu, which is considerably cheaper than Chestnut but has small rooms and shared facilities, and does not include a meal plan. While past UQ exchange students have generally had no problems getting accommodation at Chestnut, it was extremely difficult in my year to secure a place due to a sudden surge in 1st-year students from out of town (especially from the US), who UofT has to guarantee accommodation. Due to the circumstances, it is likely this will occur again for the next couple of years. Chestnut did not inform exchange students that they may be full until two weeks before semester, by which point most other options were filled. Despite having applied the day applications opened, I was only offered a room at Chestnut a week before semester began. Quite a few exchange students I met had difficulties in securing 4-month accommodation this year for similar reasons.

This process caused a lot of stress at the time, as I had to scramble to find housing in the two weeks before semester started while I was travelling. While the place I stayed at was expensive, it was one of the only ones left that were still available. After my experience, I would recommend not relying on being offered a place in Chestnut unless you are willing to gamble on receiving a very late offer. It would be best to apply for Tartu (which mostly houses exchange students, whereas Chestnut takes a lot of local students and 1st-years) or seek other off-campus housing as early as possible, to avoid unnecessary stress and expensive rent. 

Despite the troubles in securing accommodation, I am glad I ended up where I was - I learned to live independently, especially to cook for myself, and it was quieter than a student residence.

Budget

Overall, I budgeted and spent around $3000/month - however, my rent was quite expensive. 

Rent - ~$700-1500/month. UofT has an off-campus housing page and a Facebook group, both of which are extremely useful resources. 

Food - A variety of cheap and decent takeaway is easy to find for under $10, while restaurants with table service can be $20-40 after taxes and tips. There are plenty of great all-you-can-eat options for ~$20 around Chinatown. On and near campus, there are plenty of options ranging from food trucks to proper restaurants. I also bought $150 Flex Dollars at the start of semester, which gives you 5% off at on-campus food locations, and 10% off at New College and Chestnut Residence dining halls. I highly recommend trying dining halls at least once, as they offer a fantastic all-you-can-eat buffet for only $13. I spent approximately $25-50/week on groceries - look for days where supermarkets offer a student discount. 

Transport - I bought the monthly TTC Metropass for $116.75/month for unlimited public transport; it is the best option if you plan to commute daily. Otherwise, the Presto card or tokens cost $3 per ride. Metropasses can also be loaded onto a Presto (a safer option in case the card is lost). 

Phone - Plans in Canada are very expensive. The one I and everyone else got was the $40/4GB plan from Freedom Mobile, but due to infrastructure issues, it could be slow/spotty. Check coverage maps.

Travel - Travelling in Canada, especially by plane, is extremely expensive. If you have any time off during semester, it is probably to travel in that time as it will be off-peak, and book buses/trains early to get cheaper tickets. I would expect to spend at least $1000/week on food, accommodation, and activities when travelling.

Professional development and employability

In general, I became much more confident in meeting new people - it's intimidating, but by being alone in a new city you have to force yourself to talk to other people and go out more often. By travelling alone to many different cities, I also became more confident in my ability to live in and navigate a new environment by myself, and adapt quickly to unforeseen situations when there was less help available. 

Additionally, by taking courses within my field in a different country, I gained a better understanding of how the same industries operate differently across different countries based on their policies, history, and relationships with other countries.

Highlight

Toronto has so much to offer as a cultural hub in Canada, and it was great to take advantage of living downtown. Attending the TIFF at the beginning of semester was an early highlight, as well as events such as Nuit Blanche. There is so much to discover about Toronto by simply wandering around.

However, the main highlight for me was Thanksgiving - my friends and I attended the Hart House Thanksgiving Buffet on campus, and spent the holiday weekend exploring Ottawa (which is small but worth visiting) and Gatineau Park. The fall colours in Canada are a sight to behold - I would definitely recommend anyone take the opportunity to go out of town to a national park and see them properly. The Canadian Rockies were also a massive highlight.

Top tips

  • Even though you are there to study, it is easy to get caught up in work/uni - don't stress out too much and remember to have fun.
  • Immerse yourself in Canadian food and culture as much as you can - eat poutine, try Beavertails, get into ice hockey, and learn a bit of French!
  • It's tempting to visit the US, but Canada itself has so much to offer - I spent a month travelling Canada before semester and didn't see the US at all. French Canada (e.g. Quebec City) and the East Coast (e.g. Nova Scotia) are especially worth a visit.
  • If you travel before semester, check the Facebook exchange student group if your host uni has one and see if anyone else wants to as well - it's a great way to get a headstart on making friends.
  • Stay as long as you can after semester, at least until the New Year. This is the best time to hang out with your exchange friends one last time, and celebrate the holiday season without the stress of classes, before everyone heads home.

For Canadian exchange students, there was an information session during Semester 1 run by Canadian representatives with a lot of useful tips about living in Canada (e.g. rent, the tax and tip system, travelling, phone plans, etc) which I would highly recommend attending. There were also past exchange students who shared their own experiences and advice.