My Experience Studying Abroad in Canada

It’s February and I’m facetiming my friend Jasmine, who is studying abroad at the University of Monash in Melbourne, Australia. She’s entered an air-conditioned mall and begins complaining to me about the sudden and excessive blasts of cold air she’s encountering.

“Oh my God, it’s freezing!”

I try as best I can to convey a look of utter contempt through my small phone screen across a shaky connection that continually freezes mid conversation.

“Jasmine. Do not talk to me about the cold. We’re due a polar vortex soon and it’s meant to get to minus thirty degrees. You are literally experiencing weather that’s about sixty degrees higher than us.”

Predictably, she cackles with glee before responding, “You chose this, Chloe! You voluntarily chose to live as an ice cube for a year!”

Yes. I did. At moments when I’m waiting in the brutal open for a bus that was meant to take me to campus twenty minutes ago, assaulted by icy gusts of wind that blister the skin and engulfed in a tremendous winter coat that reaches past my knees and thus restricts my walk to a demeaning and ineffective waddle (particularly hilarious to onlookers when I’m required to cross the road at speed, much akin to a caffeinated penguin), it’s hard to remember why I chose Canada. For the love of warmth, of vitamin D, of fresh air that doesn’t freeze your nose hairs and attack your face, brain and sanity, why did I not consider a country a little closer to the equator?

To answer that, I’ll rewind to term one, second year. I hadn’t initially planned on studying abroad when I started my degree. I’d taken a year out before starting at Warwick, so I felt I was already a year behind my peers. However, I had spent the last two summers working in the Algonquin wilderness in Ontario at a children’s camp, and my time had been incredibly formative and exciting. Upon returning to Warwick in the autumn, I became convinced that I needed to return to Canada to experience the country in greater depth. As the months passed, I became more and more certain that this was an opportunity I couldn’t allow myself to miss. I wanted to see more of the country and the people that had already shaped me, to experience an alternative life and education system, to discover ideas and stories that I would never otherwise encounter.

Image: University Campus

So, it was decided. The English department at Warwick had a handful of choices for those wishing to study in Canada, and of those, the University of Western Ontario caught my eye. Western is located in the province of Ontario, within the city of London. The irony of moving from London to London did not escape me, nor the multitudes of Canadians I would meet. When I met new people, which would happen an awful lot, particularly at the beginning, I began to steer the conversation in the exact same direction in order to show off my staggering wit and good humour:

Canadian: “Wow, I love your accent! Where are you from?”

Chloe: “London. Well, the other London…”

Canadian: *Greatly exaggerated laughter so as not to hurt my feelings*.

Canadian: “Ah, I think you mean the better London…”

Chloe: *Identical exaggerated laughter*.

The number of times this conversation was enacted with various acquaintances over the year most probably nears the one hundred mark, with no overstatement. The only higher figure is the number of times I was complimented upon my accent. Make no mistake, I am not complaining about this. You’ll find English people pretending to themselves and others that they’re annoyed about the number of times they’ve been complimented on their accents, but we all secretly love it. Of course, there’s not much you can say in response except to gush, “I love yours, too!”.

Before launching myself blindly across the Atlantic in June, I thought it would be a good idea to arrange my housing. Western are very accommodating as they offer all undergraduate exchange students guaranteed accommodation on campus, as long as you make your application by the stated deadline. This assurance is not offered by all universities – I heard horror stories from one of my friends studying in Paris who knew someone who was essentially commuting from London to get there.

In contrast, I was greatly reassured whilst accepting my offer from Western. However, a little research in May soon revealed to me that even the cheapest of the campus accommodation offered by Western was not within my budget. Realising I’d have to rely on myself to find alternative housing, I asked the study abroad department at Western for some advice on where I might locate a ‘roommates wanted’ page and was directed to a website. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the prices were a lot lower than campus costs, and even the more expensive options were mostly less expensive than some of the cheapest accommodation one might find in Leamington Spa. I felt a little tense moving in with a group of strangers, so attempted to rely upon my intuition to choose a house, and eventually selected a listing advertised by one of the few girls whose profiles wasn’t characterised by a blank photo and an impersonalised page that was blatantly the sign of an axe murderer. With the sense that I was jumping into the unknown, I shrugged my shoulders, signed the paperwork and hoped for the best. A month later, I flew out to complete my third summer at summer camp – it wasn’t until the start of September that I relocated to Western and moved into the apartment.

