U of T hires two Indigenous academic advisors in response to TRC

Breaking down the university’s path toward reconciliation

U of T hires two Indigenous academic advisors in response to TRC

In an attempt to further integrate Indigenous perspectives of education and research in accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations and its own TRC Steering Committee report, U of T appointed two advisors on Indigenous research and curriculum: Professor Suzanne Stewart and Professor Susan Hill.

In 2015, the TRC released its final report, which documented the history and intergenerational impact of the residential school system on Indigenous children and families. It described Canada’s assimilation policy — at the heart of which was the residential school system — as “cultural genocide.”

Education remains central to the disadvantages faced by Indigenous people. Indigenous youth face systemic barriers in accessing education, including at the postsecondary level, relative to non-Indigenous youth. In response, the TRC dedicated four out of 94 calls to action specifically to postsecondary institutions.

The new advisors

Stewart, a member of the Yellowknife Dene First Nation, has been a faculty member at U of T since 2007. She is now the director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and an Academic Advisor on Indigenous Research.

Her new role will have her focusing on how researchers should go about working with Indigenous communities, in part by developing documents that provide guidance and best practices on how to conduct research respectfully within them. Stewart will also serve as a guiding hand for those who are interested in conducting collaborative research with Indigenous communities. 

Hill began her U of T career in July 2017 and holds a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Centre for Indigenous Studies. She is a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — specifically the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation.

Her position as academic advisor of Indigenous curricula and education has her focusing on designing and redesigning curricula, developing collaborative teaching opportunities in Indigenous Studies, and establishing a database of Indigenous content and educational materials.

In response to these new appointments, Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s vice-president and provost, said to U of T News: “I am looking forward to working closely with Susan Hill and Suzanne Stewart to further the university’s commitment to U of T’s Calls to Action.”

“Their expertise will be invaluable in ensuring the university is moving forward on the most respectful path towards truth and reconciliation.”

In recent years, U of T has made steps to create Indigenous-focused initiatives: including the Deepening Knowledge Project at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the Indigenous Education Network founded by Indigenous students, and the TRC Implementation Committee at the Faculty of Law. In addition, a handful of master’s programs at the university have committed to integrating Indigenous education, such as the Masters in Social Work, Indigenous Trauma and Resiliency and the Masters of Public Health in Indigenous Health.

In conversation with Professor Suzanne Stewart

In an interview with The Varsity, Stewart reported having faced systematic and personal racism in Canada, including in postsecondary institutions. However, Stewart believes that due to the TRC, some positive changes in the education system are occurring — such as conversations about increasing Indigenous student support and funding.
Indigenous students still face racism, oppression, and barriers to higher education. While 63 per cent of non-Indigenous people have a post secondary diploma, that number drops to 44 per cent for Indigenous people. Stewart sees self-determination and racism as the chief issues for the Indigenous community.

Stewart suggests that the university should create “a system of special package funds” to break financial barriers for students who identify as Indigenous. In addition, she believes that people across the country “need to be more aware of Indigenous history and the privileges non-Indigenous people have in Canada.”

Reflecting on U of T and reconciliation

Another new Indigenous faculty member at U of T is Professor Heather Dorries. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of Geography and Planning and the Centre for Indigenous Studies, and is Anishinaabe. In an interview with The Varsity, Dorries admitted that when she was a student at McGill University, she felt that Indigenous education was not “something that the administration really ever put any energy into,” but now she is seeing positive changes in the general attitude toward it in the university setting.

Dorries firmly believes that the university can benefit greatly from Indigenous knowledge: for instance, the traditional Indigenous understanding of the environment can be valuable in the field of geography. She also acknowledged the pressures and stress constantly faced by students and suggested that Indigenous perspectives may be helpful in considering different perspectives on life and dealing with challenges.

In the future, Dorries hopes to see universities as “a place of empowerment for everyone, where we create and disseminate knowledge [and] educate ourselves in ways that help us to understand how we can support the flourishing of life.” She concludes that post secondary institutions will have to reconsider their priorities in order for reconciliation to happen.

