L. Coates, ‘The Canadian Experience’

Author: Lucy Coates

The Canadian Experience

As a twenty year old with little to no experience of moving too far past Glasgow, making the leap of studying on the West coast of Canada was a bold move – and one of the greatest decisions of my life.
I have always been driven by a love of travel and exploration, but I am similarly drawn to home comforts; and the University of British Columbia catered to both. Vancouver has been described as a “liquid city”; the floor to ceiling windows of downtown sparkle with the reflection of its surrounding water, and the mild and rain-prone Pacific Northwest climate made a city almost 4,400 miles from Glasgow feel like home. The city is lined with beaches boasting views of neighbouring mountains and the world-renowned ski slopes, hiking trails and waterfalls nestled amongst them. All of this, plus the friendly, accepting and extremely diverse residents of the city meant that it felt immediately welcomed into Canada with open arms.

Adjusting to life at UBC
The bigger initial challenges were found within settling into university life, however, it wasn’t long before my mind was put at ease. The UBC Vancouver campus hosts more than 44,000 students (almost double that of the University of Glasgow), on land spanning 993 acres. On the whole, being overwhelmed by the size of the university was the hardest adjustment to make, but was quickly remedied by the similarly warm and sociable student body. My Vancouverite classmates were true to the friendly Canadian stereotype, and my fellow exchange students became like a family. Having supportive classmates also made adjusting to the Canadian academic system that bit easier. In contrast with Glasgow, I found it to be more focussed on contact hours than independent study, with a much closer and casual relationship with our lecturers. As a joint honours student in Law and Business Management, I was exposed to different learning styles; while Law reflected the similar style of semester/year end examination (albeit open book and a lot less formal than at home), the Business school made use of pop quizzes, group work and midterms, which meant that the grade was much more cumulative. Differences in the structure of teaching and its effect a student’s learning is completely subjective, but I found that this system worked well as a way of keeping me focussed and my grades benefitted as a result.

Travelling: Opportunities and Practicalities
The Exchange Student Club (ESC) ran multiple events each week, including club nights, ice skating at the university’s own hockey arena, and travel opportunities. With the club we were given the chance to explore places such as Revelstoke, Victoria, Tofino, Whistler, and places south of the border such as Seattle and Portland.  Travelling is strongly encouraged, and there are many options open to you around the area, however public transport (such as cross-country train networks, as opposed to transport within the metro area) does not exist in the same way it does in Europe, making journeys often long and/or expensive to make – however they can be done on a budget, and each experience was worth every minute.

Being on exchange for only a single semester meant that my budget for frequent travelling may have been slightly larger than those there for a full year, but with Vancouver being an expensive city and still being required to live on a typical or slightly tighter student budget in day to day life, saving money wherever possible was of huge benefit. Advice in this field is mostly generic, don’t spend too much on things you don’t need to, and enjoy the price and social aspect of staying in hostels.

When I arrived in Vancouver I brought two big suitcases, and found the need to buy a cheap case from Amazon that was easier to bring on smaller trips that required more than just a rucksack of clothes (such as a ski break). However, I found this to be too much towards the end of the trip, while I appreciated having extra storage to bring my belongings home with me, I found that the cost of storage of the cases even in the short term outweighed the benefits. It taught me that less is more, you can buy smaller items while on exchange, and that even (or especially) in moving, overpacking can be a burden.

Everyday Logistics
While travelling I found it cheaper and more efficient to change my UK phone plan to include a “passport” which allowed me to use my phone as I would at home across North America, rather than just in Canada, and as normal when I returned home. However, if my time in the country had been longer, it would have been better to set up a new phone plan in Canada – which tended to be the most popular option amongst other exchange students. Similarly, I refrained from setting up a bank account and used cash passports such as Monzo, which allow you to use your UK bank account without transaction and exchange fees. Had I had a job it may have been easier to set up a Canadian account in order to receive payment. Credit cards are highly encouraged due to practicality and for insurance reasons, flights to Vancouver can be expensive and it may be the best option while booking trips back and forth from various places.
Words of Advice
Starting life anywhere new is tricky, regardless of how long it is for. The advice I received before I left is what I would maintain in hindsight; put yourself out there. This meant not just throwing yourself into new social situations, but exploring, pushing your comfort zones, and generally making the most of every minute.
Additional advice I would give from personal experience would include:
– Making local friends. They have insight on the area and can show you hidden gems that you wouldn’t have had a chance of discovering otherwise. They are also likely to have a means of transport that isn’t public which can help get to places typically out of reach. They can also show you what every day looks like for those outside of the exchange “bubble”, they are more likely to show you the best in local foods, have you experience a rush at Tim Horton’s and show you the best places to try poutine.
– Doing your research, and put it to use. Vancouver is cheaper than California when it comes to filming, meaning that a lot of your favourite film and TV shows were likely filmed within the area, and filming locations are never too far away. If that wouldn’t be your thing, look for something else, there is something for everyone.
– Get off of campus! UBC has so much to offer at your doorstep if you are living close by, and it’s all too easy to stay put and still feel like you are fulfilling your time – but you are missing out on so much else the city has to offer. Vancouver being so culturally diverse means that it is home to amazing food and nightlife options. One of the greatest features of the city is its array of Asian cuisine, much better both in quality and price than anything available in the UK. Close-by Kitsilano is a hub for fashion, fitness, and a thriving coffeeshop culture. Gastown, while the tourist hub of Downtown, is beautiful, decked in stunning lights, an old steam clock, and a number of bars offering entertainment every night of the week, everything from live music to comedy.
– Remedying homesickness by looking for something to bring you back home. For me, this was a monthly ceilidh held at the Scottish Cultural Centre. Not only was this a fun way to get to know people of so many different cultural backgrounds, and a great way to exercise, I got to hear from Scots that had lived in the city for over 50 years talk about how they fell in love with the mountains and the people in the same way I did, reinforcing how grateful I was to be in one of the most wonderful places that I’d had the chance to visit, let alone live.

Exchange changed my entire perspective, it made me a more confident person, and it made the world seem so much wider, and yet like everything was in reach. In the space of 4 months I saw my first hockey match (and got hit by a hockey puck during it), had my first ski lesson in the Rockies, went dog sledding, saw a laser show in Seattle, rode on the back of a motorbike, baked cakes with new friends from all over the globe, and so much more. It’s something that pushed so many personal boundaries, and the result was an enriched education, friends for life, and a new home on the other side of the world.


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