Ça y est. My semester on exchange has come to an end, and having returned to Montreal, the past week has been one of introspection and self-reflection. The last four months have been some of the best, and toughest months of my life. Although I couldn’t possibly include all I’ve learned and experienced during my exchange in this one article, I am excited to share a small part of my experience with you.
Travels: exploring new cities and cultures
Going on exchange in Europe was possibly the best decision I made because it allowed me to travel to so many different countries – and experience so many different cultures – in the span of days and weeks. During my time there, I visited six countries, and fourteen cities. Each trip opened my eyes a little wider to the vastness and diverseness of human society. Travelling within France was a particular treat, because one or two hours by train would bring me to a different yet equally delightful part of the country, making the weeks fly by. Travelling week by week definitely added to the ephemerality of the whole experience, and this only strengthened my desire to fully enjoy every moment.
One of the most difficult things I had to do was budget for my adventures. My first few trips to Spain and Portugal quickly drained my bank account because I had been naïve in my planning. For the following trips, I made an excel spread sheet to ensure I was keeping track of everything I was spending on (transportation, accommodation, and food/shopping). In the four months, I spent approximately $3500 CAD from travelling. If you are considering going on exchange, I suggest you set a strict travel budget at the beginning of the semester to keep track of your spending. Travelling through Europe was hands down my favorite part of this experience.
Studying: a new perspective towards learning
Studying at Sciences Po was a little nerve wracking at first, because I had no idea what to expect in terms of the levels of difficulty and commitment I needed to put in for my studies. I quickly realized that my previous two and a half years at McGill had solidified my ability to adapt to difficult academic standards, and I felt very comfortable with what was expected of me in class. The one thing I struggled with was the fact that in France, most universities require compulsory attendance for all classes – something that was personally unfamiliar to me. As someone who has bouts of social anxiety that oftentimes keeps me from attending class, I found it quite difficult on some days to keep up with the requirements of mandatory attendance. Although it was a difficult task, I was able to grow from the experience by remaining accountable to my academic studies and to the school I was attending, and believe I matured because of it.
Through Sciences Po’s rigorous academic styles, I gained depth of knowledge and insight in a variety of subjects including environmental governance, art history, and policy studies. Unlike what some may expect, studying for a pass-fail did not demotivate me, but rather eased my anxieties and made me even more interested in the subjects I was taking. I found myself exploring different styles of writing and self-expression for my assignments, because my fear of receiving poor grades was replaced by a newly found zest for learning.
Friends: connections from around the globe
Being on exchange meant that I was no longer able to rely on my group of friends at McGill and in Montreal. The Welcome Program for exchange students was similar to the experience I had my first year at McGill during orientation week. Through attending the events planned by the school, including a tour around Paris, a cruise on the bateau-mouche, French-speaking classes, etc., I was able to meet and make friends with many different students from all over the world. Although the orientation program was quite expensive (~$400 CAD), it was worth it!
Some of the best parts of making new friendships with other exchange students in Paris, was that we were able to solidify our relationships through exploring the city together – and experiencing things we had never experienced before. Each day was a chance to try something new, whether it be a day-trip to Versailles or Giverny, or spending the day in one of Paris’s remarkable museums followed by a coffee by the Seine River. I am so grateful for the relationships I’ve formed in my time on exchange, because it not only helped me come out of my shell and comfort zone, but also made me more excited to meet new people and make new friendships back home. Most importantly, my time in Paris helped me remember why I came to McGill in the first place – to create friendships and experience the countless new adventures life has to offer.
Growth: appreciating the little things
There’s so much more I could say about my time on exchange, but the most important point I would like to make is that my experiences during the past four months were nuanced and far from being consistently “good”. There were moments of loneliness and homesickness – and to be honest – quite a few times where I considered giving up and going back to the safety of my home in Montreal. However, the days of hardship were, in the end, what made the good days count. Knowing I had struggled so hard to fit into this new environment, adapt to the cultural and language differences, as well as push myself to a new level of independence, I was able to find so much gratitude in even the minute accomplishments of my daily life. Conversing in French with a stranger on the street, discovering a park and spending the next three hours sketching the scenery before me, getting caught in a thunderstorm on the way home from class and allowing the rain to soak up every inch of my body; all these experiences were much more meaningful and wonderful because of the moments of difficulty and uncertainty I had in between.
One thing I am absolutely certain of, is that this experience resulted in tremendous growth for me. It was a semester of cultivating virtues – my patience, self-compassion, self-awareness and gratitude for life were being strengthened with each new challenge I met, and each new adventure I faced. I am proud of myself for accepting this new experience with open arms, and am extremely grateful to McGill University for providing me the opportunity to grow, mature, and discover a new appetite for life.