How to max out your exchange

Today marks one year since I set foot in the snowy, inhumanely cold city of Montréal, Canada and the beginning of what would be one of the greatest times of my life – exchange. I met so many amazing people, travelled to tons of wonderful places, pushed myself far beyond my comfort zone and had some incredible adventures. If you still have the time and the money you should definitely enrol for your university’s exchange program – it’s an opportunity like no other, and if you do it right you can come out of it a completely different person with experiences to carry with you for the rest of your life. Looking back on my exchange I personally felt like I made the most of my semester in Montréal, so I’ve compiled a few pieces of advice for the budding or soon to endeavour exchange student.

For anyone unsure of what an exchange is, I’ll detail it a little here for you. An exchange program (also known as an Erasmus in Europe or Study Abroad in the US) is an optional component of one’s university degree, where they can apply and elect an overseas university (that your current university is partnered with) to study at for one semester or a full year, with all the credits accumulated over that period being transferred back upon their return. But it’s so much more than that.

1.    Fully appreciate what kind of opportunity exchange is

This is laying the groundwork for everything else. To make the most of a student exchange, Erasmus or study abroad program you need to fully understand how significant an opportunity this is. In life, you generally have these three constraints – time, money, and energy. Throughout your life you generally lack one of these things. When you’re on exchange however, you have it all.

You have 4 to 16 months to spare, you have tons of money, you have boundless energy. Your grades don’t matter (pass/fail). You’re in another country where you know nobody and nobody knows you – giving you absolute freedom to be whoever you want. You are fully independent. You travel a lot, you party,you don’t need to work, you have zero responsibilities. You are free to do whatever the hell you want; and by the end of exchange none of it really matters. There are no consequences if you don’t want any. This is essentially a free pass at life. A little sandbox of time where you can break free of the shackles of reality and truly live your life to the fullest without repercussions. You will never, ever get this kind of opportunity ever again in your entire life so it’s up to you to make the most of it. We’re not on this planet for very long, so we might as well have some fun while we’re here.

Montréal from the top of it's namesake Mont Royal. Your city is your playground.
Montréal from the top of it’s namesake Mont Royal. Your city is your playground.

2.    Leave yourself at the door.

Exchange is an opportunity to push your boundaries and discover what you’re capable of. If you’re not willing to try new things or take risks and challenges then what’s the point? It then becomes nothing more than an expensive holiday. This is your chance to start your life anew. Live like you’ve got nothing to lose.

3.    Say “Yes” to everything.

Sometimes even against your better judgement. I was told this rule by someone prior to my exchange and sticking with it has led to countless adventures, friendships and memories which would have never blossomed if I were my old self. Say yes to every opportunity. Let your guard down. Take risks. Be irresponsible for once.

For example in my first week in Montréal I slipped on the ice and broke the scaphoid bone in my wrist, only 3 weeks after getting out of a cast for the exact same injury. My luck, right? I was in a cast for 8 weeks, but that didn’t stop me from going skiing (twice) and hopping on a trip to Cuba at the last minute. I was going to have my fun, my body be damned. Was skiing (and falling a couple of times) with an arm in a cast irresponsible? Possibly. Did it extend my time in a cast? Definitely. Was it worth it? 100%. I realise this is an extreme example but going on those ski trips and to Cuba led me to meeting some absolutely incredible people, making amazing friends and having some incredible memories that I wouldn’t have ever dreamt of had I said no. I wouldn’t give those experiences up for the world. The aim is to come back from your exchange without any “What if?”s.

Hanging out the side of a speeding jeep window in Cuba with my bright purple cast

4.    Studying is secondary.

Unless if your university has some special condition regarding your exchange, courses are generally pass/fail. What that means is that no matter how good you do – even if you top the class – all you get are the university credits and your average mark, GPA or WAM doesn’t change. 50% or 100% makes no difference. At my university in particular, if we failed a course they just act like it never existed, nothing shows up on your transcripts. Like I said, free pass. Under normal circumstances I do study relatively hard at university, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that doing so while on exchange is a complete waste of your time. If you do enjoy your subjects then by all means do what you want, but try not to do more than necessary. Study to the bare minimum.

You know that person in class barely scraping by in all their subjects? You can be that guy! You can try out what that person’s life is like without any consequences. While you will have to prioritise studying enough to pass (I studied Foundation Design for 2 hours each morning while I was in Cuba, laying in the sun beside the pool), don’t stress too much. I remember in one of my mid-terms I did a quick run through whatever I could do on my paper, then went through and counted all my marks, which I realised was exactly 50 percent. I handed in my paper and left halfway through the exam. I ended up getting 50%. I definitely don’t recommend you do this, but it’s an option.

5.    Join the international society at your university and be active in it.

This is a big one. I’ve talked to exchange students from other places and experiences will vary, but I definitely recommend you try yours out. It’s an easy way to meet heaps of amazing and like-minded people in a short span of time. My international society regularly organised parties, pub crawls, outings to city events, day trips, weekend trips to cities and ski resorts and even a weeklong trip to Cuba for Spring break. It was basically an exchange student’s dream. I made some of my best friends through the events at my international society and had some of my most amazing experiences (Cuba, I miss you dearly).

