I really wanted to write this blog to give anyone thinking about studying abroad at U of T some kind of breakdown of the academic system and the differences to expect in academic culture. The most notable difference between Lancaster and U of T is simply the fact that the volume of work here is much greater than Lancaster. Prior to departure I was told to expect more homework by my study abroad advisor which I can now confirm was an understatement. During the first semester the workload was sometimes overwhelming and it took a while to make the adjustment. Weeks without deadlines are very sporadic and I will almost always have some kind of work due each week whether it is a homework assignment, an essay or revision for a quiz. There are positives to this since you tend to spend less time revising for exams because you are learning more continuously as opposed to just cramming everything in last minute. However it can get pretty brutal especially around finals.
In the winter semester I did find the adjustment particularly difficult since I obviously needed to complete the work to a good standard but I also knew the importance of maintaining a social life. The strange thing about U of T is that the actual work itself I would argue is easier than back at Lancaster, it is just much more frequently handed out. Exams here are so much more relaxed than at Lancaster which is really nice and most of my midterms were done in tutorial with a much more chilled atmosphere than I was expecting. I am no stranger to spending 5 minutes at the beginning of an exam freaking out before I eventually settle down but here I have been surprisingly relaxed in exam situations which has made them slightly less intimidating. Much like my first year at Lancaster final exams typically constitute about 40% of a module’s overall mark which is nice and coursework, assignments and midterms typically make up the rest.
As a second year student from Lancaster my year abroad is worth half of my degree. Whenever I tell other exchange students this they seem quite shocked. This is because many of my friends here from the exchange student community either do the year as an optional year abroad where it doesn’t count towards their degree or it is worth somewhere around the 20% mark. I must admit I am slightly jealous of these students who can afford to relax a bit more. Anyway, I just wanted to inform potential exchange students of what academic differences to expect so they do not come as too much of a shock. Despite the high workload there is always plenty of time to socialize and have fun as long as you make a conscious effort to do so and stay involved. It is not all so bad!
As a student in linguistics I am aware of the language situation in Canada. Canada has two official languages, French and English; however English dominates in almost all Canadian provinces with the exception of Québec. During reading week I spent four nights in Québec skiing with U of T’s Ski club as I thought it would be nice to get away from the city for a bit. I tried my best to speak French- the local language while I was there. We visited Québec City which is a really beautiful city and while there we ate traditional Québécois food in a really nice restaurant in the old town. My friends and I gave French a good go for the most part. I studied French at GCSE level and in the first year at university so I am reasonable at speaking although I struggle with listening quite a lot.
I think it is nice to give it a try and I am certain that our waitress appreciated the effort. For a native English speaker it would be so easy to just speak English as practically everyone in Québec seems to have some kind of Bilingual capacity in both English and French. However I felt bad doing so in a province which shows such a strong preference for the French language. People in Québec are really proud to be French Canadian which you soon become aware of with the never-ending presence of the Fleurdelisé. I feel English people, me included can be quite bad with this. Although sometimes we simply lack the knowledge of the language, we could certainly make a bit more effort. I think French people; specifically French Canadians in this case appreciate you giving their language a try. I remember in my first week in Toronto I tried speaking French almost jokingly to a French girl that I live with and she really enjoyed it. It is a nice thing when someone makes the effort to speak to you in your own language even if you are not the best speaker.
Things literally as simple as going to the local store and saying ‘bonjour’ to the shop assistant and ‘merci’ goes some way towards doing this. After all most of the language used in everyday contexts such as restaurants, shops and bars is really simple to acquire and requires little thought. French is also a really cool language to speak so you might as well give it a go. I think living in Toronto has made me quite determined to learn another language since in some of my classes it seems as though I am the only person with no multilingual capacity. During one of my lectures before Christmas my teacher did a survey to establish the range of languages spoken by people in our lecture. There was 20+ languages spoken in total and monolingual students such as me were undoubtedly in the minority, which is really cool in a way but it can make you feel slightly inferior.
1.My name. The amount of times I have introduced myself to a Canadian as Dan and someone has not understood is actually amazing. In fact I met some guys in a bar in my first week here and until corrected they thought my name was Donald. Canadians or perhaps more specifically Torontonians use a completely different vowel sound for my name and nowadays I end up putting on an embarrassingly bad Canadian accent so that people can understand. In Starbucks on more than one occasion I have adopted the pseudonym ‘Keith’ to make things easier.
2.No drinks past 2am. Nowadays I am not the most avid partier, that wore off a while ago near the end of first year but it is still strange that nights end so much earlier here. One solution, just start earlier!
3.The cold. Luckily we have got really lucky with the weather so far. By December it is usually always under 0°C but it was relatively mild. January and February are the coldest months but the other week it was 15°C which is really warm for February and it has been tolerable with a few exceptions. However as I am writing this post it is -20°C outside, so yeah, it doesn’t look like we are going to completely get away with it. I am heading to Quebec tomorrow skiing which is further north so that is going to be brutal but it is all part of the full Canadian experience!
