5 February 2016

My experience studying abroad

Hello everyone! I've been planning on writing this post for a while now! As most of you will probably know, Holly & I got accepted into an study exchange program in mid 2015, and we had the opportunity to study in Ontario, Canada for a semester! So I'm going to share my experience on here, hopefully convincing you guys to take part in something like this in the future!
Needless to say, it wasn't all straightforward and perfect, so I'm going to be quite bluntly honest at some moments, not because I want to discourage anyone from taking part in an exchange program, but because I want people to fully understand what it entails. what problems you may have to deal with so you have an idea as to what you can expect! It's also quite personal at times, so buckle up, it's a long read!

There are a number of different programs, the most known one is probably 'Erasmus' but there are others too. Some universities do exchange programs but not through Erasmus! So, first of all, my university did very poorly in terms of 'advertising' the exchange program. (Remember that this is my experience of it, other universities may do it differently!)  We received a single email and had one general meeting, in which the professor in charge told us very little. There was one or two small posters on display at uni, but they can be easily missed. Not all universities function the same way of course, but for some universities you may have to ask around a little to get any kind of information (which is what I did). The inscription process was definitely the most stressful part of the whole experience, for a number of reasons. First of all, I had a meeting with one of the exchange professors, who gave me a number of universities they were partnered with. After researching these universities (courses, location etc) I had to submit a motivation letter to my university, explaining why I was a plausible candidate, and how such an experience would be beneficial in terms of my education etc. After this, I had to wait until my university told me whether or not I had been accepted into the exchange program (sometimes the places are limited: 2 students for one semester, or 1 student for a full year for example.) I worked extremely hard on my motivation letter, writing it in both French and English. The motivation letter plays a big part of course, but the university also considers your grades, your presence in class (how often do you miss class etc), and in some instances, your level of English. This probably played a substantial role in my acceptance into the program. I am British and bilingual, speaking both French and English fluently, however I've never studied in my first language before. As my university choices were all located in Canada, being able to speak both languages gave me a huge advantage, compared to someone who was studying in another foreign country for example.

So, after a few weeks of waiting, my university contacted me to let me know whether or not I had been accepted into the program. ONLY the program though, so nothing is set in stone yet: you still have to be accepted by the other university in which you wish to study!! Now this wasn't explicitly said to me, and by consequence, I was lead to believe I was going to study in the university of Fredericton in New Brunswick. For two weeks, I believed this. Then, one day, the teacher in charge of our exchange included us in a group email with the other university so we could be aware of the whole inscription process. She had attached all the necessary documents and sent them off to the university of New Brunswick. They soon replied, explaining that the deadline for those documents was over a month ago. Naturally, we weren't very happy, as this meant that our university did a very poor job, and that they needed to seriously review their communication system with the other universities they were partnered with. So, that was it. A few days later, we were told that unfortunately due to a change in the deadline dates, we had missed out on our opportunity to study in Canada. By then, all the places in the other universities were taken, and so we assumed it was no longer happening. The teachers apologized, and asked us if we still wanted to look for any other universities. At first, we told them no because it was so stressful and we didn't want to do it all again. A few days later, I received another email, asking me if I was sure, that it would be a shame to miss out. So, I asked my university if there were any other universities I could contact.

Eventually, I was told I could possibly study at Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo, Ontario. After going through the courses available, I went for it. Again. And a few weeks later, I got an acceptance email from that university, and then another in June by mail. I still can't believe Holly & I both got accepted at the same university. Once we had been accepted by the university in which we wished to study, we selected the courses we wanted to take, keeping in mind that they had to match the ones we would be doing at our home university. Then, it's a question of sorting out all the paperwork... Health insurance, travel insurance, flat insurance, study contracts, hundreds of papers and a number of different files I had to run back and forth to the university. 

