Philip Edgcumbe's first thought when he left the airport in Delhi was how cold it was. It was a foggy day in January of 2009, and Edgcumbe, an engineering physics major at the University of British Columbia, had just arrived in the chaotic Indian capital on a four-month exchange at the elite Indian Institute of Technology. In retrospect, he probably could have done a little more research before making the 11,000-kilometre journey; the two novels by Rohinton Mistry and Salman Rushdie he'd read hadn't provided the kind of detail that would have seen him pack a few more sweaters in his bag. But here he was, underdressed and nervous and excited, with classes due to start in a few days.
Edgcumbe had always known he wanted to study abroad, but he didn't expect to end up in India. Then two things happened: He read an Economist article about IIT, which chooses 2,500 students from among 400,000 who write the entrance exam each year; and a classmate signed up for the Delhi exchange and urged Edgcumbe to come along. "IIT's academic reputation is good, and I felt that going on exchange should be as different an experience as possible," says Edgcumbe. "India certainly fit the bill."
By the time he flew home six months later (he stuck around for an extra six weeks to volunteer at an orphanage north of Delhi), he had made lifelong friends. "I was amazed at how easily I was able to connect," says Edgcumbe. "There really was very little that fundamentally differed between myself and the students I spent four months with. I gained an appreciation for how global we are, and the universal hope and culture of young people."
There are other benefits to studying abroad: learning a second language, developing an international network of contacts, building self-reliance. And there's this: A 2009 survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education found that 91 per cent of employers value prospective employees with international experience because it develops cross-cultural understanding. And half of them said they'd choose a candidate who had studied abroad over one who hadn't. "Understanding other cultures and relationship-building are real assets among employees," says Christine Tausig Ford, vice-president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. "You just have to look at the way the world is shaped these days by global forces and the speed with which knowledge moves."
Canadian universities offer more than 3,000 exchanges to 175 countries, in just about every discipline imaginable – international development in Ghana, indigenous studies in Mexico, history at a 15-century English castle, engineering in Shanghai. Yet, just 12 per cent of undergrads study abroad, compared to one-third of students in Germany. And that has university administrators nationwide fretting that Canada's young people won't be able to compete in a global job market. "It's just better for Canada as a whole," says Daniel Woolf, president of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., which has 150 exchange agreements in 45 countries (plus the aforementioned castle in England). "We've always been positioned as a middle power, an honest broker between different power blocks. We've been very well respected internationally. That won't continue if we don't produce graduates who are at least comfortable in another environment."
Universities have traditionally sunk far more resources into attracting foreign students to Canada than in sending homegrown ones abroad, since incoming students boost a school's bottom line with fat tuition fees. "It used to be we took a field of dreams approach to international exchanges," says Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison
University in Sackville, N.B. The school would set up an exchange to, say, Oslo and just expect kids to sign up. Today, the 2,500-student school has 17 exchanges to 14 countries, including economics in China and theatre studies in New Zealand. "We're being much more deliberative in making agreements that are useable and practical for our students. We don't just wait passively."
On the other side of the country, UBC is determined to send 30 per cent of undergrads on international exchanges within two years, up from about 14 per cent now. "It's our belief that we need to provide students with the opportunities to understand who we are in a global context, to understand their discipline in different places, to build their own international networks, to challenge themselves beyond their comfort zones and to experience who they are and how they see the world," says Katherine Beaumont, director of UBC's Go Global office.
But some practical concerns are preventing students from rushing to the airport. Often, they are afraid they will be left behind when they return from an overseas placement, and in the past, that was often the case. To ensure exchange students are able to graduate on time, universities sign agreements with foreign schools that mean the credits you accrue overseas count toward your degree back home. It can be a little trickier for students in applied programs like law and engineering, but that's changing, too. The five courses Edgcumbe took at IIT, for instance, all counted toward his UBC degree; one even used the same textbook as the equivalent course back home.
Money – or, rather, the lack thereof – is another potential hurdle. Exchange students generally pay regular tuition to their home school, but they're still expected to cover their flight and living expenses abroad. And though a federally commissioned report released in mid-August recommends funding 50,000 students each year to study abroad, federal grants are, as of now, virtually non-existent. (Compare that to Brazil, which in 2010 committed $2-billion to send 100,000 science students abroad over four years, all expenses paid, and recently earmarked an additional $2-billion to send 75,000 more.) The good news is that many universities try to defray at least some of the costs for study-abroad students. UBC offers grants of $1,000; Mount Allison will cover up to $5,000.
