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Updated: Thu, 07/18/2024 - 18:12

Gradual reopening continues on downtown campus. See Campus Public Safety website for details.

La réouverture graduelle du campus du centre-ville se poursuit. Complément d'information : Direction de la protection et de la prévention.

I Met a Better “Me” at McGill University: A Personal Essay

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For Xu XianZong, coming to Montreal to study at McGill was one of the best decisions he ever made. Read more to find out why.

June 12, 2019 is a day I will never forget. It was the day I received my acceptance letter from McGill University’s Intensive English Language and Culture (IELC) program, a program through which I could improve my language skills and immerse myself in a foreign culture. Nervous yet excited, I flew to Montreal shortly after to begin my studies in an intensive six-week program that would soon become the most valuable experience of my life so far.  

The reason I chose to study abroad can be summarized in one short sentence: the world is too big to not visit. I was excited to see what life was like in a foreign country, to note the differences in education and culture, and to see how many challenges I could overcome on my own. This was my first time going abroad, but I didn’t just want to see how big the world was. What I truly wanted, was to see how big MY world could become.  

Fortunately for me, I was able to attend the best university in Canada. While it is academically elite, it was the vibrancy and diversity of the city of Montreal that made me fall in love with McGill. Montreal is a bilingual city, so I was able to practice and improve my English skills while also experiencing French culture! Somehow, the city was both tranquil yet lively. Unlike Toronto, Montreal is quiet and ideal for studying. However, there is a plethora of activities you can find on any given night, should you choose to seek them out. One week there was a poutine festival, the next, a jazz festival and then a comedy festival!


Don’t think that all these celebrations had a negative impact on my education either: on the contrary, these festivals provided me with a platform to engage with, and understand, Western culture. Perhaps the biggest challenge I faced as a foreign student was loneliness and unfamiliarity with the local way of life. However, through immersing myself in local events and school excursions I was able to make friends in my program. Speaking with them during our leisure time and exploring the city together was a great way to improve my spoken English. The food in Montreal was great too, and through the food we were able to learn more about the city’s culture. Thankfully there were a lot of Chinese restaurants too, so I could enjoy a little taste of home!  

McGill University, commonly referred to as the “Harvard of Canada,” has truly earned its praise as an elite academic institution. The professors are very nice, well-spoken, and if you don’t understand the topic at hand, they are more than happy to answer your questions. My classmates were from all over the world, which I initially thought may lead to some culture shock and potential arguments. However, the students in my program were all super friendly, and happy to talk about their native country’s culture and history while learning about others. I was also worried that there might be communication obstacles, and that they would be unwilling to work with me. However, I was pleased to find that the members of every group I was in were open and willing to work as a team. My classmates were very interesting and had a lot of ideas. If you join this program, you’ll learn a lot of different things!  

Another surprising aspect of studying at a Western academic institution was that, often, it was the students doing the talking, not the professors. The classroom was an open floor for debate, with the professor guiding discussion. It felt like as a student, you were the protagonist! You could challenge the teacher, present your own point of view, and boldly share any idea you wanted. To me, that’s what education should be. Daring to question, daring to innovate. Critical thinking is an asset and honing these skills has made me more confident and courageous in my own abilities. I didn’t have the best academic record growing up, and because of that I often felt out of my element in school. However, now I feel as though my academic ability and self-confidence has increased significantly, and as a result I’m in the process of applying for my master’s degree at McGill.  

These past couple of months have opened my eyes to the world. I now understand my future goals a little bit better, I understand the hard work I will need to do to get there and understand how important learning English is to achieve those goals. I also now feel truly independent. As a foreigner in an all-English (and sometimes French) environment, without the help of my parents or friends, I was able to stay calm and work hard. As a result, I’ve been rewarded with immeasurable progress in my listening and speaking skills, and several new friends from around the world too!  

Travelling 12,000 km with school bags and suitcases to a country with a 12-hour time difference may seem like a bizarre way to study and get to know yourself, but I don’t regret it all, because studying abroad didn’t just teach me English. It taught me how to find a better Me

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