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What it's Like to Study Abroad in Canada

Updated: Jan 26

This month on the blog, I really want add more voices and perspectives than just my own. So, I asked some of the amazing travelers that I met during my adventures abroad to share their stories.


Throughout their stories, they will tell you a little bit about themselves, what motivated them to travel, a highlight and a lowlight from their travels, as well as offer some advice based on their own experiences.


My hope with this series is that you find something, or someone, you resonate with that motivates you to take a leap of faith, this year, towards expanding your horizons abroad!


For our second entry in the series, we have the international student, and life long friend of mine, Michelle!


 

Michelle at the Bruce Pennisula

I met Michelle back in early 2023 when she was doing a 4 month long exchange program, from Germany to Canada, to study abroad at my university, the University of Waterloo.


She choose to study at the University of Waterloo as her home university, the University of Mannheim, is a partner university with us. What also influenced her decision was that UW accepted the specific English language proficiency certificate she had, whereas other Canadian universities wanted more proof of language proficiency that would've costed her more.


Since Michelle's degree is in both German and English studies, she wanted to continue expanding her grasp of the English language by visiting other English speaking countries. As she has already been to America, being that she is half American, half German, has visited Ireland, and England already, and New Zealand as well as Australia are quite far from Germany, Canada seemed like the next logical choice!


In order to get her Canadian credits transferred to her home university in Mannheim, she had to sign course contracts and have them approved by her professors. This was a lengthy process as she needed to write a report after studying abroad, which detailed her experiences in Canada before she could get her credits.



She was not only looking forward to exploring the Canadian countryside, as well as a few cities (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Blue Mountain, Niagara, etc.), but was also looking forward to meeting new people, not just other Canadians, but other international students studying in Canada as well.


Michelle seeing a moose at Park Omega

She was telling me how much she loved her trip to Montreal, even though there were a few hiccups with transport and the Airbnb. Montreal felt more European than Ontario. She said it was both a familiar and unfamiliar feeling.


Michelle also visited Park Omega during this trip, which is a drive through park in Quebec. She didn't know those existed and said it felt weird to be drive through nature. In Germany, there is definitely a lot more walking to places than driving, as it more possible with the size of the country, but also more encouraged by the society.


A culture shock she, and my German professors, gave me, was when they would say they walked to the university from home because it was only an hour and the weather was nice. I don't know many Canadians who would walk an hour to school/work/home/etc. Some of us even drive 5 minutes to the store rather than walk 10 minutes to the store.


Michelle was also looking forward to integrating into the university by exploring how it was structured, and what kind of events they had. She told me the courses she had were different from what she was used to back home. She loved this as it gave her a chance to explore new topics and learn new things in her field of study.


frozen tree
She saw a frozen tree for the first time

The weather was a mix, both and highlight and lowlight for her, as she was really looking forward to experiencing a true Canadian winter wonderland. However, Canadian winters have slowly been getting milder and milder over the years. Meaning we have much less snow and more rain than past years. 


Where she is from in Germany, it's pretty gloomy and raining, rather than snowy during the winter, so there wasn't too big a change.


It also took a while for her to adjust to her new living arrangements. Michelle was staying at an Airbnb where she rented a small room in a shared apartment. I remember some of the stories she would tell me about her roommates and the thin walls that separated them. Definitely an adjustment.



She also had a few culture shocks, especially when taking public transit. Figuring out how to get tickets, and how the schedules worked was challenging. But what surprised her the most was how passengers interacted with bus drivers.


In Canada, as passengers get off the bus, they often yell "Thank you" to the bus driver as a way of showing appreciation for what they do for them. This is very different to what she is used to in Germany. Michelle said, in Germany, people are more often stressed and in a rush to get to where they are going. They aren't as forgiving and jolly as she found Canadians to be.


Some other culture shocks she went through were while grocery shopping. Michelle was surprised to see just how much diversity in cuisines we have in Canada. During her first grocery shopping trip, she wanted to buy bananas. So, she bought 2 bananas. However, it wasn't until she tried to eat one, thinking "What a tough banana!", that she discovered she had actually bought plantains.


She had never had a plantain before as plantains aren't easy to find in Germany. They aren't in regular grocery stores like in Canada. In Germany you'd have to go to a specialty store to find them. So, this was her first ever experience with plantains.


Michelle's first grocery trip

She was also telling me that sweet potatoes aren't quite common either. It's not impossible to find them, but not many Germans seem to like sweet potatoes.


In true German fashion, she also wasn't a fan of the bottled water we have here. Michelle was saying that the water in Canada tastes very different from the water in Germany. This doesn't surprise me. I had the same culture shock going to Germany.


I remember asking for water at a restaurant not knowing they drink Mineral Wasser, carbonated water, whereas we drink Stil Wasser, still water. I hate most carbonated drinks but Germans love them.


If she was going to give any advice to other international student interested in studying in Canada it would be to plan for more car rentals. She was not expecting the transport to be so different, but Canada, unlike Europe, is not easy to travel without a car. It's not impossible, but it is more challenging.



As well, read through your universities website thoroughly. Get everything lined up for when you get there such as: student ID, transit cards, PRESTO cards, reward point programs at grocery stores, SPC cards, etc.


She also recommends bringing a good pair of water proof winter boots and some all weather gear. She said that one mistake she made was coming with a pair of cheap boots that she thought were water proof, but were not enough for Canadian winter.


Michelle skiing in Blue Mountain

Her final piece of advice would be to get involved in school culture and clubs to help with the culture shock and make friends. For the University of Waterloo specifically, the affiliate college, Renison, has a few bus trips that they plan specifically for international students.


These trips explore different cities in Ontario (Blue Mountain, Toronto, Niagara, etc.) on the weekends. She said to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities while you're abroad.


 

Thank you Michelle for sharing your story! I'm sure your article will help other international students looking to studying in Canada. As well as, I think it will help Canadian students understand some of the hardships and culture shocks international students go through while studying in Canada.

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