Biochemistry & Molecular Biology student Alison Howett describes her Study Abroad experiences in McGill University in Montreal, Canada…

I was standing in the centre of Toronto airport, having missed my connecting flight and feeling slightly lost amid the other travellers eager to get on with their own business. The excitement of beginning my study abroad experience, which I had been looking forward to for months, was beginning to diminish. As I am writing this piece, almost a year later however, I would do almost anything to be back in that position. It did not seem like it in that moment, but I was about to embark on the best four months of my life so far.

The adventure really began in the October of my second year in UCD, when I attended an information session with UCD International. I had always been keen on completing a semester abroad in University and attending this information setting further ignited this interest. I was given a list of Universities that were study abroad options for students in the UCD School of Biomolecular & Biomedical Science and so my research began.

With the list encompassing universities from Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Canada the decision was not easy with each destination having its own selling point. In the end I settled on McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The reputation of McGill University as a world-renowned university, the bilingual aspect of Montreal, the notoriously friendly disposition of Canadians and the fact that the university ran modules that coincided with the UCD modules that I would be missing, were all factors that lead me towards my decision. An application to the UCD International Office, a few months of apprehensive waiting for a decision and an acceptance email sealed my fate.

Due to the extremes of seasons in Canada my exchange can be clearly divided into three seasons, the summer months of making new friends and adjusting to my new life, the fall months where Montreal became my home and the winter months which were filled with lots of layers and sadly many goodbyes.

The famous McGill University arts building in the summer and winter months

The famous McGill University arts building in the summer and winter months!

Summer Summer:

The first few weeks of Montreal largely revolved around getting settled into Canadian life. McGill University campus, being situated in the centre of Montreal, had a different feel to the campus orientated organisation of UCD. Orientation events were organised in the first few weeks enabling both new students and exchange students to get a better feel for both the campus and the city whilst making new friends. An open – air pub was built on the grass at the front of the campus which was packed with students in the evenings, providing a place where you could mingle with new friends, save yourself from having to cook a meal and listen to some questionable music! I signed up to take part in Frosh – a week of events organised for Freshman and new students. It was definitely a memorable experience which included a boat party, a day spent at a beach club, pub crawls and night time concerts with members of your faculty….not exactly a typical university orientation!!

I was taking four modules whilst in McGill. The classes varied in size from over 300 to 80. Many of the classes were recorded and the students tended to be more vocal in the lectures, however, in many ways the classes were similar to those in UCD. It took a week or two to adjust from the summer holiday vibes of orientation week to the reality of returning to lectures and study! At weekends I made an effort to travel to some of the major north American cities with other exchange students. In the summer months, mainly using very long bus journeys I managed to travel to Vancouver, Banff, Calgary, Mont Tremblant, Quebec and Ontario!!

Standing in front in one of the most beautiful places I have seen - Moraine Lake!

Standing in front in one of the most beautiful places I have seen – Moraine Lake!

The Chinese gardens in Montreal lit up by lights at night.

The Chinese gardens in Montreal lit up by lights at night.

Fall Fall:

With the arrival of autumn, I felt as though I had really settled into the study abroad life. I was lucky in that I had found accommodation right in the centre of Montreal and a 10 -minute walk from the campus. I was sharing an apartment with 4 other students and the residence itself was largely occupied with students meaning there was little occasion to be lonely or at a loss for something to do. The apartment overlooked Saint-Catherine Street, the main shopping street in Montreal meaning we had first class viewing of the zombie march, Christmas parade and many other activities occurring on the street below.

I had organised the accommodation through the recommendation of a UCD student who had previously been on exchange in Montreal, however, some students opted to stay in a hostel and find accommodation upon arrival in Montreal. My memories of these months involved the dreaded mid-terms, the vibrant leaves (I have never seen such amazing colours), the Halloween celebrations and our trip to Toronto & Boston!

Montreal in Autumn, Niagara falls and Toronto!

Montreal in Autumn, Niagara falls and Toronto!

Winter Winter:

Winter gave me a whole new perspective on what we define as being cold. I remember walking home from my exam one evening, with the wind chill of -28oC , and feeling my mouth going numb. I left in late December so I avoided the even more menacing cold that arrives in January but I had experienced enough!! With the cold came the snow, cloaking Montreal in a blanket of white. Unfortunately, the Canadians are well adjusted to the weather and so there was no snow days given!

Trekking to class in snow boots, long coats and multiple layers became routine. Despite the cold and having to study for final exams, there was still time to have fun. Lots of Christmas markets had popped up around the city, I went on an unforgettable trip to New York and got into the Christmas festivities.

Central Park, a Christmas market and a bunch of us wrapped up against the cold!

Central Park, a Christmas market and a bunch of us wrapped up against the cold!

Goodbyes:

After a slightly stressful experience packing up my home for four months into a 20kg suitcase and a few tearful goodbyes, I ended up standing in Montreal airport, my flight being cancelled and my hopes of making it home for Christmas in jeopardy. It seemed apt that my exchange experience was ending almost exactly the way it had begun, with airport worries. This time however I had experience, independence and four months filled with happy memories on my side.

Although an exchange is not always plain-sailing and challenges will arise it is a priceless opportunity to travel, make international friends, become independent and experience a different university life. To anyone who has this fantastic opportunity I could not recommend it enough. As I sit here reminiscing about my study abroad time I can only but wish to be back in your shoes!!

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