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International Exchange: From Scotland to Toronto

Moving out of your home town for university is an extremely big step to take in your life. For some people, it’s easy. Some don’t get homesick, make friends really easily, and don’t struggle with the stress of having to look after themselves as well as staying on top of schoolwork. For others it’s not so easy. Everyone adapts to situations differently and in their own way but for the most part, moving away for university should be a really enjoyable experience.

Moving across the world for university, however, is another story. The same case applies in some instances, where some will find the international exchange a lot easier than others. This may be because of cultural differences, finding friends, or adapting to the teaching styles of your new university. 

So, what is it actually like for exchange and international students moving to Ryerson University? Being a Scottish exchange student myself, I have faced and experienced some of the difficulties and also some of the best parts of moving to Toronto, however I want to get a broader picture of what it’s actually like. So, I spoke to two Scottish students studying at Ryerson as well, to get their input on what it’s like moving from Scotland to Toronto. 

Arianna Guidolin, 22, is a third-year social science exchange student at Ryerson University. Though she was born and raised in Venice, Italy, she’s been studying in Edinburgh, Scotland since 2017, specifically at  Edinburgh Napier University. This year, Guidolin is on exchange at Ryerson University. This however is not her first time studying abroad, as she attended highschool in New York City.

Despite having only lived in Toronto for three weeks, as someone with so much experience with moving countries, does moving away from home ever get easier for her? I asked how she dealt with homesickness and adapting to new surroundings.

“Homesickness can be normal and expected, especially for students that lived at home and for most of their life and depended on their parents,” she said.  “It is never easy to move to another country, no matter how many times someone could have done it. Getting settled, finding a place, finding a job, figuring out the subway, expanding the social circle, are all aspects that you need to be confronted with when moving to another country.”

“It is always worth it though, in every place I moved to, I always ended up loving it and always found it hard to leave,” she said. 

I asked Arianna if she noticed cultural differences she has noticed since moving to Toronto. 

“Toronto is much more similar to London than Edinburgh,” she said. “Big cities in North America can be overwhelming as they completely detach from their historical legacies. Europe is the very opposite where buildings’ architecture and museums are rich in native arts and styles.

“What I get in Toronto and not in Scotland is definitely multiculturalism,” Guidolin said. “Even though Scotland is quite diverse, it mostly hosts white European ethnicities.” 

In 2013, in was recorded that only 8 per cent of Edinburgh’s population is non-white Scottish/British, whereas Toronto’s population is actually higher in the number of residents born outside of Canada, being 51 percent. This makes the city extremely diverse. 

Edinburgh is a very old city with very little, if any, skyscrapers. It prides itself in its old cobbled streets and historic buildings, which they put every effort in to preserve. With Toronto being quite a modern city, and with many tall buildings reaching up to the clouds, it’s a very different environment to learn to adapt in. 

Guidolin also described how she feels Scottish and Canadian universities compare to one another, particularly Edinburgh Napier and Ryerson. “I’ve found universities to be more different than I expected. At Ryerson, the services and support (academic or not) available for students are numerous,” she said. “There is a huge chance to get involved in extracurricular activities that can boost one’s career after university.”

“One thing that mostly surprised me, though, is that students are asked to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars in order to purchase books, on top of their University fees,” Guidolin said. “In the UK, most universities will have a library online.”

Charlie Gardiner, 20, is another Scottish student studying at Ryerson. Currently in her third year of global management studies, she is an international student from Edinburgh Napier University. 

Gardiner however, moved to Toronto six months ago in August and therefore has quite a bit more experience with the city. Her views on the differences in universities were similar to Guidolin’s. “I’ve found that the workload is more at Ryerson and you are expected to know a lot more and do all the readings given by professors, whereas you can usually get away with minimum effort in Scotland,” she said. “Lecturers put lots of emphasis on the textbooks and extra readings, rather than students being able to rely on the slides alone, which you can do at home.”

Gardiner also noted differences in the student culture on campus. “There is also a lot of ‘team spirit’ at Ryerson, with lots of events with promotions and a lot more involvement and inclusion with all students,” she said. “Rather than at home where different campuses don’t associate with each other, people are very divided rather than all together. I’ve found there is lots of support and groups with counselling and sports teams, for example.”

