- by Kate Harrison
Doing a year abroad with university is the best life choice I have ever made. Moving to Ottawa was a huge step for me, especially as I have lived at home with my mum during my studies in Birmingham. Hardly knowing anything about Ottawa before moving was both a frightening and exciting experience, but I can honestly say that I have already learnt some important life lessons.
Before moving to Ottawa, I was adamant that I would study in a big city in the states for the year. If anyone even brought Canada into conversation, I would almost instantly pester them about it stating that it was ‘not for me’. So here’s my first advice tip: Do not be disheartened if you do not get your first choice on a year abroad, moving somewhere completely unexpected has been a great challenge for me, and I really could not imagine living anywhere else at the moment! Ottawa is a wonderful place, and the people are absolutely fantastic. Canadians are polite, friendly and always willing to help you where they can. When I first arrived in August I was overwhelmed at the level people were willing to go to for me, and I could not be more thankful for that!
I think it’s important to stress how much easier it felt gaining entry to Canada for a year abroad, when compared to the states. Unlike the US where you can expect to attend interviews and pay quite a lot of money, all you need to do for Canada is apply for a study permit online. It’s pretty simple in theory, but the websites can be rather confusing… so just make sure if you ever to apply to read everything carefully and pay attention to small print. It is also relatively cheap to purchase a permit- and another perk is that they last longer than your length of study. I finish classes at the end of April, but my permit expires in July- which means lots of time for travelling! With Canadian study permits, it is so simple to go to the states if you wish. When flying you simply apply for a VISA Waiver, or if using a car or coach you just need an I-94 to cross the border. It’s all very cheap, which means that travelling to the States is extremely doable during your year in Canada.
Luckily for me living in the Capital, I am in a major Canadian city- but it’s somewhat smaller than the average capital. Being a government city, it’s fairly quiet, not too overpopulated and insanely clean. There is also enough to do here without getting bored; there are lots of museums, live events, places to eat out, and a decent night life to experience. There’s plenty of sport too, NHL has just come out of lockout again so for hockey lovers, they can check out the Ottawa Senators play at the Scotiabank Place. Currently the Rideau Canal is open for ice-skating- which is the world’s largest outdoor skating rink, so if you have skates definitely bring them if you visit Ottawa in the winter! Winterlude Festival is also soon approaching- this is a yearly event which essentially celebrates all things cold. There is ice sculpting, ice slides, skating, and live music. People are afraid to even leave the house in England when it is cold, but here in Ottawa people truly embrace the winter.
One other thing to stress about Ottawa is that the climate is insane- I cannot stress enough that if you ever visit Ottawa during the winter, you need to WRAP UP WARM! When I arrived in August it was +40 (which is hotter than I’ve ever experienced in England), now it’s reached -40 so, get a coat, and all the warm accessories to go with it and you will be good (coats can be pretty pricey here, but you get what you pay for). The snow is literally unbelievable in Ottawa, as one night we had at least 3 feet of snow fall. Waking up to it was honestly the best moment of my life. I thought 3 millimetres was great, but then I moved to Canada…..
My biggest lesson on my year abroad so far has been how to use money wisely. I have worked part-time since I was 16 so saved as much as I could for a potential year in North America, I also saved my student loans, bursaries, and scholarships to ensure I had enough for the year. Furthermore I haven’t had the option of having a parent to bail me out, so I’ve had to learn the hard way: work and saving were key to being able to move to Canada. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of saving for a year abroad, Ottawa is fairly pricey, and does not have ‘value’ supermarkets as such, and things are not always cheap. For example I ended up paying $400 on books alone for my Winter term, plus health insurance is necessary and that can set you back around $600. I cannot stress how important insurance is. My best friend flew out to me at Christmas time, and sadly ended up in the Ottawa Heart Institute Hospital for 3 days. This set her back at least $25,000 in charges, but she’d fortunately got cover. You never know what will happen when on a year abroad, so definitely get insurance!
Furthermore, you need a fair bit of money to travel and go places; I’d suggest using the Greyhound and Megabus service as much as possible, as it really saves you a lot of money. Ottawa luckily has some great transport links and is really close to Montreal and Toronto is around a 6 hour drive. Greyhound buses run regularly, and if you don’t mind spending hours on a bus, you can save a lot. If you can afford it, flights also run from Ottawa to New York City, Washington DC, and other US destinations- they aren’t too expensive, a return to NYC cost me $400, and literally took an hour. However, I did happen to lose my bags on a layover in Toronto… this was not a pleasurable experience!
In a bid to save some money, I also decided to live off campus this year. Using the University of Ottawa buddy programme, I was really fortunate that my paired buddy knew two girls looking for a room-mate. I must admit the house is not exactly close to campus, but it has saved me around $200 a month in rent, and I’m used to public transport, so it’s not really a big deal (student U-passes are affordable and last the entire two semester period). I also love where I live, as it is a town house in a suburban area called Nepean. The house is bigger than mine in England, so it’s really nice to come home in -40 weather to a wood fire and a king size bed! When looking for houses, it’s all really a game of luck, you can advertise yourself on sites such as Kijiji and Craigslist, but I found that asking around and networking before I came was the easiest option. Some people came out homeless, and then stayed in a hostel whilst house-hunting. This wasn’t the option for me, so I advise anyone who gets stressed by housing to plan well ahead of time!
I have found a major difference in the university system here in Ottawa. I will jump straight to the point: assessment is more frequent, and you can expect as many as 15 assignments per semester. In general, so far they have been extremely varied in assessment- standard essays, large research projects, group projects, debates, exams and weekly writing protocols have been frequent in my classes. I’ve found that it’s actually quite easy to do well over here though; I averaged an A in my autumn term, and found that the workload was larger, but somewhat easier. Make sure you do all your work before deadlines, as professors can be extremely strict out here! Classes are structured differently too, 3 hour lectures are not uncommon, nor are 8:30 starts- this doesn’t bode well with a hangover so be sensible. Also you get marked on your attendance in some classes, so make sure to make a conscious effort to get to class… The University of Ottawa offers a variety of courses, varying from the law surrounding Indigenous women, American film, US foreign policy, US poetry, Canadian cultural history and much more. I was shocked at the number of classes on o?er to me! The teaching standard is brilliant, and I could not fault the professors I have had thus far.
To finish I thought I’d give an idea of some of the things I’ve been able to do so far…
I’ve been dog-sledding, tubing, sun-bathing on a beach in Ottawa, visited a pumpkin festival, toured Canadian Parliament, visited a six flags park, visited Toronto, Montreal, New York City, Kingston, Calabogie ( a Ski Resort), Cornwall, The St Lawrence River, The Ottawa Heart Institute (unfortunately) and so much more I cannot even remember. I’m also going to Chicago, the Maritime Provinces, Quebec City and Washington DC before I go home! My year abroad has already been extremely memorable, and I cannot stress enough how amazing the opportunity is.
Kate Harrison is in her final year at University of Birmingham studying ACS and History