Edgcumbe (who is now in his second year of grad school, working on both a medical degree and a PhD in biomedical engineering) brushes aside such concerns. Sure, it will cost you, but an exchange will pay dividends later on. When he returned from his stint in India, he immediately landed a job with
Globalink, welcoming Indian exchange students to the UBC campus. When he got a phone call saying he'd landed a coveted interview at Stanford University – tantamount to being accepted into the school's graduate program – the first thing the professor asked about was his Indian experience. Edgcumbe also received two hefty scholarships, one of them for emerging leaders, and was one of five students in the province to interview for the Rhodes scholarship.
"What it comes down to," explains the future Dr. Edgcumbe, "is that there is very little opportunity cost and a tremendous opportunity gain."
Two students' experiences
Engineering Physics, University of British Columbia, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, 2009
The pitch: "It's an opportunity to arrive in a new place, to meet new people and to see how the same curriculum is delivered in a different country. It's also an opportunity to travel, and there's just so much more flexibility as a student than as an employee, because you're going to be living there, as opposed to arriving there for two weeks. Beyond the 15 or 20 hours of classes you have to attend, you are the master of your own schedule."
Highlight: "Staying for three days in an Indian family home in Jaipur with my classmate Utkarsh. We shared home-cooked meals, visited with many of his family members, went on a hike to the Choolgiri Jain Temple, and celebrated Holi with Utkarsh's neighbours and extended family. Other travel highlights included a week-long trip through Rajasthan and a two-day desert camel safari near Jaisalmer with seven IIT exchange students. Of course, no trip to India is complete without attending an Indian wedding. It was a three-day event with 800 guests. That was a party to remember."
Caveat: "It's a very different teaching style in India. There's a lot more talk-and-chalk: The teacher comes in, talks and writes on the board, then leaves."
History, Mount Allison University (Sackville, N.B.), Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall, 2012
The pitch: "Understanding what is important to people in other countries can be greatly beneficial in becoming a good global citizen. It is also a wonderful way to prove to yourself that you are capable of surviving on your own and of carving out a life for yourself wherever you go. It is an amazing confidence-booster."
Highlight: "A field trip with an ecology course I was taking – we drove across Sweden into Norway, and I got to see the amazing scenery of these countries and even climb a mountain."
Caveat: "Conversing with Swedes was usually not much of a problem, but bureaucracy is even harder to get through when paperwork, e-mails and the like are all in a language you don't understand. Being so far removed from your family, friends and familiar surroundings can also be quite difficult. Though on the flip side, it's very exciting to be able to reinvent yourself among people who don't have preconceived notions of you. I also found it much more difficult to regulate my finances while abroad; being removed from my normal habits made me inclined to spend more money."
Need to know
How do I pay for it? Exchange students pay tuition to their home school, so you don't have to worry about dealing with a foreign institution. But you'll still be responsible for airfare, accommodations and living expenses while you're overseas.
Are there scholarships available? Federal funding is almost non-existent, but many schools help defray the costs for students. Talk to your school's international study office to get the details.
Will an international exchange count toward my degree? In most cases, yes. Universities across Canada have international agreements with foreign schools that allow you to transfer your credits to your home school and, in most cases, your marks count toward your GPA.
Do I have to go for an entire semester? No. Among the numerous short-term opportunities to study abroad are summer academic programs, international internships and volunteer opportunities. At Mount Allison, for instance, 100 or so undergrads who hope to go to med school volunteer at a clinic in Honduras during spring break. It might not count as credit, but it sure looks great on a résumé or grad-school application.
What about inter-provincial exchanges? The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is just as keen to send students across the country as it is to send them across the ocean, since 90 per cent of Canadian undergrads attend postsecondary school in their home province – a big chunk of them within 20 kilometres of home. Mount A's president Robert Campbell is a big believer in exploring Canada's diversity before you venture overseas. "The value of an international education is transcendentally obvious," he says. "But you've never seen the Rockies, you've never been to northern Canada, yet you've been to Honduras? There's something a little off about that. The coastline of Ireland is beautiful, but, what, Cape Breton is chopped liver?"