While in Scotland there are still sports teams and societies that you can join, it is nowhere near the same as in Canada and the U.S. Here there is a lot more emphasis on team spirit and joining teams and clubs, as well as encouragement for students to attend games to cheer their university’s team on. 

Another big difference is that in the UK, fraternities or sororities do not exist. Therefore, frat parties are not a thing back home. As the drinking age is 18 in the UK, most students are able to go out to clubs, even in their first year. So, weekday club nights are extremely popular with Scottish students and are most likely when they will go out, rather than during the weekend. 

One particular difference Canadian and Scottish universities though, specifically Ryerson and Edinburgh Napier, is the work-load. Ryerson seems to spread the course work and assignments for each class throughout the semester, whereas Edinburgh Napier will have three of four big assignments due towards the end of the semester. This can often make the end of the semester a lot more stressful than it needs to be. At Ryerson, you can gain up to or over 15 per cent of your final grade just by attending class, whereas you would never find that at Edinburgh Napier. However, it is refreshing that Ryerson makes an effort to reward those who attend every class. 

I also asked Gardiner, who had been in the country longer, how Canadian’s differ from Scottish people, in her opinion. 

“Canadian’s are more friendly and chatty sometimes; people are more approachable,” she said. “I have found, though, that Canadian’s don’t really understand my sarcasm or jokes, when I’m not being serious – they take everything you say very literally.”

Typical Scottish humour involves a lot of heavy sarcasm. In fact, sarcasm and making fun of other people is the majority of all our humour. Insulting your friend by calling them any swear word you can think of is actually a rather loving gesture. However, don’t assume an angry Scot calling you something vulgar when you’ve accidentally bumped into them in the street is a form of affection, as they can use these types of words to their advantage in these cases too. It’s really all about listening to tone. 

With Canada being on the other side of the world from Scotland, some things are much harder to get than back at home. Gardiner knows those well, as she misses some of the comforts from home. “I miss cheap beauty products and things such as fake eyelashes and fake tanning products as they are much harder to find in Canada,” she said.

One massive part of female British culture is fakery. False eyelashes, nails, and tan are extremely popular with young females; and it’s not something that is very commonly found at a cheap price in Canada. We are obsessed with tweaking our appearances, especially for a night out. Most of the products we use are very easy to purchase in most stores across Britain. Here, however, you need to stock up on your beauty products from back home if you plan on using them on a regular basis because the likelihood of them running out fast are very high. 

One of the most difficult Scottish things to find is, of course, the Scottish gem of fizzy-drinks, Irn Bru. If you don’t know what Irn Bru is, well nobody does. It’s a secret Scottish recipe that has never been shared with the public. How can we trust that enough to drink it you ask? Well there must be something about it that just drives Scottish people nuts, as Scotland is the only country in the world where Coca-Cola is not the leading and most popular drink, because it is ruled by Irn-Bru. However, we wouldn’t be true Scots if we failed to find at least one way to indulge in our favourite beverage. Therefore, if you want to try the drink out for yourself, you can find it at Bulk Barn on Yonge Street.

As Garinder has been living in Toronto for the best part of half a year now, she described some of the things she has had to comprehend during her time here. “I’ve learned to be more open in speaking to people, all modules include group projects, so I’ve learned to just speak to people in my classes rather than shy away from them,” she said.

“I’ve also learned to take more caution when going places,” Gardiner said. “I know not to walk places on my own at night, which I would usually do no problem at home.”

Group projects are prominent in most university assignments, however when you study abroad, you don’t know anyone, and it can be difficult to speak up in big groups and give your opinion and share your portion of the work. This is also a reflection on what it will be like in the working world, as you will often have to work with people you have never met before and some big personalities. Developing your group work skills is something that is very beneficial in the future, no matter what profession you go into. 

No matter where you go, there will always be a danger of walking around at night, or even sometimes during the day, by yourself. Particularly in a large city like Toronto, there are bound to be some dodgy people that should always be avoided. Coming to a new city where you don’t completely know your surroundings can teach you a lot of things about your general safety and wellbeing while travelling, or even at home. The important thing is to stay safe and think smart. 

So, there you have it, a small insight on what it’s like for us Scots in Toronto. The good, the bad, and some of the ugly, on both sides of the world. Despite all this, there is lots more to learn about the city and its culture that I’m sure all three of us are very excited to discover.