Last September, as the students of the University of Toronto Mississauga geared up to dive head-first into another eventful academic year, UTM student Selina Azizi was on her way to the lush landscapes of Scotland where she would be staying for the next four months. Azizi, who is majoring in history and political science, and minoring in religion, participated in an exchange program facilitated by the U of T and held at the University of Edinburgh. Azizi was able to make the best of both worlds by not only taking courses that counted towards her degree, but did so in an environment where she had the chance to meet new people and immerse herself in a new culture.
Speaking about the details on the exchange program itself, Selina described how it was different from the UTM Abroad programs being offered by the International Education Centre. This exchange program was facilitated by the St. George campus and involved staying at the chosen location for the duration of a semester, while UTM Abroad does not run for the whole semester and is a component of a UTM course. “I had to send in applications to both U of T, and then to the University of Edinburgh once I was nominated.” She explained that U of T agreed to support their group of students financially in the case of an emergency, crisis or natural disaster.
Being an exchange student, Azizi initially faced difficulties when it came to course selection. “Although I had the freedom to choose what courses I wanted to take, I didn’t get first priority”. Due to this, she was only able to get enrolled in one course of her choice. As for her other courses, she had to wait for a couple of weeks in order to find ones that still had spaces available. Her favourite course was one which focused on gender identities in Britain during the two world wars, and the other two focused on the people of Britain in the first millennium and the United States during the 1960s, respectively.
Additionally, according to Azizi, the structure of courses there was quite different as compared to those at UTM. As she notes, most professors chose to base the entire course grade on a single final exam or essay that was due at the end of the semester. “There was no fixed syllabus that the professors followed. Everything was spontaneous. The professor could suddenly announce that we had a presentation due in a few weeks and we would have no choice but to do it.” Furthermore, when it came to writing essays, professors at the University of Edinburgh had different expectations in regard to writing stylistics and the method in which students were expected to carry out research. “I’ve never had the same experience here,” said Azizi. Other than that, according to her, the professors were quite helpful. One of Azizi’s professors, as she expressed, sat her down during his office hours one day and explained the different standards and expectations of schools in Edinburgh which helped her gain a sense of how she had to approach her courses.
Apart from course structure, Azizi described differences in school demographics and the general cultural landscape. “Classes were very non-diverse. Almost all students were either English or Scottish from wealthy backgrounds. So discussing issues such as civil rights during one of my classes was problematic as there were no students of colour to provide different viewpoints,” said Azizi.
Other than this, Azizi also joked how it was initially difficult to understand accents. “It was so hard for me to take notes sometimes,” she laughed.
Apart from academics, Azizi felt that the campus was well-equipped to provide students with an enjoyable time. “There was a constant atmosphere of fun and there was always something to do,” said Azizi. According to her, the university would host regular comedy shows, plays, and pub nights which took place on a grander scale compared to those at UTM. “Scottish people are really friendly and like to have a lot of fun,” she adds. A particular event Azizi recalled is the Christmas market that the campus hosted in November. “There was a Ferris wheel along with other rides and food stalls as well. Vendors from all over Europe came and set shop,” said Azizi. Furthermore, according to Azizi, in and around Scotland can be very cheap. Azizi was able to save up over time for visits to the Scottish Highlands, the Isles of Skye, London, Belfast, Dublin, Copenhagen, and Sweden to name a few.
When asked about what advice she would like to give to other students who wish to take part in similar programs or international experiences, Azizi said, “It takes a lot of planning. I knew this was something I wanted to do since the start but it still took me two years of carefully assessing all my options and saving up money by doing part-time jobs during the summer.” She was still debating between universities up until the last few days before the application was due. Azizi also suggested that interested students ask as many questions they need to beforehand. “Even after all this planning, I still wished I could have known many things before I went there, but you should go with an open mind and be willing to try new things, otherwise it can be difficult for you to have a good time and enjoy the experience.”