The art of exchange: Why you should spend a semester abroad 

Let’s start with the obvious: no one decides to go on exchange for the education. At least, I didn’t. Being in UVic’s writing program, was I thrilled to have the opportunity to study at a university where Ian McEwan was the school’s first creative writing master’s student? Absolutely. But the school component of exchange wasn’t my main motivation for applying, and I suspect such is the case with other exchangers, too. We want travel. We want adventure. We want those once-in-a-lifetime, had-to-be-there moments unlike anything we’ve ever known.

The thing we forget is that the basis of the study abroad experience is, of course, school. Without the construct of an educational institution, none of us would have the privilege to live and study in another country while having the university do all the legwork it entails.

While my experience won’t be the reality for all schools and countries, it will at least give you a sense of what you can likely expect from the educational experience while on exchange. My semester abroad at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, United Kingdom, was about as opposite from UVic as you can get in terms of schoolwork and classes. I’m used to five writing classes per semester, five days a week, and hours upon hours of work outside of class. At UEA? Three classes, two days a week, two hours each day (one class was self-directed and didn’t even have a meeting time). This gave me five-day weekends to explore Norwich, the rest of England and as much of Europe as I had time to get to.

Thankfully, professors seem to assume a lack of focus, if you will, from exchange students, and this may be why UVic doesn’t even include your grades from your semester abroad on your transcript; the classes merely show up as a pass or fail. Bonus. Another reason is probably that grading scales differ drastically in different countries. In England, 40 per cent is a pass, 60 per cent is the norm and 80 per cent is considered through-the-roof brilliant.

This isn’t to say you can completely slack off. There’s a lot to think about before you even apply. Your grades need to be up to par — at least a 5.0 GPA — and you need to be sure your exchange institution offers courses applicable and transferable to your degree.

At UEA, I had to take three classes valued at 20 units each, which transferred as 2.5 UVic units per class. In order for me to graduate on time this spring, UEA was the best option for me to take courses that would apply to my program. When considering your options for exchange — which year, which semester, which school — you need to determine what will best serve your degree. Sometimes required courses won’t be offered at your first-choice schools. This is why it’s best to take electives, so you’re not faced with potential postponed graduation like I was. Not only did my academic adviser at UVic tell me not to go on exchange in my fourth year (which I did anyway), I also had to convince my UEA adviser to allow me to take a course required for graduation. According to both advisers, and judging by exchange students I met abroad, it seems most choose to go on exchange in third year — once again, to avoid graduation stress.

The International and Exchange Student Services website (iess.uvic.ca) will be your most useful tool when going through the application process. You can see all your country and school options and check how courses from each transfer. Also, there is only one application deadline per year, and the next one is Jan. 25, 2013. Don’t freak: I decided one week before the deadline last year to apply, so don’t think it’s impossible. Just get on it. And trust me, you won’t regret it.

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