Mairi McHale: My Study Abroad Experience at Queen’s University
Where to begin…?
I arrived in Kingston 2 weeks before term started with my family to give me time to get my bearings for the year ahead. I was able to see where I was living, where I’d be studying and so on. The warm weather was short lived and before we knew it jumpers and extra layers were required.
The family were helpful for the moving in procedure but before long I was left to fend for myself. Luckily at the pre-departure meeting in St Andrews I happened to sit next to two of the other girls who were going to Queen’s and who also benefited from receiving the Bobby Jones’ scholarship. So, when they arrived we met up and it turned out that we lived one minute from each other!
Orientation (O-week) was an experience to say the least! We were part of the New Exchange Worldly Transfer Students (NEWTS) and activities involved going to a Queen’s Gale’s football game – where there were bagpipes and highland dancers!? A massive paint fight, a trip to Toronto to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and a Blue Jays baseball game.
To our surprise, like the University of St Andrews, Queen’s has many unique traditions. One of which is a ceremony for all new students in which we were given a Tam (a hat) with an orange pom-pom to represent us being NEWTS. At the end of NEWTS week in which you are put in a group with other new exchange students from all over the world and are led by a “gecko” (current older year Queen’s student) came the semi-formal. This involved a sit-down meal with your new friends followed by a dance.
Before the weather dropped dramatically there was time for a trip to the Kingston fayre, to the pier where you can jump into Lake Ontario and enjoy the sun. Of course, classes had to begin at some point, and I went into all 5 classes not knowing anyone but soon enough had met some classmates who could guide me on how university works in Canada.
One of the best decisions I made before heading to Canada was deciding to apply to live in the Kingston Housing Cooperative where I made many of my friends over the year. The coop houses over one hundred students, predominately exchange students but Canadians too! If you were in a meal-plan house (the most common) you would go to the dining hall for 3 meals a day during the week and brunch at the weekends. This allowed you to mingle and chat with friends whilst eating and where lots of friendships were made. Everyone must do a 3-hour kitchen shift each week to play their part in helping the coop provide food for everyone.
Co-op also ran social events the first of which was a boat party around the Thousand Islands on which I bonded for the first time with my now great friends.
Of course, the nightlife had to be experienced too… Kingston has something for everyone – from bars with live music to clubs. Unlike Scotland however, house parties are a lot more common and never without a game of beer pong.
A memorable outing that was squeezed in between studying for classes was a trip up Rock Dunder. The trek was worth it for the view at the top!
A perk of making Canadian friends in the coop meant we could gate crash a Canadian thanksgiving in Toronto. However, it was not quite a traditional one since the friend’s family we stayed with were in the process of moving to a new house so a trip to the Keg for a steak was the alternative – no complaints were made.
In between studying hard for midterms (a Canadian phenomenon which took a bit of getting used to!) we made it to Cacao 70 for a chocolate fondue. I would recommend it.
Then came HOMECOMING. The partying started early in the morning and many new experiences were had – sitting on a massive pumpkin, doing a Keg stand and having a mid-afternoon nap on the roof of a 3-storey house (when sun cream should have been worn).
To celebrate a friend’s 21st it was decided a trip to Niagara Falls was needed. This involved getting soaked on a boat ride into the falls, a visit to the States for dinner one night and a walk through a haunted house. When stopping off in Toronto for the night on the way home I experienced my first Canadian snow fall and a University of Toronto Halloween party too.
Another thing to know about Canadians – they like dressing up. Halloween in Kingston involved a coop house crawl in which we decided to represent our roots.
After hearing many people rave about it, we decided to take a boat over to Wolfe Island to have a shot at the Corn Maze. After realising that the docking point changed due to weather conditions a kind local let us hitchhike to avoid a 2 hour walk to the corn maze. But it was worth it for several hours of wading through the muddy corn maze to simply feel the accomplishment at the end.
Then CAME the snow – a great excuse to take a break from work to make snow angels and drink hot chocolate!
Another great thing about Queen’s – the wide range of sport clubs, facilities and societies. After a 2-year break of not dancing after a 15-year streak in my younger years, myself and a friend decided to sign up for a dance class called Cardio funk! Realising how much I missed dancing in 1st semester resulted in me joining a jazz class as well in 2nd semester. This involved weekly classes, end of semester recitals and of course a performance from us at every party!
After a well-needed quick trip home for Christmas and New Year to see family and catch up with friends before I knew it I was on a flight back to the land of snow. Heading back with the knowledge of having a great group of friends to arrive to was so comforting and I couldn’t wait to enjoy the next semester!
Less than 2 weeks into the semester and we were off again this time to the province of Quebec for a ski trip! Quite the experience skiing in deep snow and sub 30 temperatures. We all enjoyed the outdoor hot tub where your strands of hair were turned into icicles.
Weekends were split between trips to the library, frat parties, watching hockey games and walks to the waterfront to view the beautiful frozen Lake Ontario.
By the time reading week came around in February after frost bitten ears and the like, myself and 6 friends decided it was time for some sun, resulting in a flight to Puerto Rico! Studying for midterm season on return was squeezed in between cocktails and banana boat rides on the beach, trying local delicacies and rope swinging into waterfalls! It’s fair to say we all went home a slight lobster colour to prove we had been out of Canada.
The season of 21sts (including my own) called for parties to break up the weeks stuck at the library working hard. The theme of dressing up continued…
Then came St. PADDY’S Day! In the usual Canadian style, the partying started early along with green choc chip pancakes of course! This was followed by Queen’s University congregating on Aberdeen Street to party altogether some more!
The coop end of year formal was a fun affair, celebrating a great year with now great friends! Unfortunately, the last few weeks in Kingston had to be spent studying for finals but of course this made for the perfect opportunity to take breaks and try some Canadian delicacies that had not yet been sampled. A Beavertails shop opening in Kingston was a good excuse to try one.
Saying goodbye was hard but I was happy to have had such an amazing year and make so many great friends from all over the world. Plans to visit one another were made but getting over the fact we would not be living one minute away from all our new friends was the hard part.
I realise I have not spoken much about university work itself. Of course, this was a massive part of my year abroad and at points it felt like I spent more time in John Stauffer library than at home. It was challenging adapting to the coursework heavy structure including group assignments and regular tests and midterms. However, having a good group of friends going through the same adjustment helped support me through the process and profs with accessible office hours helped a lot.
By 2nd semester I had become accustomed to the Canadian way of learning and I would like to think I did my home university proud by receiving five A+s. Receiving the Bobby Jones Scholarship motivated me to work hard to make the opportunity worthwhile and this seemed to pay off.
I am extremely grateful for the Robert T. Jones scholarship without which I would have struggled to finance my year abroad and the exciting endeavours I pursued to make the most of it! I would highly recommend study abroad to anyone considering it and encourage them to apply for the scholarship award which enabled me to partake in this life-changing experience. It has broadened my outlook on the world, and I have made long lasting friendships with people from many different places. The challenge of adapting to a different learning environment is a skill I believe will be extremely useful in my later life and my self-confidence has been greatly improved.