According to Dorries, continuous student involvement is key to successful incorporation of Indigenous knowledge. If the university sees a demand for courses in Indigenous Studies, or other “events” relating to Indigenous education, the university will try to respond to that demand. In her previous position, she noticed that student action was the driving force behind the university’s initiatives towards reconciliation.

“Students shouldn’t underestimate the influence that they can have on the institution.”

Integration of social media-motivated cultural movements into course content is long overdue

K-pop and #MeToo courses bring academia closer to contemporary issues and subjects, challenge the traditional canon

Integration of social media-motivated cultural movements into course content is long overdue

My favourite part of What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy is his scathing yet hilarious criticism of other artists and styles. The most poignant part is when Tolstoy draws a distinction between the increasingly absurd art of the “upper classes” and the art of the “masses,” for it reveals how culture is a power dynamic in itself. U of T’s introduction of two new courses motivated by mass media significantly deviates from academic tradition.

Culture can denote separate judgements on the quality of social practices and values. One is a historical purveyor, and the other is a body of features representing a society’s progress.

Although people are exposed to many cultures in modern life, there still remains a belief that some cultural features are more prestigious or developed than others. In a simple offhand remark about social media or reality television, there is an inherent act of discrimination against less “cultured” content and those who adhere to it, which may spiral to reinforce other prejudices.

This same attitude informs the content of our academic studies, guiding it toward certain subjects over others because they are supposedly more intelligent or insightful. These subjects often express male-dominated, upper-class driven, and Western traditions.

This makes U of T’s decision to offer two new courses which explore K-pop fandoms and the #MeToo movement significant, because these courses break with a Eurocentric tradition and recognize the impact of popular media movements on twenty-first century values and lifestyles.

Our contemporary world is marked by rapid changes in technological mediums which affect how we communicate and connect with others, in addition to providing a platform for cultural homogenization, globalization, and radicalization. There is nothing more relevant to our understanding of culture than the social reality in which we live.

These courses might not be impartial or apolitical, but the subjective experiences that students bring into the classroom present an opportunity for meaningful discussion — discussion that allows for different perspectives to be heard and new ones to arise.

Subjectivity is already an alternative tool for understanding that appears when a person reads-in modern or personal perspectives on historical events, makes assumptions and generalizations about other civilizations, and pieces together social conditions from a variety of partial sources.

Upon close consideration, it’s baffling why the inclusion of K-pop or the #MeToo movement took so long in the first place. There is no justification for people who believe that popular culture cannot positively contribute to classroom settings other than notions of cultural superiority.

Media culture is complex and integral to the structure of social events, just as much as topics with ‘greater academic worth.’ Opponents of these classes are no longer begging the question. They are finding new reasons to enforce hierarchies.

U of T must embrace the generational and technological differences that shape society without judgment, and adapt its curriculum so students can address issues of here and now, as will be done in the K-pop and #MeToo courses. To perpetuate a false perception of culture is, as Tolstoy would say, absolutely absurd.

Emily Hurmizi is a second-year Philosophy student at Victoria College.

Convocation Hall is not a classroom

Mandatory first-year seminar courses will improve experience and performance

Convocation Hall is not a classroom

In response to concern over increased enrolment, the Faculty of Arts & Science has made a proposal to require all incoming first-year students to take a foundational seminar course. This proposal is long overdue and should be implemented. Large class sizes are an unfortunate hallmark of the undergraduate U of T experience.

I recall my first day at U of T, when I walked into Convocation Hall for an introductory sociology class with 1,500 fellow classmates — a crowd over three times as large as my entire high school. I later reviewed ACORN and realized that over half of my classes would be be at Convocation Hall — a ‘classroom’ that can hold over 1,000 students without any tables to put your notebook on.

Not a single one of my first-year classes had less than 400 students. I felt completely lost, but this is normal at U of T. A 2012 study of the faculty’s first-year class sizes from 2006–2011 found that over half had over 200 students.

