International Exchange – Get Started, See What Happens

Deep down, I think we all have that eagerness to explore and travel the world. One of the best ways to accomplish this as students is embarking on an international exchange. By doing so, you get to literally settle in another person’s shoes, walking in their country and campus whilst continuing your studies and your degree at the same time.

For each of the reasons that motivates you to apply there will also be a subtle ‘but’ to doubt yourself. I would love to go to France but I’ve forgotten all my French. It would be so amazing to meet some Swedes but I would miss my younger sister. I can’t wait to take courses at NTU but that flight is too expensive. So rather than spending this article convincing you how the pros are miles ahead of the cons, I recommend you take a “Get started and see what happens” approach.

It starts on the engineering exchange page, all the universities Waterloo has partnered with around the world. Even if you’re unbelievably afraid of leaving the country, get started and you just might see a familiar school with a friend or a classmate who’s exchanged here.

Nonetheless, Waterloo students before you have been to every university on that list. The Go Abroad Waterloo Facebook page is the next step in finding someone to connect with. Recently there was a mega post on all the destinations this year’s exchange students are currently or about to study at. I highly recommend you give that a look and reach out to any student studying at a school that interests you. With today’s instant messaging technology, all of this is easily possible across continents. Not to mention how willing current exchange students are to help those coming up.

The human surrogate model is what I’m trying to lead you in participating. The model states that the real experiences of others have been proven to be considerably better than your imagination at predicting your own future happiness.

Meaning that the experiences of an exchange student right now will be a fairly accurate reflection of your own future experience, should you undertake an exchange as well. Your mind is shouting that this can’t possibly work, because you’re a different person than they are: your studies are different, taste in food, interests as well…

To save you from an argument with Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert (although I do recommend his book: Stumbling on Happiness) the basic premise is that the two of you are both humans. Humans share an incredible amount of similarities that are rarely talked about, we tend to focus on the few differences to stand apart from one another. Happiness, excitement and general pleasure are common human emotions, if your surrogate found it at that exchange school, so will you.

You can do exchange as soon as you’re finished 2B. If you should firmly decide that you’re going abroad, and manage to narrow down the mountain of exchange universities to a select few, you’re (figuratively) halfway out of the country. The second half is more tedious, although it won’t require as much decision making.

Endless applications, Visas, accommodation, languages, getting there, exchanging currency and trying to match all of your degree courses/requirements might seem overwhelming. Not to mention all the little stuff that lingers in your mind like the people you’ll be living with, what your friends will think, how to get a phone number, medication, vaccination, constipation, nutrition and culture education.

Once you actually apply, remember not to panic. Imagine running a race of hurdles where the finish line is the final destination. Deciding to do this race was already half the battle, and there are no winners or losers. By staring down your lane, all you see are the obstacles one after another. The challenges seem insurmountable until you actually start running. Then you realize that, in between one jump to another there’s at least ten meters of breathing room.

The first step would be applying via Waterloo Passport, deadline being November 1st. from there you can choose up to three exchange universities to apply for. The Waterloo International office is located on the second floor of SCH. Any questions regarding passport should be directed to them. Furthermore, if you drop by in person and ask nicely, they might be able to let you know how many students typically apply to the school you’re interested. If you’re really lucky, based on your term averages they might also estimate your chances of being “nominated” and from there you could work out how to better your odds at finding a match.

Nominated simply means Waterloo nominates you as their student to the foreign university. This is the same as placements as you are only nominated to one university, all of this will happen around mid January. From here you have to submit an application to the school you’ve been placed at which typically requires a scanned transcript and your preliminary course selection. Generally speaking, there aren’t many reasons for the exchange university to reject you if Waterloo has nominated you as a candidate, you just need to fill out the application properly and show that you are capable of taking the courses you’ve selected.

At this point I do want to address my fellow engineering students in their course selection process. This step is usually the most difficult unless you are following someone’s exact footsteps. By that I mean, check to see if someone from your program just completed an exchange term at your selected school. If not, you’ll have to build your own timetable by matching as many foreign courses as you can to equivalents at home.

Each program of engineering has its own exchange course coordinator, make sure you confirm the following with them. For most if not every disciplines (please confirm with your discipline advisor) a 50% content match is enough for a credit back home.  The majority of courses abroad are only judged on a pass/fail and will be transferred to your Waterloo transcript as just that, no percentage grades. All you have to do is email the UW professor who has taught or is currently teaching that course which you need for your degree. Ask them to glance through the syllabus of the foreign course you want to take for a 50% content match and pre-approve in a simple email. Then you can go abroad and take that course, pass it and then bring back your lecture notes in some form to prove you learned what you needed to. Then the final approval is given and your transcript will be updated.

Just in this one step alone, a lot of things can go wrong. Remember that it’s the most tedious step and that you have some flexibility in juggling fourth year electives if you plan on exchanging in your third year. Technical electives, especially of the GENE kind outside your discipline (for example, Mechs are allowed to take two non-ME technical electives) are rather easy to pre-approve. If you have a CSEs from any list that you have not yet fulfilled those can also be matched with a course dealing with the theme of that list. Impact of technology on society in list A, business/economics in list B and humanities/social sciences in list C.

From here the tough part is over. The application you must submit to the exchange university will typically take place up to 6 months in advance from when you’re scheduled to begin your studies. One thing to look out for is which semesters certain courses are being offered and if the prerequisites they list are similar to something you’ve already taken.

Again, you are not alone in the wave of exchange students heading overseas every year. Your destination university or government will most certainly have guidelines on visa requirements, sometimes for short periods of study you won’t even need a visa. If you do need a visa however, make sure you apply early although applying late can still be possible, it’s just more expensive. Plane tickets on the other hand should be arranged early to save money, also look for various airport collection services either offered by your university or local business as many other students will be making the same trip.

Sometimes in the process, after solving one problem and encountering three more, it’s easy to lose hope and change your mind as if you never wanted to do any of this in the first place. I hope that the strength of your purpose will be strong enough and I also hope you look on the time scale. You have an entire year to sort this entire thing out. One at a time.

I believe it’s quite a testament that almost every student who has returned from an international exchange had something amazing to say about their experiences. These people are so delighted to talk about their trip that it’s almost off putting to hear the same things over and over again. Until you get started and actually look into what these foreign destinations can offer for you, people often like to think “that’s not for me, I wouldn’t enjoy that.” If all those people before you loved it, who’s to say you’ll be any different?

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