Seb: A Summary of My Experiences

Hi everyone! I’ve officially finished my exchange at the University of British Columbia. My earlier posts were mostly full of fairly practical tips, so I thought a good topic for this post would be to summarise my experience and outline some of the things I loved (and didn’t love) about Canada!

First of all, let’s start with what’s good.

  1. Skiing – I spent two days skiing at Whistler Blackcomb and it was one of the best experiences of my life. People come from all over the world to ski here. If you’re on exchange at UBC, you’d be crazy not to give it a try, even if it is a bit expensive! There are also several other ski resorts closer to Vancouver (Grouse, Cypress, and Seymour) as well as many other world-class resorts around British Columbia (such as Big White, Revelstoke and Fernie). If snow sports are your thing, BC is a paradise.
  2. Shopping – I’m not a huge shopper, but I was very impressed by the variety and price of many items. This is probably helped by Canada’s proximity to the United States as well as the presence of big retailers like Walmart and Amazon. For example, during a Black Friday sale I picked up a pair of hiking boots for almost half the price they would have cost in New Zealand! Definitely leave some space in your suitcase if you’re coming here for a semester!
  3. Groceries – I found groceries to be noticeably cheaper than New Zealand and the United States, and roughly on par with Australia. Unfortunately, they are still nowhere near as cheap as the UK and Europe! (much to the complaints of my European friends!)
  4. Halls of residence – As much as I complain about the housing situation in Vancouver, the residence units themselves are, on the whole, pretty high quality. All the rooms and units I visited were modern, clean and very liveable. They even had dishwashers!
  5. UBC Campus – After almost four months, I still can’t get over how incredible the UBC campus is. I honestly don’t think there are many campuses in the world that can rival UBC in this regard. The University of Auckland and The University of Manchester (where I did my other exchange) don’t even come close. For example, UBC has a cinema, a Japanese tea garden, at least three museums (that I know of), a state-of-the-art Aquatic Centre, a rose garden, and more fountains than I can count. I could go on and on. And all of it is beautiful and well-kept.
  6. Access to the outdoors – On campus you have Wreck Beach (North America’s largest nudist beach!) as well as Pacific Spirit Regional Park. Further afield, you have Garibaldi Regional Park, Whistler, the North Shore mountains (Grouse, Cypress, and Seymour), Vancouver Island and even Washington State! The opportunities are endless, and I felt like I barely scratched the surface in four months.
  7. Public Transport – Vancouver’s public transport puts Auckland’s public transport to shame. In fact, it’s one of the best public transport systems I’ve ever used anywhere in the world, up there with London and Hong Kong. The Skytrain is amazing, and the buses from UBC are frequent and well-maintained. Aside from grocery shopping, I really didn’t miss having a car at all!
  8. Opportunities for travel – Vancouver is a great base for exploring Vancouver Island, Washington State and even further afield, such as the Yukon (if you fancy going to see the northern lights) and the Rockies. Even California is less than a three-hour flight away!
  9. Liberalism – Canada, and particularly UBC, is a great place to be a student. UBC is a very multicultural and tolerant society. Whether you’re black or white, straight or gay, you’ll feel at home here. And hey, cannabis is even legal, if you’re into that.
  10. Visa free travel – As a NZ citizen, you can stay in Canada for up to six months without having to obtain a Visa. No interview at the consulate, no paperwork, just a quick ETA form you have to fill out online. Easy!

As you can see, that’s a pretty long list of things I loved! However, no experience is perfect. Here’s a few things that I didn’t like so much about Canada:

