Rachael - McGill University

Bachelor of Science
Semester 1, 2017
Going on exchange forced me to live independently and establish myself in a place I knew nothing about.

Academic experience

I took 2 courses pertaining to my major in Biomedical Science, and 3 electives. A full-time load at McGill is 5 courses a semester instead of 4. However, this does seem to result in each course having slightly less content than a typical UQ course. Labs at McGill for science courses are taken in a separate course. This meant no 3-hour labs or lab reports; only lectures (which ran more like tutorials) for 3 hours a week per course. There was an interesting and diverse range of electives and I took classes outside of my own faculty. To stay on top of work, I would regularly grab a few friends and head to a library or café, which seemed to be sufficient. McGill students are numerous and intense workers, so study spaces can be a hot commodity if you arrive after 10AM leading up to exam blocs.
The academic structure at McGill is quite similar to UQ. Most lectures are recorded but recording quality varies depending on the room and lecturer. Courses generally have a mid-term and a final, which comes in the form of exams or assignments. There is no SWOTVAC. Students are given a day of study break in between the last day of class and the first day of exams. Not having to start on the first day is a matter of luck.

Personal experience

Living in the snow was certainly a challenge and there were moments where I was acutely aware that I had never been so cold in my life, but looking back, trudging through snow banks and braving icy winds just to get to lecture on time was a unique and lasting experience. 
Even though I first went to McGill alone, I soon found students from all over the world through exchange orientation who were just as keen as I was to make the most of our time. Australians were a-plenty. By the end of the four months, many of these people had become friends I didn’t want to leave.
French speakers are common in Montreal but most people I encountered in stores and restaurants, etc. were bilingual. I can count on one hand the number of times I had to use French over the whole semester. If you want to improve your French, you can always attempt to converse. However, I found that non-fluency can cause people to switch to English for your convenience. 
Over the weekends, I braved the cold and explored Montreal, doing things like climbing up Mont Royal, eating poutine in Le Plateau, and strolling down Boulevard Saint-Laurent. I spend my mid-term break road-tripping with friends into the east of Quebec following the Saint Lawrence River. I experienced moose-watching, dog-sledding, falling into deep snow (and getting back up), and being stuck in a seaside log cabin because it’s too cold and windy outside to open the door. 
Having three months of break at the end of April (due to sacrificing January and February to the Canadian university calendar), I travelled to Ottawa, Niagara Falls, Toronto, New York City, Orlando and New Orleans. This exchange brought me closer to so many amazing places that seemed too far to reach from Australia, and it gave me time and motivation to travel.

Accommodation

I lived off-campus designated student housing. Most of the students living in my building went to McGill. I think management tried to place students in the same university and faculty on the same floor so I got along well with my neighbours and some of them became my closest friends. My building was about a 5 minute walk from the nearest side of the campus but the university is expansive and on a mountain so it was 15 minutes to the other side, excluding time delays due to construction, weather and uphill inclines. My rent was more expensive than most other students I met, but I opted for this option because I really wanted my own bathroom. If this is not your concern, I would recommend finding accommodation through off-campus housing and sharing an apartment, though it would probably be a good idea to meet the roommates first.

Costs

Cost of living in Montreal is about the same as Brisbane. I usually rent in the city in Brisbane and my rent in Montreal, though more expensive than others, was cheaper than at home and still right in the middle of the city and next to the university. Buying food in supermarkets and restaurants is deceptively cheap, but you have to keep in mind that inner city Montreal has 15% tax (one of the highest in Canada). When provided service such as in restaurants, taxis, or delivery, a 15% minimum is recommended for tips. I did not use public transport much in Montreal as most places to visit and eat were within 30 minutes walking distance of my building. With an OPUS card, each trip on bus or train is about $2.25. Throughout my travels, I booked Airbnb for accommodation, which is especially budget-friendly when shared in a group. If you plan to fly, book early as prices can change within a day and check which currency you’re paying in if flying overseas.

Professional Development

Going on exchange forced me to live independently and establish myself in a place I knew nothing about. This experience built my resilience and confidence in orientating myself in unfamiliar territory without relying on others, which is essential to being an effective problem solver in a professional environment. I also feel that my ability to understand others has improved through learning about different cultures and lifestyles than those found in Australia. This is a valuable insight as it is inevitable that cooperation with people from varying backgrounds will be necessary throughout the future of my career.

Highlight

What stayed with me the most from this exchange were the friends I made in Montreal. All the memories I have of this experience are not complete without the people I went through it with. One of my favourite things to do while I was there was to go to a friend’s house on a cold night for some hot tea and Timbits. It’s a rewarding feeling to know you’ve established a home in a city on the other side of the world.

Top tips

To anyone thinking of going on exchange, I would say definitely do it. It’s important to just push past the excuses and worries you might have and take every challenge as they come. Make sure you attend the orientation sessions both at UQ and McGill – it’s a great way to meet new people who are in the same boat as you and makes the whole situation a lot less daunting at the start. Be prepared before you go and ensure your documents are in order (customs officers can be request a variety of documents), you know where you’re going and which items you need to get in order first. Take opportunities and try new things even if you think you won’t enjoy them. Do things sooner rather than later because the time will fly past before you even know it.