My worst day of university was when I found out I couldn’t afford to go on an international exchange. I still remember the sick feeling in my stomach when my academic co-ordinator told me I needed $15,000 to make my dream happen. Tears welled up in my eyes.
Since high school, I worked two jobs at a time to save up for my dream exchange to Australia, but after paying tuition for three years and rent in downtown Toronto, I didn’t have enough money saved to make that a reality.
For years, I had my mind set on leaving the freezing cold Canadian winter to study in the scorching hot Australian summer. I read every Australian travel guide, researched all the universities there and even looked into setting up my student visa in advance. I knew this missed opportunity would turn out to be one the biggest regrets of my life and I had to do something about it — fast.
I researched hundreds of international exchange programs online. I looked at other parts of the world I could study in, thinking they would be cheaper, but every program was out of my price range and lasted only a couple of weeks. I was about to give up when I decided to scan Ryerson International’s website one last time.
At the very bottom of the exchange program page, I saw a link to Ontario-wide agreements. After being redirected to the Ontario Universities International (OUI) website, I found out that I could apply to one of four summer exchange programs in France, Germany, India or China. If accepted, I would study a new language and culture and receive a scholarship to do so. It seemed almost too good to be true. I sent in my application the next day to do an exchange in Germany, because the program there also included travel to Austria and Switzerland.
Two months later, there were tears in my eyes again. This time, they were happy ones. I was going on exchange.
The program in Germany was just over a month long. I wanted to extend my exchange experience so I planned a backpacking trip across Europe. The university program was paid for with a $1,000 scholarship from OUI, which included food, rent and travel costs. All I had to pay for were flights and my backpacking trip. After searching for cheap flights and scanning TripAdvisor for recommended budget hotels, I booked my international adventure. I would spend a month and a half splitting costs with a friend in Greece, Italy, Spain and France. Then I would go alone to Germany where the exchange program would begin.
The best part about creating my own exchange experience was that I could cater it to my individual desires. Instead of spending all my time abroad with other Canadian exchange students and being limited to weekends for travelling, I was able to make friends with the locals and stay for at least a week in each country. That meant I could indulge in every country’s culture because I got to know people who wanted to share the hidden secrets of their cities with me. Instead of taking pictures at tourist attractions and posting them on social media, I was digitally disconnected, learning first-hand accounts of history in different countries and experiencing what life would be like if I lived there.
One of my favourite experiences was going on a road trip along the coast of Athens with a couple of locals. We stopped and ate at family-owned, traditional Greek restaurants and talked to other locals about everything from the corrupt government to the best souvlaki. Another experience I will never forget is being shown the optical illusion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by locals while eating homemade Italian gelato.
When it came time for my exchange in Konstanz, Germany, I continued making an effort to become friends with the locals. Not only did this improve my German, but it also gave me the chance to see more than just the tourist attractions in my temporary home. Living beside the Rhine River with students from around the world, I learned about the beauty of new cultures through new people.
I had intensive language and culture classes several hours a day during the week where my classmates and I could speak only in German. Every week, the program organizers scheduled different excursions to neighbouring countries and nearby cities. The trips included learning about German auto history at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart and celebrating Liechtenstein’s national holiday with the prince at Vaduz Castle. I also had the chance to hike up the Liechtenstein Alps and the Swiss Alps, go to Austria, and spend two weekends in Zurich eating Swiss cheese at European music festivals.
My entire exchange trip, visiting seven countries and four islands over two and a half months, cost $4,000 including roundtrip flights, accommodation, food, shopping and entertainment. While most university exchanges last four months and cost a minimum of $12,000, I was able to create a shorter exchange experience that fit my budget through OUI’s program.
Going away to study and live in a new country during university is an invaluable experience. While regular exchange programs might not be affordable for everyone, there are other ways to experience new cultures and learn from new people. With a little planning, working and saving, any international adventure is possible.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on January 29, 2014.