  1. Housing – See my first blog post for more information about this one. But in short, finding housing at UBC can be a challenge if you’re not assigned on-campus housing!
  2. Mobile phone plans – Mobile phone plans in Canada are horrendously overpriced (about twice what you’d pay in NZ for the same service). So, I went the entire semester without a local phone number. Doable, but still not ideal! Fortunately, UBC has Wi-Fi basically everywhere
  3. The weather – Vancouver (affectionately known as “Raincouver”) is infamous for how much it rains. Honestly, I didn’t find it so bad – it was pretty similar to the UK but just a bit rainier. It was definitely more consistent than the notoriously unreliable Auckland weather! We were lucky to get plenty of beautiful Autumn days for hiking, and summers are always hot and dry. Also, rain in Vancouver means it’s snowing in the mountains, which is great news for us skiers! So it’s certainly not all bad. But if you could take the UBC campus and put it somewhere in Southern California, then you’d have my dream University.
  4. The lecture theatres – This was one of my pet peeves. While the buildings at UBC are largely beautiful, the same can’t be said for the lecture theatres inside! Quite often, the desks are far too small to accommodate your papers or laptop. This is particularly problematic for me as a left-hander. Writing a midterm or exam on these desks is certainly not an enjoyable experience. I never had this problem in Auckland or Manchester. UBC definitely needs to spend some money getting their lecture theatres up to scratch. After all, isn’t that what we’re all at University for?
  5. Teaching style – UBC courses place a fairly hefty percentage on coursework (and less so on exams) which is similar to Auckland Uni. This isn’t so great when you’re on exchange and want to go travelling every weekend! There’s also no mid-semester break in Term 1 (September – December), which means that all your midterms tend to fall within the space of one or two weeks.
  6. Canada Post – Canada Post was pretty slack when I started my semester, with Amazon packages arriving consistently late. Mid-way through the semester, they managed to become even worse by engaging in strike action! Packages from Auckland that were sent in September and October took almost three entire months to arrive! In fact, they only arrived a week before I flew home!

As you can see, the list of things I didn’t like are mostly a few minor annoyances and are by no means deal-breakers. I had an amazing time in Canada and I can’t think of many places where it would be better to be an exchange student. I’ve wanted to live in Vancouver for a very long time and it really did meet all my hopes and expectations! It really does feel like a larger and more developed version of New Zealand, and I can’t wait to come back in the future!

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Seb: What to Bring (and Not Bring) to UBC

Hey guys! I’m currently heading towards the end of my finals season in UBC, which means I’ll be leaving Canada in just over two weeks! I’ve wanted to live in Vancouver for many years and I’m happy to report that this place lived up to all my expectations! Looking back on my time here, I thought it’d be useful to share some things I’d recommend bringing (and not bringing) on your exchange at UBC!

Do Bring:

  • Waterproof hiking boots – In Vancouver it tends to get a little bit wet during the winter months. Having a nice pair of waterproof boots will keep your feet warm and dry while walking between classes, and they’ll double as hiking shoes for trails up in the mountains! Don’t be that person putting themselves in danger on a slippery, rocky hiking trail by wearing running shoes!
  • A good rain jacket or a ski jacket – For similar reasons, having a good ski jacket will be very useful both for up in the mountains and staying dry around campus.
  • Waterproof pants – For the same reasons above. Especially if you plan on cycling. Wet jeans aren’t a fun time!
  • A credit card – I signed up for a credit card just before I left Auckland and I’m so glad I did! Some car rentals and hotels require a credit card (not a debit card) as a pre-authorisation. They also come in handy for renting ski gear, bikes etc. Having a credit card will also give you that peace of mind in case you forget to top up your account balance and your debit card declines (awkward!). I think most banks offer a fees-free credit card with their student package, so get amongst that. Just remember to pay if off in time!
  • A travel card – I’m not a big fan of pre-loaded travel cards because, for regular purchases, I don’t think they offer better rates than your regular bank card. However, where these cards are very useful is for withdrawing cash from ATMs. Travel cards will typically allow you to do this for free, while if you use your New Zealand debit card it might cost you about $7 per withdrawal. Canada is better than the USA, but not quite as good as NZ, when it comes to accepting bank cards universally. So, it does still help to carry some cash with you just in case. Also, No-Frills (the cheapest supermarket closest to UBC) only accepts Mastercard or cash, so bear that in mind.
  • A travel power adapter and a NZ multi-board – Travel hack 101: Bring a NZ multi-board with you and charge all your devices with just a single power adapter. Boom!
  • A headlamp – During winter the sun sets at about 4pm. Having a headtorch is really useful for hiking, running or cycling in the dark!
  • Some thermal base layers – Polyprop or merino base layers are great at keeping you warm (even when it’s wet), wick moisture away from your body, weigh very little and take up next to no space. These are a no brainer. Don’t forget thermal pants!

