“It sounds cliché but I could have never imagined how truly amazing going away on exchange would be,” says Lauren Oakley BA ’17.
Oakley lived in Jönköping, Sweden, from January until June 2016 while in third year of her Communication, Media and Film program.
Students who return from exchange invariably call it the single most valuable part of their postsecondary experience, says Michelle Fitzgerald BA ‘99, administrator of International and Exchange Student Services.
“The biggest benefit is “discovering yourself,” says the alumna who graduated with a focus on international relations. “You and your true, unadulterated self. This is you out there, implementing what you’ve learned in the world.”
Each year, about 85 UWindsor students journey to one of the institution’s many academic partners that can be found on every continent except Antarctica.
Before they embark on this transformational voyage, some need what Fitzgerald refers to as the “myths” of student exchange dispelled.
Many misconceptions muddy some students’ and parents’ ideas about exchange. Among them:
There are some additional costs such as residence, transportation and health care as OHIP is not adequate coverage for an extended stay abroad.
However, UWindsor residence fees are excused while on exchange (the host institution is responsible for assisting students in finding suitable accommodations). And, exchange students can opt out of UWSA health fees.
In addition, they are still eligible to apply for OSAP and other scholarships to help defray the expenses. For example, a $750 bursary is available for each exchange semester. One innovative student even started a GoFundMe page.
Students are also encouraged to plan to apply for scholarships or save money.
The cost of going on exchange is well worth it, Fitzgerald says. “I encourage students to think of it as an investment in themselves. The changes and growth they’ll experience will benefit them in ways they can’t begin to know.”
Knowing a second language isn’t mandatory unless the student is taking a language-driven program such as German.
All programs except those in the Faculty of Education are eligible. It does not delay graduation because it is considered a regular semester (or two), simply at another institution that counts towards the student’s degree.
Above: Michelle Fitzgerald, the University of Windsor exchange program co-ordinator. The biggest benefit is “discovering yourself."
Grades dropping doesn’t tend to be an issue for exchange students because those who go are the sorts of individuals who tend to be acutely aware of the value of the opportunity and eager to take advantage of its benefits, says Fitzgerald.
The “typical” exchange student earns a solid “B” or above, and is hungry for new experiences.
Exchanges are limited to the third year of a program, based on the theory that, by then, students should have adapted to the demands of university life and have the skills required for study in a foreign teaching environment.
Exchange in fourth year is prohibitive because there is less exibility in course selection and it can be difficult to and the appropriate course abroad.
Fitzgerald also hastens to correct one more misconception: “Some parents think that, if their son or daughter goes on exchange, they must accept a student in return in their home. But that’s not how it works. That’s the high school version.”
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
Ideally, interested students set up an appointment to chat with Fitzgerald in advance so they can learn what kinds of paths they might like to pursue, as well as what they can expect along the way.
A committee reviews all exchange applications and interviews quali ed applicants. Candidates are ranked and offered placements at partner universities based upon such things as academic ability, the seriousness of their interest, and the suitability of the host institution’s program for that student’s degree requirements.
Applicants identify their top three choices. “Whether they can go depends on how many pick the same destination. They should be exible and open to different destinations.”
For example, Australia is “crazy popular,” Fitzgerald says. “If you want to go there, we’re going to make sure that you’re the kind of person who can represent the university well. That you’re a proud Lancer and proud of the university as a whole.”
This is because the university needs to be able to encourage students to come from Australia in return. “If Australia sends us three, we can send them three,” she says. Although the exchanges between countries might not equal exactly each year, it trends evenly, on average.
She would particularly like to encourage students who’ve never truly been outside Windsor/Essex to think about the program. “They are the ones who need to go on exchange. Through it, they can learn that the world around them is pretty marvelous, and so is their home.
“I love watching them bloom during exchange. They come back so much better than they were before.”
CHALLENGES AND SOLUTIONS
Challenges do arise. “The biggest challenge depends on the individual,” explains Fitzgerald. “For some, it might be the financial side. For others, they might feel homesick.
“It’s rarely debilitating. But when it happens, it’s made worse by overbearing family members, girlfriends and boyfriends.”
If they do need someone to talk to while away, students can access the “Keep. MeSAFE” app, launched in November 2017.
