Virtually anyone who knows me would have originally laughed at the idea of me going on exchange. In fact, they probably still would. I live at home, I rarely venture out and have never actually been out of Australia before. In fact, my longest flight has been only 2 hours. Given that I was probably not the ideal candidate to go on exchange, I found it incredibly hard to relate to most accounts of previous students. I am not outgoing, I am shy. I am also terrified. I couldn’t find an exchange story that spoke to me, so I am hoping to create an autoethnographic digital story that I wish I could have read when I first applied. The theme of this post follows the question: what is it like to prepare for exchange, and how does the internet help facilitate this process?
I am a planner. I am a researcher of everything. I am a nervous wreck. And, I am planning the adventure of a lifetime, one step at a time.
Step One: Decide to go!
Four weeks before the December 2 (2016) deadline, I had never considered going on an exchange- not even a little bit. Three weeks before the deadline, I was still only contemplating the vague idea of it. Two weeks before the deadline was when I suddenly realised this was something I needed to do so with no time to waste (literally and figuratively) I started my application. My top 3 universities were either closed for exchange or didn’t offer film studies (a non-negotiable course for me) on further investigation. So, after being given a few Canadian universities to choose from (and obsessively looking up each of them, and their locations and campuses online), the University of Alberta stood out to me.
Photo source: University of Alberta 2017
Why go on exchange in the first place? For me, the biggest reason was personal growth. I needed to challenge myself; to know that I could do something big and potentially life-changing. I’m not alone in this, with studies showing 95 per cent of study abroad students believe it served as a catalyst for increased maturity, and 96 per cent reporting higher self-esteem (Kinloch 2016). It also extends beyond this; job prospects are higher for study abroad graduates and they receive higher starting salaries in those jobs (University of California 2017). Although those statistics come from large studies on post-exchange students, colloquial evidence through student testimonials proves how valuable the experience can be. Many speak of the strong relationships built that outlast the exchange itself, as well as an increased respect of other cultures and an overwhelmingly positive response to their exchange overall (University of Wollongong 2017; University of Sydney 2017; IES Abroad 2017; Tucker 2014; University of Technology Sydney 2017).
Photo source: University of Wollongong 2017
Step Two: You’re In! To the exchange program, anyway.
I was accepted into UOW’s exchange program and I was given a few universities to choose from that offered what I wanted in Canada. Originally, I wanted to be in either Toronto or Vancouver, so I hadn’t looked at options in other states. But, UAlberta is ranked in the top 100 universities worldwide (QS Rankings 2017) and is located in the town of Edmonton. Edmonton is a few hours from Calgary, Banff and Jasper National Parks, and if you are in the right place at the right time, the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) are visible so it didn’t take me long to warm up to it.
Photo source: Best Movers Edmonton 2016
Step Three: Apply and Wait!
For me, the waiting game lasted months. I put in my official application in March and once it was received by UAlberta I was also able to apply for student accommodation online in a simple application. I finally got my official acceptance in late September so I had a lot of time to wait and research Alberta, and then wait some more. It was a strange period of time because I had a good chance to get in, but I couldn’t afford to book anything, or even feel as though I could fully commit to mentally preparing myself to leave.
Buuut, I had a lot of free time to ask inane questions to Google. Here are a few random things I wouldn’t know without the internet:
- Tim Horton’s menu
- Tim Horton’s locations
- What stores are in West Edmonton Mall (the biggest in North America, but is the water park really necessary?!)
- Where I could buy Yankee Candles in Edmonton (thanks Bed, Bath and Beyond!)
- Just how cold it gets in Edmonton (I would make a joke about frostbite and hypothermia if I didn’t think I could actually get it)
- What is on Canadian Netflix
- The Pottery Barn catalogue
Sure- some of these things could be found off the internet. Guidebooks and information from a travel agent can be great, but it is either potentially outdated or requires a lot of effort to acquire it. The internet has been invaluable to me in feeling a tad more comfortable with the whole idea of temporarily moving there, especially thanks to programs like Google Maps’ Streetview and the 360-degree photos offered by UAlberta of everything from student accommodation to public shared spaces. What a time to be alive! But I will be honest in saying that if it weren’t for the internet, I would not be going on exchange in the first place.
Step Four: You’re In!