Don’t Bring:

  • Food from home – I was pleasantly surprised by how much New Zealand (and English) food I could buy in Canada. Whittaker’s chocolate and Tim Tams are both available at Save on Foods on campus. In fact, Whittaker’s chocolate is actually cheaper here than it is back in NZ! However, I haven’t seen any Milo yet!
  • Stationery – Get that stuff here! There is a Staples on campus (similar to Warehouse Stationery) that has everything you need
  • Bedding – Again, just buy it here! Go to a thrift store or Ikea or see if any outgoing exchange students are selling!
  • Kitchen appliances – These probably won’t work here anyway (since the voltages are different).
  • Lots of hoodies and jumpers – Around Vancouver and UBC I’ve pretty much adopted a three system: A t-shirt, a merino jumper and a rain jacket on top. This way, I just wear a fresh t-shirt every day and keep the outer layers clean! This saves heaps on laundry and meant I had to pack a lot less (since these are typically quite bulky items). I don’t have a huge wardrobe to choose from, but who cares? You’re on exchange! Anything you can also use as a mid-layer for skiing would be a smart choice!

I thought about including ski/snowboard equipment on this list but I couldn’t quite decide. I think that’ll depend on how much skiing you plan on doing here, how good your gear is back home, whether you’ll be travelling before, what your airline’s luggage policy is etc etc. Personally, I didn’t bring my ski gear with me and I’m happy I didn’t. I’ve found renting to be a much better solution for me!

Anyway, it’s been a wonderful time at UBC and I can’t say enough good things about Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada in general. I’ll be very sad to leave, and I can’t wait to come back some day (maybe on a more permanent basis next time?).

I still have one more blog post to write, by which time I’ll be back in New Zealand. So that’ll be a good chance for me to reflect on a lot of the things I liked and disliked about my exchange!

Until next time!

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Throwback to the “Sunshine” Coast trip when it rained for two days straight…
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I joined a UBC intramural football (soccer) team and got to play at Thunderbird Stadium!
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The beautiful trees in Pacific Spirit Regional park, just on the edge of UBC campus!

Seb: Hiking in Vancouver

Hey guys! In this post I wanted to share my experiences hiking in Vancouver! The great outdoors was one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to come to UBC and I’m happy to report that British Columbia lives up to all the hype! If you want to up your Instagram game, seriously, this is the place to be!

This year we were treated to an exceptionally long hiking season, with the weather remaining largely (and unusually) excellent across October and November. This meant I had plenty of opportunities to do lots of hiking in the Vancouver area, and I thought I’d share some of the best ones with you!

PSA: Please remember that just because these mountains are close to Vancouver, doesn’t mean you can treat them the same way you would a walk in the Auckland Domain! Make sure you bring appropriate gear for the conditions you’ll be facing! If you’re not sure, the Auckland University Tramping Club website has some good guidelines for gear you should (and shouldn’t) bring!

This also applies to driving – winter driving in Canada is nothing remotely like winter driving in Auckland. Make sure your car is equipped for the conditions you’ll be facing. And drive safe please ❤

Elfin Lakes – 9/10

Near Whistler, this was a nice relaxed hike that started with an uphill forest section and then continued through exposed sub-alpine meadows and grassy areas above the bush line. The hike ends at the beautiful Elfin Lakes, which you can swim in! It took us about 2 hours each way and overall was fairly easy. A good beginner hike! Just keep in mind that the gravel road up to the carpark is a bit dodgy. This one gets a 9/10 for me.

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Cheakamus Lake – 7/10

Also located near Whistler, this is the easiest hike on this list. It just follows the perimeter of a large lake, so there is virtually no elevation gain at all. The time taken depends on how far you wish to walk. We extended the track to one of the campsites and it took us about 5 hours return. An excellent hike for beginners, and it wasn’t too crowded either! But the views are beautiful even if the hike itself is a bit easy! This one gets a 7/10 from me.

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Joffre Lakes – 9/10

This is a very popular hike, and with good reason. You pass three beautiful alpine lakes on the short hike up. It’s a fairly long drive from Vancouver, but the hike can be completed much quicker than the signs suggest. It took us about 2 and a half hours instead of the posted five. This one gets a 9/10 from me due to a superb views-to-effort ratio! Unfortunately, due to its popularity, the carpark fills up quickly so it’s best to start early!

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The Stawamus Chief – 8/10

A huge free-standing granite monolith located in Squamish, about halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. This is an excellent day hike, with great views of Squamish and Howe Sound. There are three peaks you can climb, and depending on how many you want to tackle, the hike can take anywhere between two and five hours. Given how accessible and popular the hike is, it’s surprisingly technical, with lots of rock scrambling! The views weren’t as spectacular as some of the other hikes on this list, so this one gets an 8/10 from me.

