Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad  FacebookTwitterGoogle+  
As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2003
Related Topics
Student to Student
Study Abroad
Living in Canada: Articles, Key Resources and Websites
More by the Author
Chile Up Close: An Exchange Student's Experience

Lessons from Canada

An American Student at a Canadian University

I was a naive 19-year-old when I decided, based upon little more than glossy university brochures and a couple of family visits to the city, to attend college at the Univ. of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. It’s not that I did no research; I just didn’t realize how much needed to be done.

For Americans, the idea of studying in Canada can be intriguing, and schools like UBC encourage international students to apply, since we pay at least five times as much tuition as the local residents. Even with this difference, it is still possible to study at a very good Canadian university for less than the American equivalent. Aand itsnd the exchange rate makes other expenses very reasonable.

But one thing that many prospective students fail to realize is that Canada is another country. It’s different from its neighbor below. It has a markedly different culture, with its own style and its own value system. It also has a different academic culture that can make life very challenging for the American student.

The Admissions Process

Americans who apply to an elite Canadian school should expect an admissions process different from but equally as challenging as that of an elite school in the States. Although the school may not want your SAT scores, it is quite possible that it will demand transcripts from every place you ever studied, whether the classes you took apply to your current academic program or not. On the other hand, even if you are a transfer student, they may ask to see your SAT scores.

Funding the Adventure

Studying in Canada may be somewhat cheaper, but financial aid resources for American students in Canada are limited. While we can get U.S. federal student loans to study in Canada, many U.S. scholarship programs cannot give awards to students outside the country.

The good news is that at some schools American students can work for a few hours a week on campus. In my experience, jobs are easy to find. Canadian students who work during the summer have enough money to support themselves through the rest of the year. In British Columbia the minimum wage is a little over $5 an hour, but while you are earning Canadian you are also buying things at Canadian prices. So the $5 an hour goes a lot further. It’s when you go home to the States that you feel poor.

Legal Issues

Americans need a student visa. I found that the visa requirements provided by my university, the government of Canada’s website, and the Canadian consulate in Seattle all differed. The part of the process I found most complicated was “proof of sufficient funds” to enter Canada. (If your parents are helping you pay for school, you can ask them to provide a notarized statement that they will support you financially.) Fearing that I would arrive at the border and be turned away, I attempted to get my visa at the local consulate before departure and learned the hard way that student visas for American citizens are only issued at the border. But don’t worry, Canadians really want us here. If you can scape together the money, it is highly unlikely that you will be turned away.

The visa I was issued allows me to study in Canada until I get my degree and work there for up to a year afterwards. This is quite a nice perk. The visa, however, does not guarantee re-entry into Canada if you leave the country. Be prepared to go through questioning beyond the typical “What is the purpose of your visit?” The questioning seemed rather arbitrary to me, since I already had a visa, but such is life between borders.

Culture Shock

For university students anywhere in the world, standing in lines is a daily reality; in Canada, it is an almost hourly one. Canadians seem to wait contentedly in what an American like me might call “obscenely long lines.” What Americans might look at as oppressive, Canadians might simply call fair. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is significantly different from attitudes in the U.S.

As in any country, you can’t expect everyone to understand how you “operate.” You may have to explain things a little more explicitly. Most people are eager to try and understand me, but they are not always able to.

Health Issues

If you are a U.S. citizen, chances are your health insurance won’t cover you in Canada. Be grateful you will be going to a country with affordable healthcare. Actually getting on the plan requires a lot of waiting. Once you do, it usually takes three months for your coverage to begin, so make sure you apply as soon as you get to Canada. In B.C. a private company offers virtually the same coverage at the same price during this waiting period. Once you are insured in B.C. (healthcare differs from province to province), you can see any doctor you like and pay nothing.

Academic Culture

It is also important for American students to know that the grading (“marking”) system is very different from ours. A mark of 85 percent, an A, is nearly impossible to receive, but this is what an international student must have to get a scholarship. Being used to American scholarships, which take into account letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and course loads, the Canadian way of awarding scholarships can seem harsh. I also found the standard essay writing style to be quite different from that in the U.S. Perhaps more formal, more British—it is difficult to say. This has been the single most frustrating aspect of my experience in Canada.

Language

It is important to recognize that Canadian English differs from American English not only because of the sound and characteristic “rising,” but also because of the vocabulary. This is especially true in matters related to college. First of all, a college is only a 2-year school in Canada. University is the only word used to describe a 4-year school. The freshman, sophomore, junior, senior system does not exist; rather, it is year 1-4. Most Canadians have been subject to enough American TV to understand American terms, but don’t assume they will. And don’t assume they won’t find you slightly odd for using them.

Housing

Generally the housing situation is similar to that of U.S. schools. At UBC on-campus housing is severely limited, and off-campus housing close to school is quite costly. The good news is that first-year international students are guaranteed a place in residence, and after you have lived in the dorms you are at the top of the list for the next year.

Help for International Students

In my first year at UBC I had moments where I was desperately confused. The frustrating thing about living in a different culture is that you often feel that there is something everyone else knows that you don’t. And there often is, but what that thing is no one who is a native of the place is quite able to articulate. Luckily, UBC has International House, which provides extensive orientation and even counseling services for international students. Check to see if the university you want to go to has a similar facility.

For people looking for an international experience, Canada has a lot to offer. Its commonwealth identity ties it closer to a larger part of the world than the individualist U.S. Canadians are a blend of British, French, and American, but also people of many other backgrounds. For two toonies and a loony (two $2 coins and one $1 coin), I have eaten some of the largest, most exotic meals of my life in Vancouver, where you can find almost every kind of ethnic food. Whistler is two hours away, and other ski areas are accessible by city bus. There are ferries to ride and islands to visit in the summer. The ocean is also warm enough for swimming.

The bad news is that while studying at UBC I have spent months at a time without leaving campus and without great meals. I have found school to be significantly harder here, and not just because UBC is a demanding school. There is a certain disdain for Americans, which is not surprising considering how large and noisy a neighbor we are. This can make one pretty lonely if one doesn’t scout out other foreign friends—of which there are many available. The border crossings and interrogations by immigration officers on both sides are exhausting. In short, if you don’t recognize Canada as it’s own sovereign country before deciding to move here, Canada will teach you.

Study in Canada Info

If you’ve recognized that Canada is another country and you still want to go, MacLean’s magazine publishes a yearly review of Canadian universities. The guide is also available at their website.

For information on visas contact your nearest Canadian consulate or visit canadainternational.gc.ca.