Stronger community

These enormous first-year classes limit opportunities to interact with the professor and ask questions, especially since first years may not feel comfortable taking advantage of office hours. It should come as no surprise, with professors who cannot learn your name or recognize you, that many U of T students complain of feeling like ‘just a number’ in their first year — a crucial time to form an identity on campus. 

Huge class sizes also complicate the ability to make connections with peers, as these limited opportunities for in-class discussions and activities. It is also unlikely that you will sit next to or even see the same person twice over the course of a semester.

Smaller class sizes provide face-to-face opportunities to build relationships with professors and peers to reduce the intimidation factor and help smoothly transition to a university education. It allows you to feel as though there is a community that has your back, or at the very least, is going through this with you.

While U of T currently offers first-year seminars through the First Year Foundation and College One programs, these programs are highly competitive and often unrelated to a student’s program of study. This can deter students from voluntarily enrolling.

Victoria College is the only college that requires students to take a first-year seminar course. According to its website, participation allows students “to get to know fellow classmates and professors, engage in interactive academic discussions, and develop strong written, oral and teamwork skills.” All colleges should follow Victoria’s lead, since these experiences are essential for a meaningful and successful academic career. The university should also design a mandatory requirement that helps students complete their programs of study.

Better academic performance

My first-year experience almost caused me to leave U of T. It seemed unreasonable to pay one of the country’s highest tuition fees, only to sit down with 1,000 others and furiously copy down lecture slides, without any in-class engagement to help understand the material.

I was told by many that it gets better after first year. So I stayed, and while it did get better, my average class size was still around 100–200 students in second year. It was not until my third year that I was in a class small enough that actual discussion was possible. It was refreshing: I had been trained since that first day to sit quietly and absorb every word my professor said, rather than actively participate in my own learning.

Indeed, large classes inhibit students from engaging in meaningful participation and engagement with the material through debate and discussion. But this is a vital way for students to practice their critical thinking skills and learn to consider new ideas. Large classes instead encourage a passive learning style by which students are not required to critically engage with the material, which is contrary to what is expected from them in their assignments and tests.

In smaller classes, I was able to better absorb the material and recall  discussions I had in class during tests and assignments because I could ask questions when they popped up and flesh out ideas. This drastically improved my grades and enjoyment of the class.

The right step forward

Third year is very late to finally experience a meaningful learning environment. This is especially true if you are a student who is thinking about going to graduate school and hopes that there is a professor out there who remembers you well enough to write you a reference letter.

I understand that large class sizes are inevitable at the largest university in Canada. However, other universities with large student populations, such as the University of British Columbia, are able to ensure that almost half of first-year and second-year classes have less than 100 students.

The faculty’s initiative in taking this much needed step toward mandatory first-year seminar courses is uplifting. It will invest in a more supportive learning environment and undoubtedly improve the quality of education that U of T undergraduates receive.

Yasaman Mohaddes is a fourth-year Political Science and Sociology student at St. Michael’s College.

Faculty of Arts & Science looking to implement mandatory small class requirement

Faculty in beginnings of proposal process, hopes to expand small class offerings

Faculty of Arts & Science looking to implement mandatory small class requirement

The Faculty of Arts & Science is proposing to implement a mandatory small class requirement for incoming first-year students, which would not take effect in the coming academic year but would encourage the faculty to build its small class offerings. The proposal comes amid increasing enrolment and the need for diverse course offerings throughout each department.

Students would be required to enrol in a half or full-year seminar in their first year of study. “We are considering making it a requirement that a small foundational seminar be taken by all students in their first year because we believe the small class experience is an ideal environment to help students transition to university studies, make early connections with peers and professors and start to develop the technical research and communication skills to support them through their degree and beyond,” said Sean Bettam, Communications & Media Relations Specialist for the faculty, in an email to The Varsity.

The faculty currently has several small-class offerings limited to first-year students, including the First-Year Foundation (FYF) One programs, which require external applications, and FYF Seminars capped at 30 students.