On the beautiful day of Wednesday, September 20 I finally got the email I had been waiting for: I was in! UAlberta had accepted me and everything started to get real. Really real.
Fortunately for me, I was able to enrol in classes as soon as I was accepted, a novelty only few host universities allow. Instead of having to wait until I got to Canada, I was simply able to put my classes in online, as long as they weren’t full. I did have a few classes I wanted to do that I had missed out on, but I was able to put them on a watchlist and receive an email if someone dropped out. The class gods were on my side and after a few watchlist notifications, I secured all my ideal classes.
Enrolling in classes online was something I took for granted, especially given that it is still a luxury today for some exchange students. Now I know my exact timetable, locations of classes and who I will have teaching me. This was such a huge relief when it all worked out; I can’t imagine how stressful it would be to have to wait until a few days before to enrol in person. What if you missed out on a class you needed credit for? What if you have one class unlike anything your own university offers that you were incredibly excited for that filled up before you landed in the country?
It may seem menial, even to students at home, but we have all had those classes that we just didn’t enjoy, and nothing makes for a bad start to a new semester like a subject you aren’t interested in but have to do, whether as a core class or just one that fits into your timetable. So, major props to the University of Alberta on this one.
Booking flights, or playing the waiting game to book flights, was one of the harder aspects of this experience. From day one, we were advised not to book flights until we received an official acceptance to our host university. When advised specifically in my interview with UOW, I thought anyone who would do that was crazy. Why risk it? But now I understand. Having applied in December to UOW’s program, and again in March to UAlberta, I regularly looked up flight costs to get a vague idea in budgeting. At the beginning of the year, tickets to Edmonton were about $1,000. By the time I got my acceptance, they were a minimum $2,000.
This is one of the downfalls of the exchange experience being so deeply entrenched online. I never would have been able to access that information as regularly as I did, because it would have required either calling or visiting a travel agent. I just had to do a quick check online. Of course, though, this leads to a rabbit hole of beautiful holiday packages and destination ideas that all got more expensive the deeper I dug. Expensive options never would have been on the table, and I would not be pining over the Rocky Mountaineer and its several-thousand-dollar price tag.
I still got lucky, I’ll see you soon Banff! Photo source: AMPIA 2017
Step Five: Au Revoir!
The final step is simply counting down to departure. With two months to go, I am getting the following lists ready:
- What to clothes to pack, considering the temperature difference will be approximately 50 -60 degrees Celsius (I am going from the Australian summer to the dead of winter in one of the coldest cities in Canada)
- What little mementos from home I should pack
- What different foods I need to try when I get there
- What I’ll need to buy over there (including spending way too much money on these Harry Potter sheets and doona cover)
It is here that I leave this post, less than two months until I fly out. This is only the beginning, but it most definitely won’t be the end.
IES Abroad 2017, ‘Benefits of study abroad’, IES Abroad, <https://www.iesabroad.org/study-abroad/benefits>.
Kinloch, R 2016, ’46 study abroad statistics: convincing facts and figures’, Smart Study, 24 August, viewed 26 October, <https://smart.study/blog/46-study-abroad-statistics-convincing-facts-and-figures/>.
QS Top Universities 2017, ‘QS world university rankings 2018’, QS Top Universities, <https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2018>.
Tucker, L 2014, ’25 reasons to study abroad’, QS Top Universities, 14 November, viewed 27 October 2017, <https://www.topuniversities.com/blog/25-reasons-study-abroad>.
University of California Study Abroad 2017, ‘What statistics say about study abroad students’, University of California, Merced, <http://studyabroad.ucmerced.edu/study-abroad-statistics/statistics-study-abroad>.
UOW Office of Global Student Mobility 2017, ‘Your ticket to the world: student exchange and study overseas’, University of Wollongong, <https://www.uow.edu.au/content/groups/public/@web/@unia/documents/doc/uow235107.pdf>.
UTS Global Exchange 2016, ‘Global exchange testimonials’, University of Technology, Sydney, <https://www.uts.edu.au/current-students/opportunities/global-exchange/what-global-exchange/global-exchange-testimonials>.
USydney Global Mobility 2017, ‘Global mobility guide’, University of Sydney, <https://sydney.edu.au/content/dam/corporate/documents/study/overseas-exchange/Global-Mobility-Guide-2017.pdf>.