Students arrive at university with many hopes, ready to go out there and finally live the life they have been dreaming of for at least a couple years. Many have been constantly thinking of what will happen at this crazy place called university: “Maybe I will work for some huge tech company over the summer“, “Perhaps I will join some intramurals”, “ How will I look after the Freshman 15? “, “Damn, I am going to miss Mom”, “How about going abroad? “. That last question, seldom posed here at Skule™, is a question that demands further inspection. After all, the classic idea of a university career tends to include some time spent abroad, learning a new culture, taking some coursework at a different university and getting outside of one’s comfort zone. Last year, according to the faculty’s annual report, of the 5300 students in undergraduate engineering, a paltry 10 participated in a semester or year long exchange program for a rate of 0.3% – a dismal number when compared to the overall numbers of Australia (~10%), considering the multitude of benefits linked to student exchange.
I went on exchange to the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and at the risk of sounding like the “kid coming back from exchange” meme I can unreservedly say that it was a great decision and all of the exchange students with whom I have discussed this topic have agreed entirely. Although you will surely get a great education in school while abroad, I can promise you that that will make up only half of the experience. The cultural education you receive and the new friends you make are benefits that will be much more valuable, will be much harder to come by later in life, and are the reasons for which you should seize the opportunity in front of you now.
With that being said, as a Skule™ student myself, I understand the weight of stress one feels just getting through the semester. The same pressure that stops many students from ever considering studying abroad, despite the well-researched benefits of going on exchange. Chief among these benefits is the opportunity to experience a new place without feeling like a tourist and instead experiencing the life of the locals firsthand. The rapid development of cross cultural understanding is personally enriching. Think of your life as a student at UofT. Chances are you have gotten to experience some pretty cool things in Toronto that only a local could take advantage of. Now imagine having the same advantages but as a student in London, Singapore, Sydney or Paris. Not to mention that while abroad, you also will have the ability to travel to places completely inaccessible to you while in Toronto. Most popular exchange destinations, like South East Asia, Australia, and Europe, have tons of tourist centres packed tightly together that are easily accessible by cheap modes of transport. The experience gained while abroad is also very attractive to potential employers. A fact that should not be lost on any student looking to find a PEY placement after their second or third year. The ability to adapt rapidly to a new culture and pedagogical environment, as one does on exchange, is a key skill with benefits in any industry and position.
Compare all of the aforementioned benefits to the work that needs to be completed for a student to study abroad. Applying for exchange requires very little time and is non-committal until late in the process. It typically begins in second semester of second year in preparation for exchange during third year. Luckily engineering students have the Centre for International Experience (CIE) who can help guide them on the exchange process. The entire application process is well detailed on the CIE website and requires, among other things, a short statement of purpose and budget for your time abroad. After checking out the process, many still fear things such as messing up their graduation or the prohibitive price, but from personal experience most students who go on exchange end up not having too many issues and do not regret a thing. The majority of students do not ending up taking any extra courses at UofT. Instead, they typically have an untraditional fourth year because they complete their requirements in a different order. In terms of cost, going on exchange is not as expensive as you might think and can even be cheaper than living in Toronto, especially when considering the fact that you are combining the costs of getting an education and travelling in an entirely new part of the world. Exchange opens you up to a lot of scholarships only for exchange students from the engineering Faculty, UofT, the CIE and often the destination school, which sometimes help offset any extra expenses incurred from the travel. Among other things, the fact that Toronto is already one of the most expensive places to live in the world provides enough of a reason to leave!
If this article has inspired you to take a look into international opportunities of any kind (research, PEY, summer courses), please do not hesitate to contact me or check out a CIE workshop and the newly released learningabroad.utoronto.ca website where you can find a wide array of information on the basics of learning abroad with helpful tips on the application process, upcoming events, and budgeting for exchange.