Image: University Campus

Although Canada is a massive country, its public transport services are pretty inefficient. People mostly drive long distances – you can’t pop down and catch any old train as you can in England. They’re fairly irregular, very expensive and the formality of presenting your ticket and waiting is reminiscent of the routine and formality of getting a plane. I was very lucky, as my parents had decided to come and visit me in Canada in between camp and university, and they drove me down to London from the Algonquin and helped me move into the house with the hefty and cumbersome luggage that I would no doubt have accidentally wielded to the effect of multiple civilian injuries if I’d taken the train or a coach. The experience was very reminiscent of my first day of university in Warwick, especially after they had left and I was alone in an empty house and a foreign city in which I knew no one. It didn’t matter that I’d travelled solo to Canada to work on three separate occasions for months at a time – this was an entirely new start and a combination of loneliness and change always manages to make us feel our most vulnerable.

My roommates wouldn’t be moving in for a couple more days, so while I was waiting downstairs in my unfurnished room for my cheap mattress to be delivered and listening to Celine Dion’s ‘All by Myself’, I was alarmed to hear noises and voices upstairs. With a silent prayer, I went to confront the criminals who were no doubt attempting to steal our television and the tasteful Kris Kardashian banner that bedecked our back wall, before brutally murdering me on my first day at Western. Instead, I was surprised to find three girls, moving in a few suitcases. They were equally taken aback, before coming forwards to greet me in a rush of friendly smiles and loud Canadian accents. It turned out that one of girls, Laura, was subletting from the original tenant, who was on exchange in Calgary. Like me, she was a newbie to the house and the other tenants, but not to London, having just graduated last year. The other two were her friends who had come to assist, Lucia and Megan. All three implored me to join them on a night out that evening. Shell shocked and unaccustomed as I was, I agreed, reminding myself that if I wanted to make the most of my year abroad, I should start by saying yes.

The intense hangover the next day made me reconsider my choices as I trudged at the pace of an injured snail to campus in thirty-degree heat for an orientation event, and was forced to lie down in the parched grass by the side of a main road to the concerned and mildly disturbed gazes of many passers-by in order to temporarily recuperate. Despite teetering on the verge of collapse, I was charged with a rush of gratitude towards the girls for so directly including and befriending me on my very first day. Tales from other friends and trailblazers who had already had their year abroad revealed to me that often their friends ended up being fellow exchange students. I was aware of this, and was determined to mingle with Canadians, and felt that my choice to live off campus with Canadians would help this – I soon found out that the vast majority of exchange students had elected to live with each other, mostly on campus. Indeed, for the first few months my closest friends were the Canadian girls I lived with, alongside Lucia and Megan, and a house of rowdy but friendly footballers that included Lucia’s boyfriend. I grew to love all of them, but also found myself longing for the comfort of friends in a similar boat to me, who wanted to travel and experience Canada, and with whom I could occasionally discuss the cultural differences and the enormity of the adventure we’d embarked upon.

I received that chance during reading week. I decided to head to Montreal to visit my cousin, but beforehand I stayed with my close friend from summer camp for Thanksgiving, and my friend from French class just outside of Ottawa. My stay in Montreal was wonderful and my cousin was incredibly accommodating. However, facing the prospect of a free afternoon one day, I found myself watching the Instagram story of an English girl named Beth who I had met very briefly in a club one night. It was clear she was in Montreal with a group of exchange students. Feeling like a complete creep and debatable stalker, I nevertheless messaged her, introducing myself properly and asking if I might be able to explore Montreal with her and her friends. Trusting and apparently unaffected by the arguable creepiness of my request, she agreed, and the next day I met her and her friend Lucy for brunch. We got on well, and explored the cobbled streets of old town Montreal, before meeting more exchange students and ending up in the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, where the organ player was performing music from Star Wars. I waved goodbye to go and watch ballet with my cousin, herself a ballerina, but Lucy and Beth would eventually become my best friends, and introduce me into a wider circle of exchange students that I would constantly travel, socialise, laugh and study with – revealing to me that while it is undeniably wonderful to meet and befriend domestic students, it also feels incredibly important to meet those in the same situation as yourself. Today, I’m actually living with three of the girls that I met on exchange!