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Howe Sound Crest Trail – 10/10

The full HSCT will take you at least two days, but you can choose different sections to match your ability level. We did St Mark’s Summit and the humorously-named Unnecessary Mountain as a day hike, which took us at least 6 hours. I’d recommend starting the hike from the Cypress Mountain ski field, rather than from Lions Bay via public transport, since this removes a lot of the elevation gain. This one gets a 10/10 from me for amazing views, versatility, and proximity to Vancouver.

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Mount Seymour Trail – 10/10

Mount Seymour is one of the ski fields in Vancouver, but during the summer months it’s also a great hiking location! The Mount Seymour trail traverses three separate summits with amazing views of Vancouver, the surrounding mountains, and even out towards the United States. It’s not a bad place to catch a sunset too! (remember to bring a headtorch for the way down!). This one also gets a 10/10 from me.

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Garibaldi Lake – 8/10

This is another very popular hike. The hike to the lake is uphill and moderately hard but shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours. Experienced hikers can use Garibaldi Lake as a base for further walks, such as Panorama Ridge and Black Tusk. If you attempt one of these, you’re looking at 12 hours or so of hiking, but the views look amazing! We didn’t attempt those when we visited, but if I was to go back again I’d definitely give it a go!

The hike to the lake itself gets an 8/10, but if you continued up to Panorama Ridge I reckon that’d be a solid 10/10!

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Rainbow Lake – 9/10

Located in Whistler, this was quite a long hike (around 20km) and fairly moderate in difficulty. What makes this hike awesome is how diverse the track is – you pass forests, meadows and alpine lakes and all of it is beautiful. This gets a 9/10 from me!

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The Grouse Grind – 7/10

Do you like stairs? If you do, then the Grouse Grind is for you! This track is basically a giant staircase set in a forest in North Vancouver. It took us about an hour and a half of suffering hiking to make it to the top! Unfortunately, when we made it to the top, Vancouver was blanketed in wildfire smog which meant we couldn’t see anything at all! Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to hike back down due to dubious “safety reasons” which means you have to purchase a gondola ride ($15) back down the mountain. Hmmm…

This one gets points for being public-transit accessible, having great views (on a good day) and there being a range of other cool attractions at the top of the mountain, such as a bear enclosure!

Overall, I’d give it a 7/10.

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Seb: Budgeting in Vancouver

Vancouver is infamous for being an expensive city. In this post I want to help share some assorted tips and tricks that I’ve picked up during my time here to hopefully make your time in Vancouver easier and more affordable.

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A beautiful Autumn day on campus!

Groceries:

  • There are two big supermarkets you’ll be going to – Save on Foods (on the edge of campus) and No Frills (a 15-minute bus ride from campus. The Canadian equivalent of Pak ‘n’ Save).
  • Groceries are overall a bit cheaper than NZ, especially if you shop around. This is partly because groceries in Canada are tax-exempt.
  • If you go to Save on Foods, which is typically more expensive, get a MoreRewards card (like FlyBuys) and take advantage of their sales.
  • Supermarkets don’t sell any alcohol, you can only find this in dedicated liquor stores.
  • There are a couple of op shops (thrift stores) close to campus. You can get everything you need for your kitchen/room from there (no need to go all the way to Ikea!)

Transport:

  • Campus is big – buy a bike or use a bikeshare service (Dropbike)
  • Don’t buy a car – Make friends with locals or use a carshare service (they are very affordable if you split between a full carload)
  • Public transport in Vancouver is amazing
  • You are required to purchase a public transportation pass when you come to UBC. You’ll be surprised how much use you’ll get out of it (even if you live on campus!)

Skiing:

  • Buy your passes for Whistler before October 7 to get the cheapest price
  • Whistler is totally do-able as a day trip from UBC. No need to pay extortionate prices for accommodation in the village!
  • There are also several other ski fields (Grouse, Seymour, Cypress) closer to Vancouver which are less than half the price of a day pass at Whistler
  • Ski gear is significantly cheaper here than in NZ. Find a second-hand store or Ski swap event for some sick gear. Sometimes brands will even come to UBC and set up a pop-up outlet store.

Housing:

  • Don’t stress over choosing between Walter Gage or Fairview Crescent (the two halls of residence where most exchange students end up). They’re both nice and well-located.
  • Walter Gage is apartment style and located right in the middle of campus.
  • Fairview Crescent is townhouse-style and is effectively its own little village slightly further from the lecture theatres but in a nicer, greener area.
  • If you’re unable to secure housing at UBC, the HI Jericho Beach hostel allows long-term stays for around CAD$300 a month.