Both academically rigorous and competitive, the College One programs offer a variety of curated courses to arts and science students.

First-year seminars focus on timely topics, but do not count toward program requirements.

While these offerings are highly encouraged, students are not required to enrol in a small class.

However, other programs without existing small classes are restructuring in order to meet the demands of the requirement.

Charlie Keil, Principal at Innis College, spoke to The Varsity about the effects that the proposed changes would bring to Innis’ current offerings, commenting on the current challenges faced by these courses and the demands they would bring to the small sizes overall.

“The problem [with the 199 courses] was that because [students] didn’t have to take them, what would often happen is that students would end up dropping them not because they didn’t like them, but because they either wouldn’t fit in their schedule or the courses that they needed to take to get into a POSt would conflict,” said Keil.

New College’s One program will drop the external application in order to encourage engagement and overall make the experience much easier for students.

When asked about such a change, Keil said that “the idea… in eliminating application processes… was just to make [the Ones] that much easier when students make their choices in terms of the different kinds of small-class learning experiences, to try to just make it as streamlined as possible for students to try to reduce as many impediments.”

Other colleges share the same sentiments as Keil, both drawing on the advantages of smaller class sizes for incoming students and reflecting on the challenges of fitting in as many undergraduate students while offering a small class experience.

“Victoria College has long believed that small-class experiences bring tangible benefits. Together with the FYF initiative, we are working to expand the disciplinary diversity of Vic One Hundred offerings,” reads a statement to The Varsity from Victoria College’s Office of the Principal.

First-year students at Victoria College are already required to take a small class as part of their degree component. The application for the Vic One programs remains unchanged.

New College, on the other hand, is focusing on restructuring its courses in order to meet the larger incoming undergraduate population.

“At New One, we have updated all our courses — changing titles, updating their descriptions to better match content — and we will offer more courses next year. We stay committed to limiting our class sizes to 25 students and to offering interdisciplinary courses,” said Alexandra Guerson, Coordinator of the New One program.

“Since New College is the largest undergraduate college at the university, it would be challenging to accommodate every first-year New College student with the existing One programs across campus. We currently have over 1,000 first-year students and we are actively researching models for expanding our offerings without compromising the quality of the program.”

If approved, updated course offerings will be uploaded to the 2019–2020 academic calendar at the end of April. The policy is still in the consultation stages, but, if the faculty chooses to move forward with it, the new framework would eventually have to be approved by the Arts & Science Council.

Editor’s Note (February 25, 10:30 am): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the changes would be implemented in the upcoming academic year. In fact, the faculty will be beginning to build its small course offerings next school year. The Varsity regrets the error. 

U of T approves Second Attempt for Credit policy change at UTM

Policy allows students to retake up to 1.0 previously passed credits for their GPA

U of T approves Second Attempt for Credit policy change at UTM

U of T’s Committee on Academic Policy and Programs approved the introduction of a Second Attempt for Credit (SAC) proposal on January 14, which will allow UTM students to choose up to 1.0 retaken passed credits to count toward their cumulative GPA (CGPA). This policy does not apply to UTSC or UTSG students.

Currently, marks received for a retaken course are not reflected in students’ GPAs, but are denoted as “extra” on their transcript.

Effective May 1, the policy makes changes to UTM’s existing Repeating Passed Courses Policy, according to an email from U of T spokesperson, Elizabeth Church.

“Under the existing policy, students are allowed to repeat passed courses only once and only when the course is needed to enter a program, to satisfy a prerequisite, or to demonstrate higher performance for an external credential or future graduate study,” explained Church.

Data collected by the university since September 2015 shows that, out of 1,340 instances of repeated passed courses, only 10 per cent of students taking previously passed courses saw a mark decrease. Most students saw a median increase of 13 per cent.

Students must designate a course as SAC before completing it for it to count toward their GPA, or else it will continue to be denoted as “extra.”