The inscription process is very, very daunting. I know a number of people who gave up on it after a few weeks because it was such a mess and very stressful. I considered it a number of times too. You're studying at the same time, you have exams and assignments going on, so why bother with the extra hassle?! I spent weeks stressing over documents, emails, and if it weren't for my parents driving me back and forth to uni but also to banks and other various places, I would never have succeeded. But, just because my experience was like this, doesn't mean yours will be too. Unfortunately my university isn't the most organized one on the planet, which is probably why I had so many problems with it! So, if you're looking into a possible exchange/study abroad program, remember to a) Ask around: who do I have to meet, when are the deadlines etc. b) research: Which university to choose? Look at the location, the courses available, the campus etc. c) be confident in yourself (or pretend to be, fake it till you make it). Unexpected, right? The truth is, many people feel like they aren't good enough to go on an exchange trip abroad. Maybe they think their grades aren't good enough, that it's too 'big' for them, that they aren't a good enough student to do it. This was my mindset. I didn't think my grades were high enough at. all. But the truth is, unless you go for it, you'll never know! 

  • HOUSING: on or off campus?

This depends on you. I personally like to separate uni/personal life, living somewhere not too close to campus so I don't feel like I'm constantly in the 'student mindset'. After researching online, Holly & I found two available rooms in a shared flat, a ten minute bus ride away from the University. The reason we chose it was because it was furnished, cheap and close-by. We rented the rooms for the four and a half months. We weren't told much about our flatmates by the landlord, and we assumed we would be staying with other students. It turns out one of them was a 39 year old woman, one student from another university and a young man who worked close by. They were all very nice, and although I only really had a lot in common with two of them, we never had too much trouble sharing a flat. It was tough at times, as I've never shared a flat with anyone other that my sister before. So having to share a bathroom and kitchen with strangers (who soon became friends! Shout-out to Jared) , and being woken up at 5am by a blender was difficult. If you are looking for somewhere off campus, make sure you ask about who you are living with, more precisely, if they are also students. We got on fine with our flatmates, but the elder woman felt like she was everyone's 'mum', giving us chores etc...Which is not exactly what you want when renting a place! Although you may save a lot of money off campus, on campus has a lot more perks. When I first arrived, I felt like I'd stepped into TV land! The atmosphere was always amazing on campus, it felt so homely and comforting! Everyone we met lived on campus, and so it would have been a lot easier to meet up with people if we were there too. That was one of things that saddened us the most, we couldn't just pop out to meet friends, we had to check the bus times, the weather, how long we could stay before the last bus... If we stayed on campus, we would have had a better social life.  However, it's more expensive: the rent, and in some instances, a 'meal plan' which is several hundred dollars. Once again, you need to research it beforehand, and consider the pros and cons. One thing you could do is ask your university for names of students who have been to the university you're thinking of choosing, so you get a first hand review.


As I mentioned previously, it's always best to do a load of research when looking at a University abroad. I had the opportunity to live halfway across the world for a number of  months, so I wanted to make sure the location I chose offered a number of opportunities, both travel and experience wise. When I realized I was just over an hour away from Toronto, I was filled with excitement. Not only was I close to a beautiful city, but I could easily get to an International airport that could fly me to a number of destinations in a matter of hours. Studying abroad isn't just about the education, it's a cultural experience that will shape you and stay with you forever.

I hate to talk about it, but unfortunately it's a big thing when you're considering an exchange trip. I am very fortunate to live somewhere where I can go to University for free. So far, my three-year diploma studying Film & Theater has cost me about 15 euros; 5 euros per year for my Student card. That's it. I have a number of friends who will be 30,000 pounds in debt by the time they are 23 or 24 years of age, which is a scary thought. Being free of student loan debts is incredible, however it did not really aid me in this scenario. Luckily we benefited from a student bursary that was given to us by our University, so make sure you look at the options you have before applying, as we said, it's different from one University to another. (Remember this bursary may not come through until a month AFTER you've arrived at the other uni!)

- Travel: 

You have to consider the following: you'll be paying for your flights, train fares, bus fares, insurance, food, lodging (and furniture in some cases), a new phone/SIM card... You should always keep a bit aside for emergencies and for leisure. Also consider the exchange rate: will you gain or lose money? Try to plan your flights as early as possible to save money. You should also do some research to plan how you'll get from the airport to your new location, there are loads of ways to do it but you'll save yourself some money by looking into all the different options.
Remember that most Universities have a 'reading week' in the middle of the semester, supposedly for studying but actually an opportunity for you to travel and explore! The best thing to do is to check your timetable as soon as possible so you can plan trips on your week off. 