Other:

  • Canadian University students (including exchange students) get six months of free Amazon Prime. Score!
  • Mobile plans in Canada are extortionate. At least double the price you’d pay in NZ for the same service. You’ll have Wi-Fi most of the time anyway. Just buy some Skype calling credit or a calling plan and you’ll literally save hundreds of dollars.
  • If you’re brave enough to risk a $10 haircut, Chinatown is the place to go.

Travel:

  • There’s no mid-semester break in Term 1 (September – December). If you want to go travelling, do it before/after the semester or go during a long weekend.
  • Don’t just arrive on September 1st! Get to Canada early and do some travelling around beforehand.
  • Hiking season in Vancouver lasts until around October (when the snow starts to fall!).
  • Join the Exchange Student Club. They run lots of fun events and also rent out tents – handy!
  • Under the United States Visa Waiver Programme (this is what you’ll be admitted under if you arrive in the US with an ESTA), travelling to Canada won’t reset your 90-day clock. So, if you want to visit the USA you’ll have to do all of it within a 90-day period (unless you get a travel visa – but this will add extra time and cost).
  • Vancouver Island is amazing but is also deceptively hard to get to. The UBC Surf Club runs a trip to Tofino every semester which is probably the cheapest, easiest and most fun way of getting there!

Canada:

  • I’d highly recommend going to a Vancouver Canucks game (ice hockey). Go to a pre-season match in September for the cheapest tickets (~$20).
  • In Canada they don’t call it ice hockey. It’s just called hockey.
  • Tim Horton’s is always a good idea.
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Garibaldi Provincial Park, near Whistler. All of this is less than 2 hours away from Vancouver!

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Canadian canoeing on the Exchange Club’s Sunshine Coast trip!
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Surfing in Tofino. Yewwwww!

 

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Seb: Housing at UBC

Hi everyone! After six weeks of travelling through the United States and Western Canada, I now find myself at the University of British Columbia! I want to start off this blog series by talking about housing because this is definitely something I wish I’d known more about before I came here.

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First of all, the University of British Columbia (UBC) isn’t really located in Vancouver. It’s about a forty-minute bus ride from downtown. This creates a beautiful campus environment, with everything from swimming pools to beaches to walking trails to supermarkets to sports stadia.

With such a large and beautiful campus, unfortunately this creates massive (massive) demand for on-campus housing.

But that’s fine, I thought. I’m an exchange student. I’ll definitely get accommodation on campus.

See, the thing is, UBC doesn’t actually guarantee residence for exchange students. I knew that when I applied, but figured it was more of an escape clause for them in case of exceptional circumstances.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what happened to me! Back in June, about a week after everyone else started excitedly chatting about which hall of residence they had been accepted into, I received my wait list position via email. It was almost 3000. No that’s not a typo. A wait list of three thousand people for housing for the Fall semester. Yikes! Apparently the total waitlist was as long as six thousand.

My understanding of the housing system is that it’s pretty much a lottery. Despite doing everything I was supposed to – choosing my preferences, applying early, paying the application fee – I still didn’t get a place.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person in that situation. From anecdotal evidence, I’d guesstimate that about a quarter of exchange students this semester found themselves with no housing. Finding accommodation, as a student, for just a few months in a city like Vancouver (with a rental market that makes Auckland look pretty tame) is not an easy task.

Naturally, this put a lot of stress and pressure on me just as I was heading into my Semester 1 exams back in Auckland. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to find a sublet on-campus through Facebook, but I know I was extremely lucky to have done so.

Overall, I didn’t feel like the probability of not being assigned housing was adequately communicated to me by UBC and it just caused me a lot more stress than I had anticipated.  I also didn’t like being left in the dark while all my friends had received housing offers.

If you do find yourself in this position, don’t panic! The best advice I can give is to join all the relevant Facebook pages and find a group of people who are also looking for accommodation so you can search together. Also, if you’re going in the Spring Semester (Auckland Uni’s Semester One) apparently there is less demand, so you may have better luck! Expect to pay somewhere in the region of CAD$700 to $1200 for a room in a shared unit close to campus.

UBC is a great place but, goodness gracious, the housing situation here is a really challenge. But if you can make it through it, then it’s totally worth the effort! UBC are responding to the huge demand for on-campus housing by committing to building 6300 new beds in the next 10 years. For us exchange students, that can’t happen fast enough!

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Sunset at Wreck Beach, just a 15 minute walk from my residence. Not bad, huh?

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