The deadline will correspond with the deadlines for late withdrawal and credit/no credit. There is no restriction on the year that the student is in, the level of the course, or the campus where the course is offered.

The Office of the Vice-Principal Academic and Dean consulted with UTM’s Office of the Registrar and solicited feedback from UTM Department Chairs and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU).

Professor Angela Lange, Acting Vice-Principal Academic and Dean, formally proposed this policy in October last year, after which it was brought to UTM’s Academic Affairs Committee. Upon the Academic Affairs Committee’s recommendation, the motion was presented to the Committee on Academic Policy and Programs for approval.

“The rationale behind this [policy],” said Church, “is to give students more opportunities to recover from challenges in their first year that may keep them from entering programs that require a minimum mark in a particular course… or a minimum CGPA.”

The SAC amendment acknowledges students’ efforts to improve and ensures that this effort is reflected in their GPA.

The new policy will also be consistent with other U15 universities, a group of 15 Canadian public research universities of which University of Toronto is a member.

The UTMSU has been advocating for the course retake policy for years, with the union releasing its policy proposal on the issue last March.

However, this policy currently only exists at UTM; no similar policies have been proposed at either UTSC or UTSG.

Haseeb Hassaan, President of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), which represents undergraduate full-time students in the Faculty of Arts & Science at UTSG, wrote to The Varsity that ASSU “supports such a policy at the faculty of arts and science.”

“Our counterparts at the UTMSU have also briefed us on the policy,” confirmed Hassaan. “ASSU has brought this to the attention of the deans office and has made it clear that this [policy] would be of benefit [to] students.”

The Varsity has reached out to the UTMSU and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union for comment.

U of T proposes joining Faculty of Forestry with John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

Forestry facing lack of resources, declining number of students

U of T proposes joining Faculty of Forestry with John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

The Faculty of Forestry could join the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design as of July 1, according to a new proposal that will go through the governance process in early May.

If passed, the change will endeavour to retain the forestry faculty as is, keeping all of the current staff and possibly expanding the faculty’s offerings in conjunction with Daniels. The proposal would not affect undergraduate course offerings.

Robert Wright, dean of the Faculty of Forestry, told U of T News that “combining the Daniels and forestry faculties will pave the way for more collaboration and interdisciplinary research.”

One of the main reasons behind the proposed change is the faculty’s lack of resources. It does not have its own undergraduate program and is unable to offer all classes every year.

The Forestry Graduate Students’ Association (FGSA) noted that it has been involved in the consultation process with the dean, and that it is organizing a town hall for graduate students to express their opinions.

“One of the main concerns to the students… is that the programs stay intact and we have been reassured that the programs will remain the same if this particular proposal were to come to fruition,” wrote the FGSA in an email to The Varsity.

There will be another round of consultations before the proposal enters the governance process, according to Cheryl Regehr, U of T Vice-President and Provost.

“Over the years, the number of students in the Faculty of Forestry has declined and so this is a way of being able to create new synergy and create new programs,” said Regehr.

She noted that an important area of collaboration between forestry and Daniels is urban forests, as well as “the way in which forest products might be used in architectural design.”

Reddit post sparks conversation on “microtransactions,” digital learning service fees

Students speak out against use of for-profit third-party

Reddit post sparks conversation on “microtransactions,” digital learning service fees

After multiple posts on Reddit lodged complaints against the use of mandatory third-party academic tools, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) announced efforts to work with the university to address fees associated with digital learning services such as TopHat, WileyPlus, and McGraw-Hill Connect.

University guidelines

The university does have pre-existing guidelines on digital learning services, including a threshold for charging students $65 per half-credit. Services tied to publishing companies such as MindTap and WileyPlus charge $59.95 and $60 respectively, just below the mandated threshold. MindTap is owned by Cengage, an online textbook publishing company, and WileyPlus is a digital service provided by Wiley, a textbook publishing company.

The guidelines also stipulate that, if fees exceed the $65 threshold, alternative options must be provided for assessments made through these digital learning services.

