On attending the International Opportunities Fair in the University Centre lobby on Oct. 23, I was thoroughly impressed by the efforts that the University of Victoria (UVic) made in proudly promoting studying or working abroad as an exchange student! The lobby was decorated with colourful handmade posters describing each group’s corresponding country, and plenty of succinct information leaflets were at hand. I spoke with Heike Edam, a student advisor for international mobility, for a first-hand description of UVic’s exchange program, as well as for a more personal and in-depth perspective of what it means to take these opportunities. Edam told me that this program has been running for approximately 15 years and is a continuing success: “[The program] is growing now and we are trying to consolidate the partnerships we have made and to make sure the program works for students. The program must be solid at an academic level.” UVic students in good academic standing, whether undergraduate or graduate, may choose from over 60 destinations throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand to study for a year. The costs vary by country. Heike explained that students pay for a full UVic course load worth 7.5 credits, which, after being evaluated by the relevant department, is transferred back to their program of study at UVic once they return. Although Edam helps to co-ordinate the student’s academic courses, it is ultimately up to the student to decide what is best for them. She told me that Australia, the U.K., Denmark, Sweden, and New Zealand are the top five destinations.
I asked some of the exchange students what they had gained from their experiences, what was different in their countries, and why they recommend UVic to students taking up the opportunity themselves. The responses were resoundingly positive and enthusiastic. Since I am an exchange student myself (I travelled from the U.K. in my third year as an undergraduate), I was able to relate. Agnes, an exchange student from Belgium, told me that studying abroad, especially in Europe, allows students to gain a different perspective on history: “[. . .] it is interesting to discover new cultures, not necessarily to study, but to make new friends.” Vanessa, from France, elaborated by saying that “[in France] every city is old and small. Everything is new [in Canada].” On a different note, Neua Panchareon, an Australian exchange student from Adelaide University, explained that Canadian exchange students seem attracted to Australia because of the similar language and cultural preferences: “[there is] not too much of a cultural shock . . . It depends what you are looking for … However, Adelaide is a city campus and Victoria more like a village so there is definitely a different atmosphere.” I also interviewed a Chinese exchange student from Shanghai Normal University who explained that “[. . .] travelling enables you to become more socially apt. Shanghai customs are different, as it is in a developing country.” There certainly seems to be an appeal for both the familiar and unfamiliar when students choose their destinations.
What resonated with me at the fair was Edam’s comment that “[. . .] learning a language is not the main reason [for going abroad]; experience is. Students definitely come back more mature and can’t wait to travel back … or work there, some even think about a second exchange.” In addition to studying abroad for a year, work placements are also available and popular; students may participate in internship programs in Asia with civil society organizations, or work as a teaching assistant in Germany. From my experience at least, studying and working abroad is a unique opportunity that takes you pleasantly outside your comfort zone, enabling you to become more open-minded.