Image: Montreal
Image: Toronto

The Canadian higher education system differs a little from the English equivalent. While we choose a subject to study before we begin, Canadian students don’t choose a subject to major in until their second or third year. What is more, their degrees are typically four years long, instead of our standard three years. Even whilst majoring, they may still elect to take minors that are entirely unrelated to their degree, if they wish. This meant I was able to pursue other interests of mine, including Geography, French and History. Within the English department, I was able to explore the history of indigenous people, alongside their rights, and the traumas that they have suffered, which was hugely interesting and humbling. I was also able to indulge my childhood love of fantasy literature by taking a course that specialised in exactly that, and the course ‘Toronto: Culture and Performance’ allowed me to travel every other week to witness a range of plays and performances in the province’s capital city, and hone my creative and analytical skills by reviewing them. I found that Canadian students were generally a lot more willing to participate and engage in debate in class, and for the most part, lecturers were very engaging. This was a new experience for me, as lectures are not typically my favourite method of learning, as I often find myself becoming distracted. Assessments were far more frequent, but I found they were marked more favourably and weren’t generally as difficult – I remember being astounded when I received a one hundred, or a mark within the nineties for a literature essay. Academic highlights included a letter of congratulations from the Geography department and leading a lively class discussion for an hour with my ‘Indigenous Trauma’ class.

I sought to go to Canada in hopes of many unique experiences and tales to tell, and my time there did not disappoint. There were certainly a few strange events, including accidentally becoming a groupie for the one-eyed rapper Fetty Wap, being serenaded around campus by a group of boys singing Vanessa Carlton’s ‘One Thousand Miles’, being burst in upon after being misidentified by the police whilst I was on the toilet in the library and, finally, being recruited for a sorority. Occasional weekends in which we had no plans led us to the pursuit of many unusual activities, including goat yoga and axe-throwing – the latter of which we turned out to be worryingly skilled at. Travel became an important part of our experience away. If we had the money and the time, varying groups of exchange students would head off on expeditions all over North America. We headed to Toronto before it got unbearably cold, and squeezed far too many people into a single Airbnb, before venturing to the Christmas market and losing each other all over the city. We headed to Toronto even when it was unbearably cold, and I calmly came to terms with the fact that I was sure to lose the skin off my face when I stepped into graffiti alley, which had become a lethal wind tunnel amidst the -20 degree snow storm we were experiencing.

During reading week, an intrepid group of us ventured all the way to Mexico, where we remained constantly in awe at the presence of actual heat and explored as much of the country as we could, rattling around in sweaty public buses known as ‘Collectivos’ and wandering up strange roads until we stumbled across heavenly blue cenotes or ancient Mayan ruins. A couple of weeks later, a trio of us headed to New York on an overnight bus that caused me to believe I’d never be able to fully stretch my legs again, before arriving in Brooklyn and literally sprinting to reach Brooklyn Bridge in time for golden hour. Just as the snow began to stop falling in London, we drove north to camp in Killarney, where the snow fell so thickly it reached our torsos if we ventured off the path. That weekend, we hiked up to one of the highest points of Ontario and I resigned myself to near certain death as I slipped over a grand total of 48 times due to inappropriate footwear. Upon reaching the top, attempting to conceal the heaving wretch I had become, unfit as I was, we were silenced by the tremendous expanse of snowy mountains that stretched out far beyond us. That evening, we laughed until we cried singing around campfires, and stargazed whilst lying flat on a frozen lake.

Image: Gatineau, Quebec

Moments such as these were incredibly special, but they are not what I immediately think of when I reflect on my year abroad. These trips were rare; our days were instead dominated by routine. However, it was a routine that I grew to love, and was characterised by people who were very dear to me – who I couldn’t imagine not spending every day with. As much as I hated the cold, every fresh snowfall continued to spark joy. It was beautiful. We had a social routine each week that we stuck to like glue, one that was dominated by karaoke, a particular Irish pub and a rousing rendition of ‘Country Roads’ that was performed by the university’s local celebrity, Rick McGhie. I loved the street that I walked down countless times through every weather imaginable to see my friends and grew nostalgic knowing that soon I’d never do so again. When the goodbyes eventually came, they were drawn out and repeated, in the hope that the last wouldn’t actually be the last. You are warned before starting your year that it’s not all travel and excitement and to prepare for the quotidian. Make no mistake, there were definite lows, but at the risk of sounding twee, if you’re lucky and you try to make the most of your time away, you will find the day-to-day just as memorable and wonderful as the rest.

Chloe Palmer – BA English and Literary Studies at Warwick. Year Abroad studied at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

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