Students must also be allowed to purchase the digital components separately, meaning that purchasing e-textbooks bundled with learning service codes must not be mandatory.

U of T spokesperson Elizabeth Church told The Varsity that the university does not receive any incentives for using digital learning services.

“Professors determine which resources are best for their course and may choose to use digital resources to meet their teaching and learning goals.”

Professors on why they use digital learning services

In various statements to The Varsity, professors justified their use of these digital learning services by saying that it enriched students’ learning experiences — although some lamented the fact that they were necessary.

All the professors who provided comment denied ever receiving any form of incentive to use these services and affirmed that they accommodate students who cannot afford or have difficulty affording the class’ digital learning service.

Professor Kripa Freitas, whose ECO206: Microeconomic Theory course used TopHat last year, emphasized that paid learning services were not her first choice when finding a system that integrated multiple-choice and short answer responses.

TopHat is an educational software from a Toronto-based company.

Freitas however noted that TopHat is useful for larger, second-year courses and helps to actively engage “every student in class.”

“I know I re-evaluate my use of any paid extras every time I teach. I explain my reasons for using them to students clearly and solicit student feedback continuously.”

For PSY201: Statistics I and PSY202: Statistics II, Professor Molly Metz uses MindTap, an application that she has not been offered incentives to use, although she has “heard of this happening, at many institutions.”

“I also know of many colleagues who have refused to use the products offered by these companies because of their distaste with what they (and I) see as unethical behaviour,” wrote Metz.

Metz, like Freitas, believes that using applications like MindTap serves to help engage students and create a better learning environment by using a system that allows for fast and regular response times on problem sets. She also added that MindTap is included in the textbook, and thus is not an additional cost to the course, but integrated in the core cost.

However, the cost of digital learning services cannot be transferred in the same way used textbooks can be sold to another student.

ESS205: Confronting Global Change Professor Miriam Diamond, PHY205: The Physics of Everyday Life Professor Brian Wilson, and AST251: Life on Other Worlds Professor Michael Reid all echoed their colleagues’ sentiments, underscoring that no free alternatives of equal quality to these digital learning services are available.

Reid also emphasized that TopHat has had a real, positive effect on student engagement.

On the possibility of a singular, university-wide system, Reid wrote, “At a university as big as U of T, it’s very difficult to obtain the necessary consensus across diverse departments and faculties. Still, it’s something to which I think we can aspire.”

Professor Avi Cohen uses MyEconLab for ECO105: Principles of Economics for Non-Specialists, and also denied ever receiving incentives to use the application. However, he also disclosed at the top of his email that “I am an author for Pearson Canada. My textbooks and associated MyEconLab software are assigned for ECO105Y.”

MyEconLab is the economics learning software for Pearson, an education publishing company.

Justifying his use of MyEconLab, Cohen wrote, “I view these expenditures as smart financial choices. The benefits… far exceed the costs.” Benefits cited include Canvas integration and 24/7 technical support.

“The motivation for using these paid applications is that they provide a much better learning experience for students, and better administrative efficiency for instructors than ‘free alternatives.’ You get what you pay for.”

Crowd-sourced information on fees

Following Reddit posts made by u/rhymenasourus, u/NoOutsideFeesUofT, and u/Kluey on the U of T subreddit, Christopher Dryden, a computer engineering student and former UTSU director, compiled a list of classes and professors that use paid digital learning services.

According to Dryden’s crowdsourced list, TopHat gains more than $200,000 from some 7,000 students who use its digital learning services across 27 classes.

Cohen’s class is also listed in Dryden’s list, and with a maximum potential class size of 897, Pearson’s MyEconPlus generates upward of $100,000 from ECO105 students in a given year. This year, there are roughly 730 students enrolled in ECO105, according to U of T’s timetable.

The Varsity was unable to independently verify the information as it was anonymously crowdsourced.

