Bonnie - Western University

B. Laws / Arts
Semester 2, 2015

Academic experience

Whilst on exchange at the University of Western Ontario, I studied law, using 4 of my law electives. A full-time study load in Canada was the same as UQ, as I was required to do four subjects (or subjects totalling at least 14 credit hours per week). The four law courses that I took were Family Law, Environmental Law, Canadian Human Rights Law and Gendered Violence and the Law.

Class sizes are generally much smaller than you would be used to at UQ – my largest class was a lecture class (Family Law) which had a maximum of 60 people in the cohort. Having said that though, the Western Law School is much smaller than UQ with only approximately 120 students per year (and there are three years of law). Classes using a lecture format were held twice per week for 2 hours each class, they were not recorded, there were no tutorials and powerpoint slides or lecture notes were generally posted in advance. Seminar classes were generally 3 hours long (but only one per week) and were more like tutorials in that they were small groups of approximately 15 students where participation was not only encouraged but assessed. This meant you had to have a good knowledge of the required material for that particular week in order to contribute meaningfully to the discussion. This active participation style of class was very different to what I was used to doing in tutorials at home but it was definitely a good experience and required me to be a lot more prepared. 

Law school in Canada is technically undergraduate but you have to have completed an undergraduate degree before you can apply. This means that, as a general rule, you will be among the youngest in the law school. As well, there is a significantly heavier weekly workload, particularly in the amount of reading required. It was not unusual to be assigned 200 pages per class (approximately 400 pages per subject per week for the lecture classes). Unlike my study habits at UQ, because of the small class size and more regular assessments, I was required to keep up with this reading. Otherwise, assessment styles were very similar to UQ, a combination of research essays, legal drafting, class participation and final exams (all open-book). 

One of the main difficulties to overcome was adjusting to a different legal system as we did not have the same foundational knowledge of Canada’s legal system that the Canadian law students cover in their first year of law. However, we were provided with numerous training sessions by the law school to introduce us to the Canadian system and their research databases. As well, the professors (or “profs” as they are known to the Canadian students) were really knowledgeable and helpful, always willing to sit down for a chat with you or provide extra feedback if you required it.

Personal experience

In what has become a common theme among these testimonials, the four months I spent at UWO gained me life-long friends from all around the globe. 

There was always something to do at UWO and always new people to meet, whether it was participating in one of London Hall’s organized social activities (games nights, bonfire night etc) or joining one of the uni’s numerous clubs and societies or using the world class gym facilities (for free!!) or going to a movie, bar or sporting event on campus.

The law school also does a fantastic job of including exchange students and organizing social functions which meant it was very easy for the exchange students to meet and become friendly with each other and with the Canadian students. The law school organized a number of social functions in the first week that we were there because it was Frosh Week (O-Week) for all the new law students as well. As well, every second Wednesday night there was a Denning – a pub night for law students (as well as anybody else that wanted to join) at one of the local venues where there were drink deals, food and generally a dress-up theme. Pro tip – bear this in mind when organizing your timetable because there were a lot of students who had class until 10pm on a Wednesday night or early class on Thursday morning.

I was also a member of the law school’s intramural dodgeball team which was a great way of having fun, even if we did lose every single game. 

I also did a fair bit of travelling whilst I was in Canada. We were there for Canadian Thanksgiving (in mid-October) so a group of exchange students went to the spectacularly beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park for a long weekend of canoeing and bushwalking. I also did weekend trips to Niagara Falls, Montreal and Toronto and a trip to Seattle and Vancouver in our reading week (the equivalent of mid-semester break or SWOTVAC).

Travel within Canada is not super cheap but catching the Greyhound bus definitely is the cheapest option – a return ticket to Toronto is CAD 45 or thereabouts! London is ideally situated in between Detroit and Toronto (both a 2 hour bus trip from London) and London also has its own “international” airport so travel is pretty easy. There is not a lot to see in London itself (in fact the town is a bit grungy) but there are some nice walks around the area and there are always events around town like professional ice hockey games, shows, festivals or markets. My advice is to take every opportunity to travel that you can because you are so close to everything in North America. Organise your timetable so that you can travel for longer than the two weekend days if necessary and don’t be scared to go it alone and make new friends on the way. 

Accommodation

Whilst at UWO, I lived in an on-campus residence called London Hall. London Hall was recommended to me by the law school's exchange coordinator predominately because it is an upper-year residence, meaning students must be in their second year of university or higher (ie. they are not 17-year-olds). I shared an apartment with two other exchange students, but we each had our own bedroom and there were two bathrooms and a kitchen/living area so that you could cook for yourself if you preferred.

I absolutely loved living in London Hall and I would recommend it to everyone, not least because it was a completely difference experience to what I was used to at home. Most of the other law exchange students, as well as the Canadian law students, were also living in London Hall and there were a lot of non-law exchange students as well. Something I wish I had known before I arrived is that the room comes equipped only with the bare necessities (a bed, a desk and a cupboard) – there was no linen and no kitchen or bathroom supplies (ie. no utensils, no pots and pans or cups or appliances) - so be prepared to buy these things when you arrive. It was definitely the more expensive option (as compared with living off-campus) but it was worth it.

Including a medium-sized meal plan and RezNet (the internet plan), my accommodation and food costs for the semester were approximately CAD 6000. My advice to future students is that if you have the money, I would definitely recommend staying in on-campus accommodation. It is an easy way to meet people, I was only a 10 minute walk from the law school building (a big plus in inclement weather conditions), there were so many social activities and the accommodation itself is nice, so much better than the pop culture version of dorm rooms. 

Budget

Canada is definitely not a cheap place to do your exchange as the cost of living is fairly similar to that in Australia. In addition to the housing costs mentioned above, as part of your student fees, you are required to purchase a bus pass for and health insurance (regardless of whether or not you have travel insurance) for around CAD 500. The bus pass is a great investment because it makes getting around London free. Fair warning however – the buses are very unreliable.

As a general rule, the cost of food and drinks is approximately the same as it is in Australia (maybe slightly cheaper because it is a student town). I would recommend to budget at least $15,000 (including all flights, accommodation and travel insurance) to have an exchange experience where you can say yes to everything and not have to worry about money.

Professional development and employability

I have developed a number of skills and attributes as a result of my exchange experience that have contributed to my professional development. I have learnt the value of tolerance and adaptability as a result of spending so much time in an environment full of people from different cultures with different personalities. I would like to think that I have developed the ability to interact with people of all different ages, experiences and cultures. I also believe that I have developed a greater level of independence and reliance on using my own initiative outside of the Brisbane bubble. Finally, I think I have more self-confidence, particularly going into a new setting.

Highlight

There are so many highlights for me that picking one is nearly impossible but I guess the overall highlight of my experience was that it was a completely different experience to my university life at UQ. Western offers the stereotypical college experience depicted in American popular culture – everything from football stars to cheerleaders to homecoming. This was only enhanced for me by living in one of the university residences and hanging out in the dining halls. For me, the aim of my exchange was to do something completely different and try new things and so my exchange to Western was mission accomplished for me.

Top tips

My advice to other students considering an exchange is simple: DO IT. It was the best semester of my entire university career and I have absolutely no regrets about doing it. 

My three top tips are:

  • Do an exchange in the first semester of the university’s academic year - not only is it much easier to make friends when everyone is new but there are a lot more organised social activities and the weather is a lot nicer (when you pick a northern hemisphere university). 
  • Choose your country wisely – pick a country that suits the course you are studying and that you have an interest in because it will make the experience so much more enjoyable. 
  • Say yes to everything you can and have fun.