Backpack travels through Europe

A Western student on exchange in England shares her experience

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

France

How is it possible to spend your weekends exploring castles, speaking Singlish or hiking glaciers, without putting off your degree?

Or for that matter, biking on the coast of Ireland, clubbing at 5 a.m. in Spain or swilling lager in a German biergarten â€" all the while studying at a world-renowned university?

I am extremely lucky to have gone on a year-long exchange this year to the University of Leeds, in West Yorkshire, England, from where I’m writing this.

Perhaps it’s cliché, but this year has been revelatory: I have spent the most dynamic, interesting seven months of my life living, studying and traveling with new classmates and friends while keeping up with my media, information and technoculture and English degree at Western. While the idea of an exchange being an eye-opening experience is not new, my life will still never be the same after my year abroad.

Though the fantasy of backpacking through Europe is the most alluring part of an exchange, the reality is that as an international student, you’re at university to study. After the exciting first few weeks, it sinks in that Othello is not going to read itself and the daily routine begins.

Happily, the timetable is less stressful than at home and the party week is much longer (i.e. all week), so once your last lecture is over and your meeting for the Bongo-Playing Society or Hitchhiking to Morocco Club has concluded, it’s onto the night’s activities at one or more of Leeds’ hundreds of pubs and clubs.

As Johanna Donovan, a McGill University exchange student at Leeds, says, “It’s about taking advantage of your time on a different continent as well as benefiting from what a different university has to offer.

“Somehow the busier you are, the better you work. After playing hard, you don’t mind working so hard.”

Edinburgh

For those looking for academic reputation abroad, the possibilities for cutting-edge programs are endless. Studying your subject from a different perspective is invaluable and the chance to network with students and professors from all over the world creates incredible opportunities.

Often these connections extend to traveling as well: many new international friends urge you to visit them in their home countries as you excitedly insist the same.

Between camping on Indonesian beaches and riding elephants in Thailand, Western science and current National University of Singapore student Lauren MacPhail notes the instant friendships.

“One of the best parts of this trip is making friends with people from all over the world,” she says. “We all have so much in common and get along great, no matter where you’re from or what language you speak at home.”

I agree. In fact, studying abroad gave me a new perspective on my own country. Even with Canada’s positive reputation, it still has its mysteries. When called on to explain something unexpected about Canada, I had to think on my feet. What exactly was the political context around the 1995 Quebec referendum and why does beer go so well with pancakes? And the most popular question: what is Canada really like, anyway?

Being reminded so much of home by eager questioners complicates an otherwise fantastic experience. Amidst the fun of living abroad, there are patches of acute homesickness.

Italy

How could there not be? No matter how familiar the culture, it is still scary the first time you are seriously ill or the first time you get lost on the sleazier side of Paris and realize how far away home is.

But for me, the inevitable pre-departure uncertainty disappeared as soon as I said goodbye to my family at the airport. And it turned out that even though I was not entirely prepared, I could â€" to my surprise â€" adapt.

Even this, however, did not prepare me for the thrill of backpacking. Traveling is addictive â€" a constant stimulation of new sights, sounds and experience that cannot be duplicated in any emails back home.

Before I left, I could never have predicted the dizzying variety of places I would see. Mental snapshots of Michelangelo’s David, hillside villas on the Côte d’Azur, bullet-riddled buildings in Berlin and the seaside blue of Barcelona flash by when I least expect it, inspiring plans for my next adventure.

With over 5,000 international students attending Leeds and just over 2,000 at Western, both schools are leading the current surge in overseas studies. Hopefully more and more students will continue to take advantage of the wide range of academic partners that Western’s exchange program offers.

But a trip through Eastern Europe, a weekend in Iceland and a final term of classes beckon. The adventure is not over yet â€" and after this year, it may never end.

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