The UTSU responds

UTSU Vice-President University Affairs Joshua Grondin wrote in a statement to The Varsity that he is working with Dryden and Spencer Robertson, President of the University of Toronto Tabletop Gaming Club and another active user on the U of T subreddit, to prepare a report for the Business Board of Governing Council.

The report will include student feedback, clarification on the incentive structures for professors, and data on classes that use digital learning services.

Grondin stated that their ultimate goal is for the university to purchase an institution-wide subscription for digital learning services, and if that fails, for the university to institute stronger regulations on these services and disallow any ties between student use and evaluation.

At the very least, Grondin hopes to ensure that prices for digital learning services are included in course descriptions.

“It is my belief that when it comes to gaining full marks in a course, students should not have to pay anything above what they have already paid in tuition fees. If a professor wants to use these materials for graded exercises/quizzes, the cost needs to be covered by the university through tuition and ancillary fees, not a separate transaction.”

Dryden did not respond to The Varsitys request for comment.

Students on their first month abroad

Students on their first month abroad

Never as bad as it seems

Studying abroad taught me new ways to fight my anxiety

My first month abroad did wonders for my anxiety, but not in the ways that you would expect.

I decided to spend my third year at Sciences Po in Reims, France. I used to live in Lyon as a child, I spoke (decent) French, and I was familiar with the French culture. However, there are some key differences between moving to another country under the protection of your parents, and having to do absolutely everything by yourself.

French bureaucracy is notoriously slow and my experience was no different. Everything took longer than expected and the extent of the paperwork, online applications, and inefficiency was mindboggling. In addition, the French bureaucrats present every step of an administrative process with the seriousness and severity of a dictatorship.

“I need to do this, or I will be deported,” ran through my mind on a regular basis. Every time I received an email from a French government agency, my heart would skip a beat, and I would read and reread the vague French wording like it was an encrypted message. “If I could find the answer, the thought ran, I might be able to escape the horrific, anxiety-inducing cycle of bureaucracy.

But eventually, I started to realize that nothing was as serious or as final as it seemed. Despite the harsh and strict wording on the administrative websites, the people were — for the most part — understanding, patient, and flexible. And eventually, I found myself saying, “I’m sure it will be fine either way.”

As it turned out, optimism was the best cure for my anxiety. Instead of thinking of all the ways that my life could go wrong, I thought about all the benefits and the possibilities of it already going right. Studying abroad is a naturally stress-inducing experience, even for someone like me, who was going back somewhere I actually knew.

In all honesty, having to face the anxiety that came with completely uprooting my life and taking it somewhere else was really daunting. But the experience and confidence that my time abroad has given me is amazing. Even if it has not always been a complete success, at least I now know better for next time.

I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and my family still lives there, so coming to Toronto was in itself an experience studying abroad. However, it was a similar situation, where I was born in Canada, and I returned to Canada each summer — I knew the language, the customs, and the culture. Yet I had the same kinds of anxiety, the same now-or-never behaviour, that I have only managed to fight by continuing to push myself to keep doing these kinds of challenges. It’s not easy, and it very well might not be permanent, but each step provides me with the audacity to take the next. As someone who suffers from anxiety, pushing yourself to go abroad and furthering your world perspective is a great weapon for continuing to fight the good fight.

— Jillian Schuler


Sea change or ‘wee’ change?

Navigating life, traffic, and self in Edinburgh

Seconds after congratulating myself for ‘understanding’ Edinburgh, I wandered into the headlights of an oncoming taxi. “Bud, where did you come from?” I thought, as I scrambled onto the sidewalk and tried to block out the ensuing chorus of beeps, sneers, and obscenities.

I had glanced to the left before initiating my jaywalk: a simple yet deadly mistake in a country where cars come at you from the other side. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn — which is why I went abroad to begin with.

After nearly three years in the city, I fled Toronto for one simple reason: I was getting too comfortable. I had a great group of friends, decent grades, and a grasp of the landscape. But that was the problem — I was siding with the status quo too much, sleepwalking around campus, and defaulting into the same old routine. I needed something new.

