The biggest regret I have of my time in undergrad is not going on exchange. I’d wanted to spend a semester in Europe since high school, but doing so would’ve meant giving up opportunities such as donship or managing Caffiends, which I was unwilling to do. However, I was fortunate enough to fit travel into my U of T experience nonetheless. Around this time two years ago, I was getting last-minute things ready for my Summer Abroad trip — arguably the best part of my past four years.
I participated in the Central European history course with my friend, Julie, the summer after our second year. Neither of us would’ve been able to go without bursaries, but between OSAP, college funds, and the Summer Abroad bursary itself, we cobbled enough together to nearly cover the cost of the trip. As we were already paying for airfare to Europe, we also decided to travel before and after the start of the program as much as possible. The prep for this trip took a lot of Googling and browsing the Airbnb website, but the excitement counteracted all the stress and uncertainty. Looking back, I’m not sure how all the plans worked out so smoothly for two amateur travellers — but somehow, this time, they did.
I actually found the history course itself to be exceptionally well-designed to accommodate getting the most out of our international experience. All the profs were supportive and understanding. There was a great balance between in-class work and sight-seeing, and I don’t remember stressing much about assignments. Because of the flexibility in the course, I chose to write on coffeehouse culture in Vienna and bathhouses in Budapest — which meant that my research entailed hanging out at cafés and going to spas. That said, I still learned so much, since every lesson was reinforced by visits to museums or seeing statues of historical people and events. While lots of students chose to credit/no-credit the course for additional leisure, I found that getting an A was manageable without needing to sacrifice fun.
I remember being nervous right before the trip and speaking to my counsellor about all the things that could go wrong. Travel can definitely feel scary, but the experience became a highlight of my undergrad, and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering an international supplement to their studies. It helped that I had a close friend to go with me, but I also met lots of interesting people on the trip that I still chat with. You definitely bond faster in a setting like this than you would in an average classroom.
My Summer Abroad was the best work and play balance I achieved in university — and while a fair bit of it was play, it was the necessary fun-and-games component of a healthy student experience. I came back not only refreshed and energized but also more confident and a little more street-smart. Since we get a full-year credit for each program, it’s also easy to justify the time “off”.
And if you’re not as up for crossing an ocean, I’d recommend checking out the Explore program, which is funded and takes place in Canada. I went to Trois-Rivières the summer after my first year and got a full-year French credit for it. So while I’m still sad that I did not get to continue my travels with an exchange, I’m very thankful for my two sunlit summer adventures.