In Havana, Cuba
In Havana, Cuba

6.    Get involved in societies that interest you.

People say this all the time to people just entering university, but when grades do matter you might find it hard to actually commit to any societies that you want to be a part of. Well, since you’re on exchange that factor is out of the question and you have more than enough time to get involved. It’s a great way to meet people, do what you were going to do anyway and save money (thank you Ski Club and your $50 all-inclusive day trips), and maybe even get a little something with a bit of academic value along the way.

Skiing with the Concordia Ski and Snowboard Club at Mont Tremblant.

7.    Travel as much as you can.

You were probably planning on doing it anyway, but I might as well reiterate it here. Travelling the world is an incredible and potentially life-changing experience, and if you’re this far from home you can and should explore as much of the part of the globe you’re on as possible. Make the most of your time there.

From the top of the Prudential Center in Boston, Massachusetts.
From the top of the Prudential Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

8.    Travel, but don’t forget about exploring your own city.

I failed just a little on this point. Throughout my exchange I travelled around as much as I could. When I didn’t travel (in the traditional sense), I’d go skiing. Any weekend spent entirely in Montréal was seen as a failure. As time grew short I started to realise I hadn’t explored much of my beloved city as I would’ve liked – so in my last couple days amidst the goodbyes and errands I rushed around the city trying to see the places I always put off. I never got around to the Biodome, rain poured down on us when trying to see Parc Olympique, I never explored Habitat 67, I never ate smoked meat from Schwartz’s, I never saw the sunset from Parc Jean-Drapeau. Try not to make the same mistake I did.

9.    Exchange your money the smart way

This little piece of advice is more specific to Australians, but the general idea is do some research into your local banks before hopping on that plane, and find the best bank for international transactions/ATM withdrawals. For an exchange student’s budget, bad exchange rates and fees can add up to losses of hundreds of dollars or more if you’re not careful. If you’re from Australia, assuming the exchange rate is stable I strongly recommend getting the Citibank Plus Debit card (as of December 2014). There’s no fees even for international withdrawals and the exchange rates are locked to the Visa rate, which means you’re getting rates very close to the actual exchange rate, which means more money for you.

The idea with this card is that you essentially use it as a conduit for your money – an intermediary to exchange your money for a good rate. You put all your money on the card, withdraw it out overseas on exchange (as much as your can per day), and then deposit it into an overseas account that you can set up while you’re there. Look at the exchange rates daily and work out the best days of the week to withdraw. Do the research and find a good bank with a student account with no fees. I can’t tell you which ones those are in every country, but if you’re going to Canada – it’s Scotia Bank. I even got 2 free movie tickets in 4 months from using the card, it’s pretty awesome.

Whoever said money can't buy happiness is a fucking liar.
Whoever said money can’t buy happiness is a fucking liar.

10.    Decide on where to do your exchange for the right reasons

This is crucial to what kind of experience you are going to get. Why are you going on exchange to this particular university? What are your goals? To put it bluntly – if you pick your university solely on ranking and having something prestigious on your CV, you’re doing it wrong. Life is so much more than a piece of paper.

Personally, I decided on Concordia University on three specific criteria:

  1. City
  2. Location
  3. Student life

I’ll be honest and say my first preference was McGill University, but I really didn’t care where I went as long as I was in Montréal. I’m actually kind of glad I got into Concordia instead, because the student life and social aspects were absolutely brilliant and greatly contributed to my time in Montréal, and I made so many incredible friends there that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ll firstly reiterate the point about not picking a university solely on ranking. Unless if the university has other aspects that appeal to you, such as particular societies, a vibrant student life or interesting courses that you can’t find anywhere else, I strongly advise you don’t pick that university. About midway through working out my preferences, University of Toronto (the highest ranked university in Canada) was close to the top of my list. Somewhere along the way however I googled “University of Toronto social life” and after finding almost universally negative feedback on the topic It instantly dropped to my last preference.

The city you choose is important because hey, that’s where you’re going to be spending 4 to 16 months of your life. Ask yourself why you want to live in a particular city. Make sure the city you decide on offers what you want out of your exchange. This also ties into location – whereabouts in the world it is located and how close is it to other places you want to visit and things you want to do.

Brunch at L'avenue: Food options are important
Brunch at L’avenue: Food options are important

I picked Montréal for a couple of reasons; I wanted to learn French, it’s the largest French speaking city in the world after Paris, it’s bilingual which makes it a very unique place in the world – not fully foreign but not fully familiar either, it snows there (and how!), it’s a vibrant student city, I can go skiing every weekend, and it’s close to cities I wanted to visit such as New York, Boston and Chicago. I got pretty much exactly what I wanted out of Montréal (I didn’t get to go to Chicago though, one of my few regrets!), and loved every minute of it.

Ski, ski, ski and more ski
Ski, ski, ski and more ski

11.    How you know you’ve made the most of your exchange

Even eight months on you still miss it like crazy and would give everything up in a heartbeat to go back.

UPDATE: And then I did.

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