I figured that the best way to reset and gain perspective was to travel. I knew it might be tough, stressful, or lonely, but I knew I’d get something from it. Or, at least, I hoped I would. Furthermore, I didn’t prance off to some exotic location; my trip saw me fly from Halifax to Edinburgh, Scotland. In other words, I travelled from one coastal university town to another — hopefully drunker — coastal university town.

But that was the idea. I wanted to experience new things, sure, but I didn’t want to plunge myself into an unrecognizable, far-flung universe. For me, shuffling off to, say, Warsaw or Moscow or Cape Town would have been very bold, but not very smart.

Edinburgh seemed like the perfect pick: the history runs deep, the scotch flows fast, and the school is second to none. Scotland and Canada have myriad links — my home province, Nova Scotia, translates to New Scotland in Latin. And I’d also be close to some great travel destinations.

So, after mulling it all over, I decided to buy the ticket and take the ride.

It’s been fantastic so far. The culture shock has been minimal. Of course, the slang is odd, the people are new, and the food is different, but that’s part of the fun. Grappling late at night with the notion of haggis and debating at what point you’re qualified to say ‘mate’ instead of ‘man’ is what makes exchange so entertaining. All the new stuff keeps you on your toes, analyzing and questioning and learning as much as possible.

It’s a great reminder of that sacred rule: never get too comfortable. When I did in Toronto, my ability to scrutinize, explore, and be creative atrophied. I became a ‘wee’ bit arrogant, and my drive to change — to grow — was muted.

The signs can be subtle, sneaky, and gradual, but they can also come right out of the blue — horn honking, headlights on, middle-finger up. Either way, it pays to be wary and to do what you can to maintain perspective and humility through it all.

— Ted Fraser


Freedom in France

Learn a new language for phone plans and food

“Did you know I went to Europe?” I shout to my last remaining friends as they get in the car and drive away from the ditch on the side of the road they have abandoned me in. “Did I mention that I studied abroad in France?” I say, as my family signs the papers removing me from their will.

Though I may have no love left in my life and no home to go back to, I have zero regrets about the month I spent in Tours, France, a little city a few hours south of Paris — which I also went to, in case you were wondering.

As a disclaimer, I fully wore rose-coloured glasses during the entire time I was abroad, wherein I studied French and ignored all my problems. I’m also very aware of the luck that is inherent in getting to fly across the world and muck about for a month. With that being said, perhaps this mediocre chronicle of my adventures can be my way of ‘paying it forward’ — the least I can do is to allow less fortunate folks to live vicariously through my glamorous Parisian escapades.

I arrived in France thinking that I could coast on my high school language skills, and I ended my first day sobbing in bed, clutching my French for Beginners dictionary. Who would have guessed that French people exclusively spoke French?

What brought me to the point of uncontrollable tears was my attempt to buy a phone plan. More than food, shelter, and clothing, this is the most important thing you can do in a new country, and also something that will completely destroy you if you can’t speak the language. Never have I been a larger advocate for a universal language than when I was trying to figure out how to say ‘data’ in French. Luckily for me, I had arrived with some other U of T students who were actually fluent and I placed my life in their hands. I was pressured into buying a slightly more expensive plan, but that’s just a part of the Experience™.

From that disastrous beginning, I realized that I probably needed to learn the language, which wasn’t too difficult seeing that I was in France and enrolled in French-language courses. What further motivated my desire to learn French was my need to be able to understand menus, so that I would not accidentally order raw meat.

And that was how I passed my month. I spent the days learning French, the nights tasting wines, and the weekends getting lost in Paris. I celebrated la Fête nationale by the Eiffel Tower and I biked the countryside visiting châteaux. I met people who have remained my friends to this day.

As I’m writing this in my room surrounded by dirty plates and textbooks, I realize that I probably peaked that summer. But it will all be worth it when, one day, I’m old and gray, sitting by the fireplace, and showing my 10 cats pictures of the most delicious pasta I’ve ever had.

— Josie Kao