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(Photo courtesy of Yufel Wang)

McGill’s exchange experience

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As the new semester begins, the McGill community welcomes exchange students here to study for the Winter semester. Exchange students who studied at McGill last semester reflected upon their time here, while also offering advice for this semester’s newcomers.

Helena McNish, a student from the University of Edinburgh, said that she and her fellow exchange students were able to integrate themselves in the McGill environment through clubs and sports teams regardless of their status as temporary McGill students. McNish joined a choir, which meant that she could meet native McGill students and form circles of friends separate from the exchange students she lived with.

McNish said her exchange experience was heightened by McGill’s welcoming environment.

“Everyone seemed really excited to be here and excited about what they’re doing, which is especially great for exchange students,” she said.

Caitlin Scolyer-Gray, an Arts student from the University of Melbourne, echoed the welcoming attitude of McGill’s students.

“People at McGill seem very friendly, interesting, cultured, and really involved in the campus and university community life,” Scolyer-Gray said.

For some, a welcoming and friendly atmosphere is an essential resource to have when moving across the world. Certain McGill groups like the McGill International Student Network (MISN) provide services to help exchange students settle into their temporary home.

In particular, MISN organizes social events that are open to international, exchange, and non-exchange students alike. As one of the biggest student organizations funded by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), it gives students the opportunity to engage with and fully embrace all that is Montreal and McGill. Their events this past semester have included Restaurant Week, where groups visited a different Montreal restaurant every day, skydiving just outside Montreal, as well as pub-crawls around the city. MISN also seeks to help students explore other parts of Canada and the United States, with trips to Quebec City, New York City, Niagara Falls, and Boston.

For exchange and international students, MISN is a great way to not only participate in exciting and relatively non-expensive trips, but to also socialize and meet friends. Armins Palos, a management student from Lyon, France, remarked that his friend group from McGill was largely made through the MISN.

“My favourite memory on exchange [was definitely] going skydiving,” Palos said. “It was something completely out of my comfort zone, and it was an incredible experience.

Another useful service offered by McGill for exchange students is the Off-Campus Fellows program, which McNish says was a useful resource during her first weeks at McGill.

“When I first got here, we had a day where we got into groups, played games in [Parc] Jeanne-Mance, and walked around Montreal to get a sense of the city,” she said. “It was all done in groups, which was a great way to talk to people. Frosh was fun, but these activities were more useful.”

These resources are useful in addressing issues that many international students—and non-exchange students as well—may face, such as homesickness. Scolyer-Gray remarked that missing family and friends was an obstacle she had to overcome, and was especially daunting when living so far from home.

“I would tell [exchange students] to just take every day as it comes, to not get down on themselves if they feel homesick, to be open to all sorts of new experiences, and to try their best to make the most of their time in Montreal,” Scolyer-Gray said. “[Also]. try to get some travelling done on the weekends.”

According to Hayat Hobbi, MISN’s VP Finance, there are many resources available for exchange students. The Fellowship Program and the Buddy Program are just two of McGill’s many resources. McGill also has a counselling service and a Mental Health clinic located in the Brown Student Services Building. MISN’s office in the SSMU building is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., where an executive is always able to chat and work through issues, ranging from homesickness to difficulties with plane tickets and phone bills.

On a logistical level, another struggle for many exchanging students was finding accommodation that fit their preferred lifestyle and budget.

McNish remarked that McGill housing administration can be frustrating, because those who wish to live in McGill residences are often given ambiguous offers as late as June. She found it easier to live in the Varcity515, a student residence that offers fully-furnished, utility-included, shared apartments with two to four roommates. With this service, she was able to book her accommodation in advance and find comfort in an assured living space when she arrived at McGill in the fall.

Other students, such as Palos, who also noted the difficult accommodation situation, turned to companies like Sherpal, which acts as a middle-man between international students and landlords. Students are grouped with other international students, and take a full-day tour of over 20 apartments where they have the opportunity to sign leases on the same day. According to Palos, he found this service useful not only due to its ability to provide apartments; the social aspect of the process created a great way to meet roommates, and was in fact how he found his current roommates. As a member of the MISN, Palos is looking into creating a partnership between MISN and Sherpal in the upcoming semester.

Aside from finding accommodation, another struggle can be acclimatizing to the Montreal weather. However, despite the harsh cold of the city, advice from last semester’s exchange students included taking advantage of Montreal’s beautiful scenery and cultural life.

“Montreal is a beautiful city with great food, culture and a fantastic nightlife,” Scolyer-Gray said. “I think Old Port is the most picturesque part, but Mount Royal is also beautiful, and everything was gorgeous during the fall.”

Exchange is a great way to challenge oneself by being immersed in a foreign environment, meeting people from across the world, and perhaps even learning a new language. While things like the food or the weather may take some time to get used to, most exchange students agree that the memories, friends, and lessons learned made it definitely worthwhile. However, it is the effort that one puts in to discover the Montreal and McGill community that defines the experience for many exchange students. With the plethora of opportunities available for exchange students, a new semester is the perfect opportunity to create memorable and life-changing moments within McGill and Montreal.

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