I’ve been writing this blog to keep track of where I’ve been, who I’ve met and what I’ve been up to while on exchange. I write to have somewhere to keep a record for myself, but I am also always keen to share my stories with whoever is willing to listen; which makes this blog the perfect forum for both myself and any other wander lusts out there who are interested in reading about what I have to say. But even better than reading about my experience would be to enjoy and live the experience yourself. I think that anyone who has the opportunity to go on exchange should do so. As terrifying as it may seem to leave everything and everyone behind to live and study in a foreign country, the people that you will meet and the things that you will see will make every scary and unknown moment a thousand times worth it.
For those of you who are thinking of applying for exchange, I say: just do it! I was slowly working through the application process this time last year with the sense that it couldn’t hurt to apply – and I’ve never regretted that decision. Applications were due at the beginning of December, which seemed stressful because I had exams and papers to deal with, but despite how daunting the application process appeared, it really wasn’t bad at all. The hardest part for me was choosing where to study; there are so many schools throughout so many countries that are willing to host international students, that choosing where you’d like to study can seem awfully daunting. Your home university likely has a database of what schools you can apply to, and the internet can also answer many of your questions about where to study abroad. What worked best for me was talking to people who had been on exchange, and then deciding wether or not I wanted to have a similar experience. I knew I wanted to be in Europe, and by going to France I knew I would be able to practice and improve my French, so here I am – one year later, sitting in my apartment in Lyon.
So what about the rest of the application process? At Carleton University, back where I call home, you need to be in your second year or above, and you need a CGPA of 7.0 or higher. Once you’ve established those criteria, you should attend an exchange meeting (set up by our International Student Services Office) so that you have a better idea of what you’re getting into financially and academically, and then you can start the nittier and grittier aspects of the application. The only part of the application process that takes any real effort is getting two academic references, but after two years of University, there are probably at least two professors who would be willing to write a letter if you ask them nicely – some of them will probably even be excited for you to have such an awesome opportunity! The last step is to fill in the application form with some basic information about yourself, and then drop it off at the International Student Services Office with the $65.00 application fee. And then you wait…
I didn’t hear back about whether I got accepted as an exchange student until early March, even though we had been told we’d hear in February. I had convinced myself that I hadn’t been accepted, which made the good news that much more exciting! So if you don’t hear as early as you expect to, be patient – the good news may still be on the way. You will come to learn that waiting is a common theme as an exchange student.
I spent most of the spring waiting to get my acceptance letter from my exchange University, Université Jean Moulin (UJM), but once I got that I could start planning my life in France. The first thing I did was to buy my flights out because I wanted to get them as cheap as possible, but I know a lot of people who waited much closer to the date because they were still solidifying plans. My class orientation started August 29, so I flew out of Canada on the 25th and I had moved into my apartment by the 27th. As for accommodation, how easy it is to get depends entirely on what school you go to. For a fee of about 300€, UJM helped me find an apartment to live in. They don’t have on-campus residences like the do back at Carleton, but you can choose to live in either private residences (more expensive, but generally bigger, nicer and cleaner), CROUS residences (smaller, cheaper and much less glamorous) or you can live with a host family. I chose to live in a private residence. In July I picked my top three choices, and then heard back about a month later with the apartment that had been chosen for me. I unfortunately didn’t get any of my choices because all my top picks had been filled, but I really like the apartment that I got placed in. I also know some people who came to France with no accommodation set up, and just lived in hostels until they figured out where to live, and that worked out pretty well for most of them. It can become difficult to find a place when you get here though because non-EU citizens need to have a European guarantor to co-sign an apartment lease, so if you are not European and/or don’t have any European friends or family willing to vouch for you, it may be wiser to find somewhere to live before leaving home.
As for school, that will also depend on where you end up studying. I didn’t make any decisions about classes until I came to France, but I know that isn’t how it works for everyone on exchange. I know that not knowing what to expect can be stressful, but if you choose to go on exchange, you’ll come to learn that things generally work out, even if you miss a deadline or forget to fill in a form along the way.
The longest and most tedious process for going on exchange is the Visa application Not all countries require it, but France does. There is a long check list of documents and photocopies that you’ll need to provide, which took me about a month to pile together. Just to list a few things you need: Passport, two Visa-sized photos, proof that you will have enough money to life in France, proof that you can pay to get back into Canada, health insurance, etc. I was terrified to just send my passport and all my original documents to the French consulate in Toronto, but I got them all back, and once I sent in the necessary documents, I had my Visa back within two weeks.
After that, all you really need to do is pack your bags and hop on that plane to your foreign destination! I must admit, it honestly did not hit me that I was going to live in a new country until the moment I arrived in my hotel on August 26th. All summer my friends and family would ask me if I was nervous, excited, scared, etc. and I honestly didn’t know how to answer them. I went through the various steps of preparing myself for exchange, but I always felt strangely emotionless about the experience. I guess I just didn’t know how to feel about it – it was such a foreign idea for me, to just leave everything behind and start a new mini-life in a new country. But my lack of emotion during this past summer has been outdone by the hundreds of emotions that I have felt since then. It can sometimes get hard to be away from home and my loved ones, and you can sometimes find yourself in stressful or scary situations – but the bad is always outdone by the good. The amount of laughs I have had, the friends I have made, the things I have seen, and the places I have been all outweigh any homesickness I have ever felt.
So get out there, see the world, make amazing friends, and get University credit while you’re at it! It’s been amazing for me so far, and I wish everyone had this same opportunity. Travelling has taught me more than anything I have ever learned in a classroom or in a book – step out of your comfort zone and see the world!
P.S. For those of you who may be reading this as Carleton University students, you can find out more about the application process here: http://www1.carleton.ca/isso/international-opportunities/exchange/