Melissa:UNIVERSITY EXCHANGE EXPERIENCE

This blog was originally posted on https://unitedkiwis.com/education-1/

Bonjour! Bienvenue!

Saturday 6 June is Higher Education Day, and to celebrate this, we are writing a three-part series on our university experiences. This Higher Education series will also feature a guest writer recounting their own individual university experience. I am kicking this off by sharing the best part of my time at university – my student exchange. This blog is in dedication to all my amazing friends whom I met at university, and the lifelong friends I made while on exchange in Montréal.

Education: Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Arts conjoint degree majoring in Marketing, International Business, and Politics and International Relations. (Also, I completed ¾ of a Geography major, however I had to drop this subject in order to go on exchange and still graduate on time).

From day one of university, I knew that I wanted to experience studying abroad. Although I was not mentally prepared to move away from home for the entirety of my studies, an exchange was something I knew I could work towards.

THOUGHTS ON THE PROCESS

There are so many things to think about when going on an exchange. You need to think about how you’re going to look after yourself, costs involved (not just monetary), grades to be eligible for the exchange, how to cope with newfound independence, and the change of pace in life. All of these aspects are why I didn’t go on exchange until my fourth year at university. To sum it all up, my university exchange was simply amazing. I always say that when I went on this program, it felt like everything in my life aligned. The moment was the perfect time of my life to go and get the most value out of the experience. I saved enough money, all my jobs were understanding and held my positions until I came back, I had done all the hard yards at university with the finish line in sight, and I was confident I was able to thrive during this next chapter.

Going on exchange was one of the scariest yet most exciting and rewarding times of my life. There were so many things I had never done before, and the unknown was frightening. It was the first time I’d been without my family for more than a month, it was also the first time I had to pay rent, fully buy my own groceries, and make friends from scratch. It was a daunting experience but it was an opportunity to really be myself.

DECIDING WHERE I WANTED TO GO

I chose the university which I wanted to attend based on three criteria:

  1. Somewhere I had never been to before.
  2. Not the USA or the UK due to the political climate at the time.
  3. A university with good departments for subjects I wanted to take.

This landed me at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. Prior to applying, I had honestly never heard of Montréal. I had to pull out a map and find out where it was. I had no idea it was a French-speaking city, and I didn’t realise it was so competitive at my home university to get into. McGill was my top choice and I’m so glad that something inside me chose this place. Montréal is a city which I enjoyed immensely. It gave me more of a university experience than I felt New Zealand ever could, and I made lifelong friends whilst there.

ACCOMMODATION

Finding accommodation was quite stressful. I knew I wanted to live in an apartment rather than at the university accommodation because I wanted more privacy and my own space. Although this was extremely difficult to find before arriving on the other side of the world, and for my specific dates. However, after a lot of perseverance, I managed to get in contact with a flexible short term rental agency through Airbnb. Let’s say, they weren’t the best landlords but everything worked out in the end (especially since it was just short term anyway). I actually ended up living outside of the McGill “ghetto”/bubble, specifically in a Francophone suburb where no one speaks English. I’m so grateful for this because it allowed me to learn a lot more French (unintentionally) than some of the other exchange students I met even though it was difficult at the start.

Where I lived also inspired me to explore greater Montréal rather than just the inner city where the university is. Montréal has excellent public transport in comparison to New Zealand and is definitely much more affordable. I was also lucky enough to have found a flatmate prior to going who was also from my university in New Zealand. He turned out to be a good friend and ally while in Montréal. In spite of the fact we didn’t hang out that much, I always knew that I had someone to talk to if I really needed to.

FRIENDSHIPS

I experienced strong homesickness within the first month in Montréal. I desperately wanted to go home for the weekend but that wasn’t feasible when it took about 24 hours one-way on a plane just to get back to New Zealand (not to mention expensive, non-direct flights). I’ll be the first to admit that I found it hard to make friends in the beginning. This is partly due to missing most of the orientation week events because my mother was also visiting Montréal for the first time at this point, and I didn’t want to leave her alone for too long.

As I became more confident with who I was and spending time with myself, everything just fell into place. I was fortunate enough to meet several Montréal natives on orientation day. A few of the people I met ended up being in some of my classes, and they happily included me in their social and study groups. Meeting a local friend is great because they shared their extensive knowledge with me and were a friendly face around campus!

Furthermore, I met lifelong friends from all around the world throughout my time at McGill. Many of whom I still talk to very regularly and whom I’ve visited on my extensive travels, or who have even visited me way down, down under. I met up with these friends almost every day while I was in Montréal and we explored from Anjou to Old Port, Verdun to Mirabel, and beyond. Whether it was daily trips to Tim Hortons (chain cafe), or staying until McLennan (the main library) closed, they are memories I will never forget.

These invaluable memories are the reason why I would one thousand percent encourage anyone who has the chance to step out of their comfort zone, to just take their leap of faith and start ticking things off their bucket list! Whether it be an exchange, a masters program, or an around the world trip. Life is to make memories, not regret the ones you never made.

As most people do while on exchange, I travelled to several cities nearby including New York City (I’m obsessed), New Jersey, Boston, Burlington (home of Ben and Jerry’s), Ottawa (Canada’s capital), Toronto and Québec City (home of the world’s most photographed hotel lobby). I also took a few day trips for walks on Mont Tremblant and Mont Sutton. North America is great because there are so many nearby cities very different from each other, all ready to explore!

MY TAKEAWAY

I found it so important when going on exchange to learn to balance university and life. I spent more time than I ever have at the library studying for classes which were pass-fail (only available to exchange students). But I also arguably went out and explored a lot more than I do while in New Zealand. I learnt so much academically and in life during this chapter, and yet it seemed so scary to begin with. Like they say, sometimes the scariest things in life are the best. Going on exchange was undoubtedly the highlight of my university experience and probably the highlight of my life thus far.

I will admit, my thoughts in this post are a bit messy as I could go on and on about this chapter of my life. But at the end of the day, I just wanted to share to those who know me, how appreciative I am about this experience that I partook in and to encourage others to challenge themselves every day because somehow life always works out eventually. I will never forget the memories I made and the people I met.

-Melissa (Guest Blogger)

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