Looking for a change to the daily routine, and keen to tick off the top country on my holiday destinations list, I undertook an exchange to the University of Waterloo for their winter term. Studying mechanical engineering and commerce at UQ, I decided to focus on the engineering side of the program at uWaterloo due to their highly regarded engineering program. Entering my third year of university, I managed to find five courses at uWaterloo which would satisfy my full-time load at UQ.

 Academically, the mechanical engineering courses I studied were very challenging and involved a heavy workload, but the content was all extremely relevant and interesting. Lectures took place in small lecture theatres with approximately 60 students and had quite a ‘high school’ feel. My professors used blackboards and there are no lecture recordings, so turning up to class was pretty important, even if there was a blizzard and -200C outside! The students at uWaterloo stay with the same class group for their entire degree, so classmates become your second family. I chose courses from many different ‘streams’, which initially made it a little tough fitting in, but Canadians are super friendly and love a good Aussie accent. My professors and tutors were extremely passionate about their field of expertise, easy to talk to and accommodating with course enrolments and working around timetable clashes. Assessment was constant throughout the term, with weekly or fortnightly quizzes and assignments for most courses, plus labs, midterms and final exams. This however made things much easier at the end of the term, as constant revision eliminated any need for cramming!

The student atmosphere and involvement at Waterloo was far different from what I had ever previously experienced. There is a strong sense of school pride; whether in academia, sport or other extracurricular activities. I formed an intramural dodgeball team with other exchange students from Australia, France, Germany and the Netherlands, and also got involved with the tennis and archery clubs on campus. Some of my best memories from exchange were as a part of these teams and clubs and through them I met some amazing people who I have no doubt will be lifelong friends. 

Of course, arguably the best part of exchange is the opportunity to travel and explore during your semester. Throughout the semester, I had weekend trips with friends to Toronto, Niagara Falls and Buffalo; tried skiing, ice-skating, ice fishing and midnight tobogganing; watched live ice hockey, baseball, basketball; and visited Ottawa and Montreal during our ‘reading’ week. After final exams, I visited Quebec City, NYC, then travelled west across Canada through the prairies and Canadian Rocky Mountains to Vancouver and Victoria. Every part of this incredible country holds something breathtaking and just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s another jaw-dropping vista with pristine lakes and snowcapped peaks around the next bend. 

Glorious as winter in Canada is, the cold weather is certainly something I’d never experienced before and worth keeping in mind when choosing accommodation. Any given day, it could be freezing, snowing and windy, so living close to university is a definite bonus. The bus service around Waterloo is usually pretty good (and free for students), but if you miss your bus, the wait can get slightly unpleasant! I lived at Village 1, which is virtually on the university grounds, so my furthest class was about a 10 minute walk. As a V1 student, you purchase a meal plan with your accommodation, which can be used at the cafeteria at the residence and at most of the food courts scattered around the university. Though the fees were higher than other self-catered student accommodation, I found the convenience worth the extra dough, which is still only about half of what you’d pay at a UQ college. 

Providing a budget estimate is close to impossible, as it totally depends on what you plan to do while overseas and how fast cash tends to leave your wallet. In general, you will find accommodation cheaper than Australia and most other things like food, transport, tourist attractions and other expenses pretty similar to home. It’s worth noting that advertised prices do not include tax (which is around 13% but depends on the province) and tips are expected for most services. I found that my residence meal plan was usually sufficient to keep my stomach satisfied (with the occasional treat of Vegemite), so I could save most of my cash for sightseeing and skiing.

Exchange is a continuous learning experience and most things you will quickly figure out for yourself, but if I could give five suggestions:

  • Keep up to date with your university work to allow for spontaneous weekend trips. Last minute escapades are one of the most thrilling parts of your exchange experience, so you don’t want that unfinished lab report or test you haven’t studied for getting in the way of a once in a lifetime opportunity.
  • Make Canadian friends, not just other exchange students from Australia. Trust me, you will not be the only Aussie in Canada! Our similar personalities make Canada a very popular choice for exchange students, so be careful not to take the easy route and glue yourself to other Aussies. Sure, make Aussie friends along the way, but the best way to experience Canada is to make Canadian friendships! I found the best way for this outside of class was to join clubs, where you’ll meet Canadians with similar interests.
  • Winter sport is a huge part of the Canadian lifestyle and something I truly recommend embracing. I loved watching ice hockey, and you really should see a live game! Even if it’s not a major league game, the Kitchener Rangers are the local team and bring a fantastic atmosphere to the stadium! Trying skiing or snowboarding is a definite must. There is a local ski hill called Chicopee, and although it’s very small compared to the giants in Quebec and BC, they have excellent beginner lessons and it’s also much cheaper.
  • Leave all winter shopping until you arrive in Canada! By all means, take a jumper and jeans for the trip from the airport to shopping mall, but spending countless hours and dollars trawling through ‘winter clothes’ shops for warm gear isn’t worth it. Hold off until you reach the Canadian shopping malls, where you will find much warmer clothes in many more style at a quarter of the price.
  • Try Tim Hortons. They are essentially a coffee and doughnut franchise found on almost every street – they have four stores on the uWaterloo campus alone! Fresh cheap food and hot drinks (plus free WiFi) to warm you up on a cold winter’s morning. In my opinion, the double-double is their best coffee their Canadian maple doughnut is delectable.
  • All in all, I can’t encourage you enough to apply for exchange. It was an incredible experience and one you’ll never regret!

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