Studying abroad enriches the lives of students from across Canada

By Julia Skikavich
Special to

"It definitely leaves your mind more open than it was before," says Anna Gori, a second-year student at the University of Guelph-Humber, who spent a year studying abroad at the University of Pisa.

"I learned a lot about the differences between Canada and Italy," she says. "It's important to be aware that there is a world outside of North America that is very different. That has a different way of life and totally different thought processes, views and opinions."

It is that kind of eye-opening experience that exchange and study abroad programs at colleges and universities across Canada are striving to provide to their students.

The programs available are as varied as the cultures that hopeful students with the travel bug want to encounter overseas.

The Canadian University Study Abroad Program partners the University of British Columbia, Dalhousie University, McGill University, Queen's University, University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario and the University of Victoria to provide the International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle in the United Kingdom.

All students working towards their undergraduate degree at one of the universities have the opportunity to attend "the Castle" in England while receiving credits from Queen's University. The program is divided into a first-year and an upper-year program that generally caters to arts students, but also has some opportunities for students studying engineering.

The small campus caps class sizes at 30 students and provides a close-knit rural setting.

To top off the program, the courses are designed to give students the chance to explore British and European political, economic and cultural issues, by incorporating field trips to locations such as York, Edinburgh, Brussels, Paris, Oxford and Stonehenge as part of the curriculum.

"The most beneficial aspect of studying at the Castle is the opportunity to really learn outside of a textbook," says Angela Ball, a psychology student at Queen's University, who attended Herstmonceux in her first year. "Having the opportunity to see places like Vimy Ridge or study art history at the Louvre give you a more meaningful and memorable academic experience."

The idea of having a campus for students to attend their own university in another country isn't just contained to the Study Abroad Program. Memorial University of Newfoundland also hosts Harlow campus in the United Kingdom.

Like Herstmonceux, the campus allows students to earn credits in areas such as arts, visual arts, theatre and business while also providing internships in education, social work, engineering and computer science.

The small historic campus is located between London and Cambridge, with residences able to house up to 41 students. The intimidate surroundings allow students to get the most out of their courses and co-op placements.

On Harlow's Web site, Janine Foley, an education student says, "This has been the most amazing three months of my life. The people here have been fantastic. They have made me feel at home. If you ever have the opportunity to come, take it, you won't regret it."

However, some students say there are drawbacks to studying at a Canadian university on an international campus.

"You don't get the direct cultural and personal interaction with the culture that you might elsewhere," says Ball.

Some students prefer to have that fully integrated experience.

"You have to be courageous to submerge yourself in a culture that is different from what you're use to," says Gori.

That submersion in culture is exactly what Pam Wong, a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University, hopes to experience when she departs for a summer exchange in the Netherlands in April.

"I'm hoping to get a new perspective," says Wong. "I think you learn so much from each place you visit - much more than anything you can learn in a book."

Wong is taking part in the European Union-Canada Exchange, which brings together Carleton University, Concordia University, Université Laval and Ryerson University with higher education institutes in Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Labelled as trans-Atlantic exchange, 84 students from all participating countries and universities will have the opportunity to attend classes at partner institutions over a period of three years.

The program was created in response to the attacks of September 11 and organizers hope it will allow students to gain a greater capacity to see and engage with other people and cultures.

Directed at journalism and mass communications students, the exchange is open to third- and fourth-year students.

Though Wong knows credits from the exchange may not be transferred back to her home university - a frustration many students who take credits at an international university experience - she says she is looking forward to experiencing a new culture.

"The experience is worth more than the credits."

Sometimes the experiences the students gain while overseas are exactly what their home university wants them bring back to Canada. While some exchanges are designed specifically to give students the opportunity to study abroad, others are part of larger international research projects.

The Canada-China G7 University Partnership joins the University of British Columbia, McGill University, University of Toronto and the Université de Montréal with three universities in China in what their Web site labels as "mutually beneficial activities in the pursuit of excellence."

Established in May 1994, the 10-year partnership is focused on exchanges that enhance research collaboration opportunities in the areas of environment management, biotechnology, law and public management, and economic development.

Based on a similar idea, the Canada-European Community Program for Co-operation in Higher Education and Training has also launched a new program in association with Mount Royal College.

The program is scheduled to begin in September 2004 and will allow for exchanges in applied computer information and business. The focus of the exchange is to further develop courses focusing on computer network and security.

For students attending Mount Royal, there will be study opportunities available in Finland, Germany and Spain as part of an effort to develop a parallel curriculum between the countries. Students participating in the exchange will have a wider selection of courses available to them while having a life-changing study opportunity.

Students who have studied abroad seem to agree that it is an experience that can change one's life.

"I did it to broaden my view of the world," says Gori, "and it did. It taught me not to take things for granted."

Ball agrees. "I'd recommend it to any other student."

Almost every university and college offers exchange and study abroad programs. Students interested in spending a year abroad should contact their university to explore the opportunities available to them and to make sure they understand the implications and benefits such an experience could have on their post-secondary career.

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Modified on April 23, 2009