Semester abroad – Interview of an exchange student

When it comes to travelling, Ava is the best at it. Having already lived in the US and New Zealand, last year, she did her internship in Brazil and went to Colombia for a short vacation. When she heard about the ORA student exchange program, it was a given she would try and apply. The ORA program (which stands for Ontario-Rhônes-Alpes), offers less than 65 spots to Rhônes-Alpes student to study in a participating university in Ontario. Her choice? The university of Ottawa. Since she was the only applicant from Polytech Grenoble, but also thanks to her grades and her motivation, she was chosen to study there for one semester.

L’université d’Ottawa où Ava a pu partir en échange étudiant pour un semestre
© University of Ottawa

What motivated you to study abroad ?

I’m not fond of the French school : you’re forced to choose most of the time. For instance, when I was in high school, I had to choose between literature, sciences, or economy, and I hated that experience. Since I have studied in the US, I have experienced the Northern American way of teaching and learning: I already knew how it worked and I knew I prefer it. When I had the chance to live this experience again, I decided I would go for it.

The hardest part was not to get her application accepted, but to find a room not far from the university. The number of rooms in student housing is very restricted when it comes to international students. Although she had applied early, she did not manage to get housed by the university and had to find a room thanks to a Facebook group – PVTiste at Ottawa – the day right before the start of school. After 2 months of search, you can imagine it’s not easy to find a room from afar.

In any case, it didn’t quench her thirst for an experience abroad. Mainly, her ability to make friends so easily remained the same.

How did you manage to fit in with the other students?

I am a very social person, so it was not very complicated. I was forced to say no to some social activities, at times, because my boyfriend was in Montreal and my cousin lived there too. It was kind of hard to have to say no.

What could strike the most when studying in a Canadian university is the impressive diversity. Amongst others, Ava met a girl from Iran who shared about her culture, which is often misinterpreted when living in the Western world. She also got to study with Indian and Chinese people, and found her classes rarely attracted Canadian natives, apart from her biology class.

What surprised you most about Canadians?

They always wear their heart on their sleeve. One day, when I was playing Pokemon Go, people thought I was lost and tried to help. Plus, they are so spontaneous, and always live in the moment. When I visited Niagara Falls, I asked a woman to check on my stuff while I went to the bathroom. I talked to her in French and a woman she didn’t know began chatting with her. When I went back, it was like they were best friends. They connected instantly. It’s so incredible to see people be so joyful all the time, so it makes the list of things I appreciated the most. Another thing struck me when I arrived, but it’s about Canada in general: the cold!  

Other than Montréal and Ottawa, did you get to travel and visit other cities?

I got to visit Chambly, a small town which is 40 minutes away from Montreal. It’s a touristic town where my cousin lives, although it’s pretty calm most of the time. I had the opportunity to go to Niagara Falls. I wanted to go to Quebec City but I didn’t have the time. It was the first Canadian city I discovered when I went to Canada four years ago and I really meant to go back there. What’s important when travelling is to set one’s choices and priorities and I decided to go to Montreal often to visit my boyfriend.

Apart from that, the end of term can become intense when it comes to exams and homework. Hence, deciding to travel at the start of term and stay put at the end is a wiser choice than planning a big trip around Ontario days away from finals.

Canada’s federal parliaments during the summer

The benefits of studying abroad also reside in an improvement in speaking and understanding the language of the visited region. As for Ava, she didn’t notice much improvement because she had been practicing English for a very long time. However, it should not deter other students who struggle with English or other languages from attempting to have similar experience.

As Ava insists, “To improve your English you need to speak. Ottawa is a bilingual city so it’s possible to find people who speak French”. For people who are afraid to go in too deep, Ottawa can then be an interesting way to be fully immersed while being able to fall back on French-speaking friends. “Don’t be scared to talk and don’t be shy, especially in front of native speakers. Nobody has a perfect English; you need to overcome that fear”

What were the downsides of such a big trip?

There weren’t many downsides. I would just mention the price of the roundtrip from France to Canada. Aside from that, I did not miss my friends more than usual because I study in Grenoble and they live in Paris. I’m also used to being away from my family (who live in New Caledonia), and it turns out, a 17-hour difference is better tolerated than 8-hour difference!

What advice would you give to students who want to study abroad?

I would tell them to go ahead, to not be scared! Use this opportunity because it can only be a good experience. You’ll discover so much about yourself. In fact, you’ll discover as much about yourself as about the country you’re visiting.

As for her future, Ava is not sure where wants to work and live. “There are so many countries I need to visit before being able to make that decision”, she says with a chuckle. She does want to go back to Canada, however, but “not to live there because it’s incredibly cold!”. If we take out that part of the equation, she asserts she would spend her entire life there because it is an amazing country.

From visiting a country to adoring it, the experience of studying abroad stands out as a way to discover oneself and learning about the different cultures it is home to. If studies abroad are a part of you project, I’ll cite Ava and say: do not hesitate and go for it!