When & where did you study abroad?
I'm a fourth-year student at Mount Royal University and I've participated in two international exchanges during my university career. Before that I also did an exchange to France in high school, which gave me my first taste of traveling independently -- and I haven't looked back since!
My first university exchange was in my first year at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia. My experience in Australia was incredible; I left in February and completed a full semester there. I even chose to stay on for a year, working as a nanny for a beautiful family. This allowed me to continue immersing myself in Australian culture by learning from the family I lived with.
When I got home from my year in Australia I decided to change my major and began working towards a business-focused degree with a minor in social innovation and non-profit. In my third year I realized that I could apply for a second exchange, so I began the process once again, applying this time to do a semester at West Virginia University. Once I was accepted, I started to make my travel plans and organize my classes. For both exchanges I did the majority of the footwork before I left so I didn't have the stress of credit approvals once I got home. It gave me peace of mind to know that each class was still getting me once step closer to completing my degree. I had to choose my classes at the host university, then find the equivalent at Mount Royal, download the syllabi and get the registrar's office to approve each class. I was lucky enough to get all of my first choice classes approved.
What was the application process like?
The application process does take a little time, but each part of it makes the next step easier. I was required to write a one-page letter of intent, develop a budget, choose courses, obtain the proper health insurance, go to an interview with the international office staff, and then attend a mandatory orientation day. I have some tips for anyone applying to go on exchange:
- Make yourself a realistic budget.
- Take advantage of the resources the International Office has. My university has past student reports, online tools, proper health insurance information and most importantly experience with exchanges.
- Get your classes approved! You'll have one less thing on your plate, so you can enjoy your trip even more.
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
The one thing I didn't expect about studying abroad was how many amazing friends I would make, and how many great experiences I would have beyond my standard school commitments. In Australia, for example, I was able to travel up and down the East Coast with some great new friends. I've even been back to visit Australia numerous times since my exchange. My exchange to West Virginia was similar; the big difference was the number of friends I had who were also exchange students.
Did you participate in any extra-curricular activities while you were abroad?
The activities I participated in at WVU helped me build connections and skills (and my résumé) for when I returned home. I'd worked in radio at home, so I applied to the campus radio station at WVU, where I trained to have my own morning show on U92 The Moose! I also helped with events that happened all over campus. I trained and competed in a mini-triathlon through the recreation center, I attended activities the international office organized, competed in dorm challenges and of course I attended WVU's sports games (football was huge!). Off campus I volunteered at a food bank and traveled throughout West Virginia and the nearby states. Living on campus made getting involved simple and a lot of fun. I was never bored and I admire the active community culture that WVU offered.
What made your exchanges a success?
My trips were memorable because they were huge growth opportunities. I adapted to my new environments and I was able to make connections that I'll have for the rest of my life. My exchanges helped give me clarity on my educational path. I really believe that when I look back on my years as a student, it will be my exchanges that stand out. They have filtered into my life at Mount Royal as I share my experiences and encourage other students to do exchanges.
What career skills did you develop while studying abroad?
I was able to develop my leadership skills and bring new ideas to my classes at home from a different cultural perspective with more confidence. I was able to apply my radio promotions knowledge to U92 and learn from their successes. It was also a great example of the power of networking for future opportunities.
Did you notice any differences between Canada and the US?
Canada is very influenced by the US because of our close relationship with their media and the proximity so I felt there was very little cultural divide. There was a huge diversity in the people I interacted with at WVU so the cultural divide was very limited. On any given day I was with Danish, Swedish, French, Indian American or Australian students. We were able to learn from each other and it was an opportunity to determine countries I would like to visit or work in the future.
What was the most important thing you learned about cross-cultural communication?
The most important thing I learned about cross-cultural communication would be to embrace the differences rather than nit-pick them.
What was it like to arrive home?
When I got home from Morgantown I looked forward to my classes, visiting friends and planning more trips! Because of the five months I spent in Morgantown, I got an incredible job opportunity with one of the Danish exchange students I met who works with an innovative Danish coffee company. As I write this I have just returned from a four-month excursion that consisted of volunteering and backpacking in northern Brazil, then two months in the US for a promotional road trip with the company! This trip was an experience and adventure of a lifetime. We traveled through 15 states and designed our marketing plan as we went. I was able to use my knowledge about living in the US at WVU, apply the skills and theories I learned through my university education to create a successful trip and a future for the company in the US. I'm now looking forward to graduating this winter so I can begin the next phase of my life.
Do you have any advice for someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
I would recommend that students try to organize their finances to take advantage of exploring a new country and all that is has to offer! It is such a great opportunity to do an exchange, it can provide you with the opportunity to take classes that might not be offered at your home institution and it is a chance to embrace new cultures, people, food, and opportunities. I believe my exchanges helped give me direction and become confident I am following the right degree path. While I was abroad, I began a blog for my trip to West Virginia and I still write on it. I recommend that students do the same! It was a great way for friends and family at home to stay connected, and it's a wonderful keepsake of all the adventures that come your way. I am, and I will always be a strong advocate for students taking the opportunity to go on a study abroad trip. It may have resulted in a little longer in school to complete degree requirements, but I wouldn't have it any other way!
Erin's response showcases her fantastic perspective on building international experience. Her enthusiasm and can-do attitude will serve her well if she chooses to pursue an international career. With her academic focuses of business, social innovation and non-profit, we'd suggest that Erin consider taking a volunteer term with an NGO abroad after graduation, followed by an international MBA degree. A master's is a prerequisite in most professional fields, and if Erin has an interest in cross-cultural learning and business, an IMBA could be the perfect fit to set her career in motion.