It offers the chance to chat with licensed and trained counsellors who can provide advice and support electronically or by arranged phone call. It was created for international students and for both incoming and outgoing exchange students and is culturally sensitive and offered in different languages.
The biggest challenge for most students is coming home.
“You often fall in love with where you are (sometimes literally),” says Fitzgerald. “You don’t want the adventure to end. You don’t want your freedom to end.”
Some people are afraid to leave part-time jobs, worried they won’t get another job upon their return. “They need to understand that this is an investment in their future. Frequently, if you’re the kind of person who’s right for exchange you’re the kind of employee an employer would be happy to make room for once you return.”
Don’t expect to work part-time while on exchange, however. The rules and regulations in effect in the country where they will study might not permit it.
There are those parents and guardians who are nervous at the thought of their son or daughter doing away from their influence for months at a time, but she encourages them to “have faith in the system and the experience, and what you’ve taught them.”
Fitzgerald says that she has “the best job on campus.”
“I work with students who are excited, happy, positive. I get to live vicariously through them and build positive connections.
“I have the kind of job that I know I’m making the world a better place and changing it for the better by making this positive difference through what I do.”
FOURTH YEAR, WOMEN'S AND GENDER STUDIES AND HISTORY (COMBINED)
Going on exchange allowed me to meet family members from across the world, experience new cultures, gain independence by travelling by myself to a new continent, meet other exchange students from all over the globe, and study completely unique courses from a different university.
I decided to go on exchange because I wanted to do something in my undergrad that allowed me to be a part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to do something that would set my undergrad experience apart from other students.
I was very nervous beforehand — mostly about doing this huge thing and it not meeting my expectations. I handled this by ensuring I registered for very cool courses, and I made friends who wanted a similar experience, and who also wanted to see the country!
I lived in residence. I loved this experience because it made it so easy to make friends through all the welcome week events and in the dining hall!
If I had to pinpoint the best thing that happened to me while I was on exchange, it would be the relationships that I formed.
I got to know family members whom I had never met before, the incredible South African women that were a part of my residence building, and friends I met through a church I joined. The people I got closest to were other exchange students from all over Europe.
The most challenging aspect to my experience was the level of poverty in South Africa. The “townships” are slum villages that surround towns and cities, where black people were forced into as cheap labour during the Apartheid system.
Although Apartheid is over, the townships are still filled with people who live in homes made of scrap metals. It was a huge culture shock, especially because there was a township surrounding Rhodes University. Nothing could have prepared me for this level of poverty. I soon learned, however, that although many people who live in the township are very poor, it does not mean that they are unhappy.
Currently, I am enrolled in an African history class, and next semester I will be taking a class on South African Apartheid. Going on exchange has sparked an interest in African history, and taking African history courses while I was there really gave me a solid foundation for these classes.
After graduation, I will be going to the Faculty of Education here at the University of Windsor.
If you’re considering going on exchange, DO IT! Go somewhere that is close to your heart for whatever reason that may be. My connection to my family helped to make my experience more meaningful.
Save up and don’t be afraid to spend money when you are there. I will never regret the $40 I spent to dive with a crocodile, or the $50 I spent on a safari.
I did not expect to miss being in South Africa as much as I do. The lifestyle of travelling and studying was so much fun, and the South Africans were such kind-hearted people. I can’t wait to go back!
GRADUATED: CRIMINOLOGY AND HISTORY
During my interview, I was told too many people had applied for Australia England (my first choices) and was asked how I felt about Japan. So, my destination wasn’t exactly planned or decided upon, it just happened.
Tokyo is unlike any city in the world, it’s so big and diverse, you feel like some places (Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinjuku) aren’t even from this planet! There are cities within the city, it’s so big.
I attended International Christian University, in the Western part of Tokyo. It is located in one of the few forested areas sanctioned off from construction. It’s as if the school was built into a forest, and the entrance used to be an airplane landing strip which is now lined by gorgeous Sakura trees.
In March, when the trees bloom, riding your bike daily past the pink and white Sakura blossoms is one of the coolest things you can ever experience.
When I arrived, I had great people around me who helped me transition to a culture I had no idea about. If possible, apply to live in a residence because you begin to understand the culture and country much better. I lived in the 1st Men’s Dorm with six foreign exchange students and 25 native Japanese regular students.
