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Well, this is different: My first 30 days on student exchange

Ab Initio
|Written By Ted Flett
Well, this is different: My first 30 days on student exchange

“Well, this is different,” I think to myself, straddling my bike waiting for the bicycle lane traffic signal to cross over one of Amsterdam’s many canals on my way to class.

I take a deep breath anticipating the light change as dozens of cyclists stand at the ready behind me. On mornings like this one, as people rush to school and work, I can feel like I am leading the peloton of a bike race.

The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has a popular exchange student program to which hundreds of Canadians, including myself, flock annually.

I have not been on a bike in years, much less relied on it as a means of transportation to school, sightseeing, and socializing. It’s clearly the Dutch way, however, with millions of riders dressed professionally and sometimes even formally, pedalling away.

At school, my bike carefully locked among thousands of others, law professors lecture from a Eurocentric position and classmates from Spain, Norway, and the United States offer up their distinct perspectives in a gamut of accents. There is nary a mention of Canada much less New Brunswick unless it’s volunteered by one of us.

Professors actively provoke student inquiry and perspectives — a stimulating difference from the standard lecture back home that either by design or student survival does not involve class discussion.

The change in culture and environment versus the Fredericton school life I have come to know is unfamiliar yet refreshing. These are only some of the cultural differences I have observed that are expanding my mind and fulfilling the objective of UNB’s student exchange program to the letter.

“Living abroad is an intense, transformative, and life-changing experience,” says Pascale Shicks, the University of New Brunswick’s global academic programs and partnerships director. “Students expand their global perspectives and bring their experiences and outlooks back to their home campus and communities. As a result, our learning environment can directly reflect the increased diversity of the Canadian workplace and include international practices and views.”

Shicks has been working in the field of international education for more than a decade — both in the private and public sectors — and her passion is palpable.

“I love my job,” she says without hesitation. “What I like most, I think, is the interaction with students and staff from all over the world. Seeing how the world is culturally diverse.”

And her experience shows. With UNB students scattered across the planet and international students on campus in New Brunswick — all of us trying to find our groove — Shicks is like a second mom, available practically around the clock, seven days a week.

We all travel with laminated cards she distributed with emergency and her contact details if we ever find ourselves in a jam.

By my observation, she also has the fastest e-mail response rate of any UNB employee. Whether an exchange student’s matter is minor or catastrophic, she’s on it. Shicks is supportive and, like any good mom, when it’s required, she’s firm (also a first-hand observation).

For example, take her mandatory exchange student preparation program.

“How dumb,” I groaned last March as I schlepped across the snowy campus to attend one of her workshops. Shicks’ agenda included how to feed ourselves overseas. “Are you kidding me with this?” I thought to myself at the time, feigning interest.

Fast forward to my first day in Amsterdam in a zombie state from the overnight flight, walking the aisles of a local supermarket unable to read the Dutch labels. In the dairy section, for example, I couldn’t distinguish between the milks. Was it skim, homo, or even cream? Peanut butters, cold meats, and apple varieties were all indiscernible to me. Conversations around me were all in Dutch.

Jetlagged, tired, and overwhelmed, I was growing frustrated and verging on meltdown. Then a moment of clarity struck. The counsel Shicks offered up in her winter workshop sprang to mind. “Hmmm, not as irrelevant as I thought,” I said to myself reflecting on her “how to approach grocery shopping” strategy and other lessons Shicks drilled into us.

She says the benefits of her professional dedication circle back.

“Pushing students out of their comfort zone and seeing how much they changed once they come back is fulfilling,” she says. “Students grow so much in maturity and confidence, it’s amazing!”

Michael Brar, my friend and fellow summer student at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, is also on exchange, albeit in a different hemisphere.

“I’m on exchange because it offers the perfect opportunity to travel and to experience living in another country,” Brar says from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “At the same time, I was also interested in learning more about a legal system in a different part of the world.”

In the classroom, the gregarious University of Toronto 3L makes quick observation.

“The courses offered at my host university are actually similar to the ones I can take back home,” says Brar. “Given the similarities in curriculum, it’s been interesting to compare and contrast case law and legal concepts between Canada and Hong Kong.”

For law students considering exchange, Shicks has plenty of advice.

Firstly, she advises considering a destination based on personal and career development goals, not just a place to tick your travel must-see list.

“It’s nice to go to Australia for the Great Barrier Reef or the surfing, but choosing to study aboriginal rights in Australia would have a bigger impact later on,” she says.

Flexibility, open-mindedness, and researching a destination are all keys to success on exchange, she says.

“You are in a different country, with different cultural habits,” she says. “Don’t assume things will work the same way as home. Ask lots of questions.”

And she notes students are not restricted to the standard one-semester exchange.

“Law students can participate in a short-term two-week summer school or even a full-year internship abroad. There are opportunities for every budget and schedule.”

For law students, exchange is a particularly attractive proposition. Law school is a grind, 24/7. On the horizon, articling and the first years of practice are reportedly similarly brutal. So a change in scenery and injection of some European culture was too tempting for me to forego.

In the increasingly global world we live in, the thought of studying in the Netherlands — the world’s first state to recognize same-sex marriage — stirred my activist sensibilities. I’m tickled to be spending four months learning in a country with such progressive views on marijuana use and prostitution, all the while on a campus with liberal minds to further challenge and advance social attitudes.

A human rights and migration course I am taking is paying dividends as I become informed on an issue that has recently drawn worldwide attention.

Admittedly, I sometimes counter-balance these benefits. I worry at times that I am missing out on the black-letter law courses back home that will give me a leg up on next year’s bar exam. And at election time, which is like Christmas for a political junkie like me, I miss the chatter about the ups, downs, and characters of the campaign that are unfolding at home.

But, 30 days in, I’m loving exchange and the world mindedness it brings.