4.The provincial tax. I’m sorry Canada but no, this is just confusing and makes zero sense to me. In stores the prices displayed don’t include provincial tax which is like 13% which can get annoying but I am of course familiar with this now.
5.Work load. University of Toronto is a great university and I enjoy my modules but the workload, especially around finals time, can be pretty overwhelming. Last semester it took me close to the brink and being 50% of my degree I must admit it did get very stressful at times but I made it! Luckily for me I only have to do 4 modules each semester but many of the other exchange students have to take 5. I honestly think that if I did 5 I would have serious trouble balancing studying with my social life so I was definitely lucky in that respect.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Toronto so far and the city itself is great. It has a good transport system that allows you to get around the city easily. This was particularly helpful for me since I had to commute to the Scarborough campus for one module once a week. I noticed some of the other exchange students saying it was expensive but you pay per trip so when I went to the Scarborough campus it was $3 there and $3 back which for a journey that was slightly over an hour I thought was really cheap. You can also get a TTC (Toronto Transit Communication) pass which gives you access to the subway, streetcars and buses in the Greater Toronto Area for about $110 a month. They all run really regularly from Monday to Saturday from 6am to 1:30am but Sundays are slightly shorter hours. However I just payed per trip since I walk to university and didn’t think I would get good value out of the pass.
In Toronto there are the popular and iconic attractions such as the CN tower, The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Islands and Casa Loma which are all really cool and definitely worth visiting. But there are also lots of really cool areas within the city like Little Italy, Chinatown, St Lawrence Market, The Distillery District and Kensington Market some of which I am yet to visit. The food in Toronto is amazing and there are hundreds of fantastic restaurants to enjoy, any kind of food you want, name it and there are restaurants serving it here. This diversity is reflective of the wider culture of Toronto; it is a city where cultural and even linguistic diversity are the norm, which is completely new to me but is one of the things that makes Toronto great. In the city there are countless bars and cafes that are perfect to chill out in and talk to friends, Kensington Market is one of my favourites as it has a number of really nice and trendy bars. On nights out I tend to go to bars for drinks with my friends but for those who prefer clubbing there are plenty of clubs downtown.
One of my favourite things about Toronto is simply the fact that there is always stuff happening downtown and I found that by keeping up to date with both the exchange student Facebook Page and other Toronto based websites I was able to learn about lots of upcoming events in the city. In September there was the Toronto Film Festival which I was able to experience and in October there was the renowned Nuit Blanche, a unique and very popular Art Festival in Toronto which was really interesting. There were also unique exhibitions at the Royal Ontario Museum that were very intriguing such as a historical exhibition on Pompeii which I regrettably missed out on. Overall Toronto is a fantastic city with endless places to visit, countless events to attend and unlimited supplies of amazing food! The city lifestyle is completely new to me and was one of the main reasons I chose to study in Toronto and it is a decision I definitely do not regret.
For me one of the most rewarding parts of the study abroad experience so far is having so many opportunities to speak to people from different countries and completely different cultures. Never before have I had such a great opportunity to engage with people from so many different places, this is certainly one of the best things about studying abroad. I have spoken to Danish students, Spanish students, Swedish students, French students, German students and last but not least, Canadians.
I am a person who has always loved watching and playing sport, in England this has primarily involved Cricket, Football, Tennis and Boxing. In Toronto it has been really refreshing to experience a completely different sporting culture. I was lucky enough to go and see Toronto’s basketball team, The Toronto Raptors play against The New York Knicks. This was great fun and as an added bonus we were able to watch Carmelo Anthony play, a very highly rated American NBA player.
I also went to watch Toronto’s baseball team, The Toronto Blue Jays play at The Rogers Centre. Although they lost I was really happy to watch my first baseball match and the throwing and fielding was amazing to watch. The Blue Jays also got into the playoffs for the first time in over 20 years so watching them on TV was fantastic and the excitement in the city was palpable and infectious, people were even watching the post-season games in lectures. Ice Hockey is also really popular here and I had great fun watching U of T’s first team play. At some point I would like to go watch The Maple Leafs, Toronto’s Ice Hockey team play. Overall this change of culture was great because I learnt lots about sports I previously knew very little about such as Baseball and Ice Hockey. One other popular activity in Toronto is ice skating and there are a number of places in the city where you can try it such as Nathan Phillips Square and downtown by The Harbour Front. Unfortunately I did not manage to go before leaving for Christmas but I look forward to giving it a go when I come back in January!
The exchange student page on Facebook is really helpful and there is always posts from other exchange students regarding events and interesting things to do in Toronto. I found this very helpful because it informed me of countless opportunities to meet up and socialize with other exchange students which I took full advantage of. With all these events going on I was busy the majority of the time which was great as I was never bored or lonely. The Facebook page alerted me of an Exchange Student Soccer Team which I joined and had great fun playing in. Social media also informed me of Nuit Blanche, a hugely popular yearly art festival in downtown Toronto which I was lucky enough to experience with lots of other exchange students.