- University fees: 

Another thing to take into account as that in Canada, we ended up spending hundreds of dollars on books, course packs (some that we rarely used), luckily for us we could share between us, but it still came to almost $300 for maybe 9-11 books. We were able to sell them afterwards, and we got $12  back. $12 for all of those books we spent hundreds on. I couldn't believe they offered me 20 cents for one of them. There were other options of course, but as we didn't have the space to take them home we had to get rid of them. We also ended up paying a couple of hundred for University fees (bus card, obligatory health and dental, etc) that we were unaware of. It's always good to ask your exchange co-ordinator about costs, just to give you an idea! 

The sensible thing to do before looking into doing an exchange trip is to look closely at how you will manage your money, whether or not you're eligible for student aid/bursary, and try to budget how much it will all come to. I went to my bank and asked them what they thought: should I get a new bank card? Open an account in Canada?  Make sure you carry a certain amount in cash (in case you credit card isn't accepted). You should also calculate how much you'll pay for rent before hand, and once again consider the exchange rate.

If it weren't for the generosity of my family, I would never have been able to afford the exchange trip. The bursary I received from my university just about covered my rent, I'm extremely lucky and grateful to have people around me that were willing to make this experience as memorable as it could be by helping me out both financially and morally.


Our host university did a really great job during international orientation week. All exchange students from over 50 countries were warned about the potential personal obstacles that we may have had to face during our exchange trip. There's a very strong possibility that you will feel lost and overwhelmed during your first month abroad- which isn't surprising, considering that you are away from your family and home, from your daily routine. We did get quite homesick a number of times, but I believe that some people will struggle more than others. I missed the feeling of being 'home'. I missed the company of animals. Whenever we saw a dog in the street Holly and I ran to greet it. Just remember there are really simple ways to stay in touch with your friends and family!! Make sure your loved ones all have Skype set-up on their computers and that you set-up a specific time and date: not only will you have something to look forward to but it'll also help you establish a routine. Snapchat is also amazing for keeping in touch with friends and family! 

Another thing you may not expect to happen to you when you arrive, is the culture shock. You won't be eating the same food you're used to, your body will have to get used to the water, time-zone, weather; people may have different values and traditions to what you're used to. All these things can add up and you may get a bit overwhelmed, but it's important to remember that it's completely normal, and you won't be the only one who is struggling! Furthermore it won't last very long. It's amazing how quickly humans adapt to a new situation. Before you know it, you will construct a routine and you'll get used to your new surroundings. 

Holly & I ended up buying another big suitcase worth of stuff, so on our way to the airport we literally had suitcases on our laps in the car! I'm one of those people who packs enough clothes for 5 or 6 days, even if it's a two day trip. If you're going somewhere where the climate is different to your own, I would suggest buying coats or shoes once you've arrived. I ended up bring clothes and shoes that I barely wore, and then ended up buying clothes that I needed there-which led to a ridiculous amount of stuff to bring back! 

I could write a ten page essay on this question. Firstly, studying in another country could change your perception on education. For the first time, I could choose my courses, ones that I was genuinely  interested in.(At our free University in France, everything is VERY different. We'll be writing a blog post about that soon.) Meeting new teachers is also refreshing. Not only that, but their different teaching methods may work better for you, and you may find yourself achieving better grades. If you have only ever studied in a 'free' university like myself, than you will discover what it is like to study in a paid university! It's also important to consider how such an experience will look on your CV and motivation letter for your future : it will show that you are well-traveled, organized and responsible,  capable of handling yourself in a new environment, and it could help you get a job later on!

This experience was one of the most amazing things I have ever done, and I miss it so much. I met so many incredible people, from all over the world. I made some amazing friends whom I miss incredibly, some of them Canadians, some of them exchange students. I experienced what it was like to study in another university, to experience another culture, different traditions. I learnt that Canadians are incredibly, incredibly nice. I could never put into words just how much it has benefited me, on a number of levels. I have a new perspective on education, travel and society. I could write pages and pages on this, but long story short...it was incredible.

If you're thinking about going on an exchange trip and have any questions, feel free to drop us an email by clicking on our 'contact' page! 

Holly & Summer xoxo

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