I primarily studied Japanese history and language, and all except the Japanese language classes were taught in English. I co-ordinated with the Exchange Office prior to leaving so that the classes I took would count towards my degree. I even took some that didn’t count out of pure interest. Make sure you have room in your degree audit before you do this — it’s a great way to learn something new.
I studied under some of the smartest professors I have ever encountered, several were either Yale, Harvard or Princeton educated. Basically, I received an Ivy League education for University of Windsor tuition while on exchange.
Some of my favourite memories from exchange are the FOOD! No matter where you go, experiencing new foods will blow your mind.
If you go, everything will be a challenge. From the initial culture shock, to being away from friends, family and your significant other, if you have one.
You, as well as your relationship with those back home, will be tested. Make sure you plan in advance and do what you can so you can focus on your experience during exchange and not have to constantly put out fires back home.
If you are in a country where the culture is vastly different, give yourself plenty of time during the beginning of your exchange to absorb as much as you can. I did not know what to expect at all. You can try to research and understand what you might find before you go, but once you get there all the preparation goes out the door.
Lifelong friendships are made during experiences like this.
You become exceptionally close with students on exchange from other countries. Because of exchange, I now have friends in Japan, Sweden, France, Korea, California, Florida, Africa, and other places around the world. This circle of friends gives you the opportunity to further learn about other cultures and travel together during school breaks and holidays when on exchange.
I feel travel begets travel. You should take advantage of it when you’re young and aren’t tied down with responsibilities that can hamper you later in life.
Once you see how amazing it is to live in another country and experience its culture, you’ll want to learn new languages, continue to travel and become a global citizen.
GRADUATED: COMMUNICATION, MEDIA AND FILM
I’d never thought too in depth about going on exchange until I was talking with a friend who was already in the process. I’ve always loved travelling and was looking for a new experience.
I decided to talk to my parents about it. They were extremely supportive which was the ultimate push for me to go.
I was nervous before I left because I had never travelled alone before. I knew that the pros would outweigh the cons so I was able to push through the nerves. Before I left, my mom bought me a journal to write in and I found that writing in it any time I was worried really helped me.
My life was changed. It sounds cliché but I could have never imagined how truly amazing going away on exchange would be. It was such a learning experience for me in so many ways. From living alone for the first time to getting to experience and fit into a new culture. I grew so much from my time there. I think about my time in Sweden every day and miss it a lot!
The biggest challenge was when I actually left to go to Sweden.
I was a bit nervous to travel alone but I was feeling pretty good about it. That is, until my flight from Toronto to Heathrow airport in London landed later than expected.
I had about 45 minutes to navigate my way through the huge airport. By the time I got to security, there was about 30 minutes until my connecting flight was leaving. I thought I’d be okay, until security officials told me that I would not be able to get through in time to board.
I started panicking and a rush of emotion hit me. But I knew that I had to deal with the situation. I worked it out with the airport staff who managed to get me a flight to Sweden eight hours later than my original flight. After that, I just went to a bathroom stall, cried, and moved on.
Go to orientation week at your host school! It’s SO important. It is where I made all of my friends and that was the point where I felt like I had a connection to the school. I can’t stress that enough!
I lived in a residence. It was an apartment that partnered with the school to rent out rooms to students, however it was not only students that lived in the building.
Being in a hands-on program that involved a lot of group work, it made me feel extremely comfortable in all my classes because I felt like I knew the majority of people in each one. I made a core group of friends with people from Australia, the Netherlands, America, Canada, and even Singapore. To this day, we keep in contact and are planning a reunion trip!
The exchange experience has allowed me to adapt to unfamiliar situations easily. It taught me a lot about living on my own and about stepping out of my comfort zone.
I have graduated and am now working, but I have caught the travel bug. I will always be looking for new places to go and new cultures to experience.
If you have even the slightest thought about going on exchange you should book an appointment with someone from the Exchange office to get an idea of what to expect.
STUDENT EXCHANGE OFFICE
International Student Centre (ISC)
Laurier Hall (2nd floor)
Phone: 519-253-3000, Ext. 3934
For Fall semester: January 15 before 4 p.m. (Applications for the Fall semester are usually available online around mid October.)
For Winter semester: September 15 before 4 p.m. (Applications usually available online starting early June.)
Application Form - All exchange applications are completed on-line.