I began my studies at McMaster University (aka. Mac) in early September. It’s ranked as the 4th top university in Canada, it has great student life, excellent facilities, and is set in a beautiful location. The grounds are surrounded by a large lake and forest, where deer, and raccoons (and skunks) are free to roam the massive campus. To put its size into perspective, not only are there 3 large libraries, there’s also a football stadium, several bars and restaurants… and a nuclear reactor, on site.
Everything about my exchange was ‘roughly’ prepared. My courses were finalised a mere month or so before the start of term. My flight was booked a few weeks before departure. My accommodation wasn’t confirmed until a couple of weeks in to semester. Yet despite all this, somehow it all worked out well, if not brilliantly. In fact, you can’t prepare too much, or set your expectations too high, or low. Everything will be new, everything will be different, there’ll be challenges constantly thrown at you, and you’ll find yourself in countless unexpected situations. One example of an unexpected situation, was finding myself in the middle of a national park, in a wet tent, in wet clothes, in a wet sleeping bag, with 3 other wet exchange students. The previous day, we managed to flip a canoe whilst carrying the group’s essential items. Despite our misfortune, it was all just a whole heap of fun.
The biggest challenge I faced, was finding accommodation. 4 month leases are difficult to find, especially in the fall semester. Being too selective is a big error, as a week before semester starts, rooms become almost non-existent. The best approach is to settle on any reasonable accommodation – if it’s not as expected, have a discussion with the landlord, or otherwise, look for another place to stay.
From my cultural observations, Canadians are very open, friendly and polite people. They form orderly lines. They say sorry a lot. They’ll open doors, and wait for you. Just like Australia, they’re very multicultural – in fact, in one of my classes of 50 students, only one was Canadian. However despite Canada’s similarities to Australia, there’s no denying the vast differences between the two. Prepare to be complimented on your accent. Prepare to be stereotyped, as some sort of surf-going, croc-fighting super-being. Prepare to be looked at blankly when asking for ‘capsicum’ at Subway. To make life easier, read up on some local vocab before you go – know the meaning of words like, washroom, loon, sweater, double-double, and streetcar.
Student life at Mac is great and the variety of clubs on offer is exceptional. Attend ClubFest at the beginning of semester, and before you know it, you’ll have signed up to all sorts of weird and wonderful societies. I joined at least 10 clubs, many of which I have no passion for (e.g. the Lupus-, and Hindu-Club), but it goes to show how warm and inviting the student environment is. Volunteering is a great way to meet locals, learn more about your host country, and teach others about Australia. Volunteer registration is also super easy in Canada – just send an e-mail and you’re hired. 11pm on a Tuesday night, in the middle of Downtown, we don’t know them, they don’t know us, send them a last minute message asking to volunteer…no problem! Another great way to meet locals is to show up to as many events as possible. There are lots of opportunities to meet others – from concerts, to bonfires, to formals, to intramurals – there’s no need to ever leave campus.
If you do leave for sightseeing during semester, plan carefully, or prepare your courses, so that you have a few days free in the week to accommodate travel. I was lucky enough to see many far-away places, from New York City, to Cuba, to Canada’s version of the Blue Mountains, and only missed a few events. However, the best way to maximise your time at Mac is to save your getaways for the holidays. Looking back at my time overseas, I can safely conclude, it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. I’ll never forget the lessons I learnt, the amazing people I met, the priceless experiences I gained, and the direction it has given me. If you’re in two minds about going on exchange, and not sure about how much time or money you have, I’d highly recommend at least giving it a try. Studying abroad is the most enriching thing you can do whilst at university.