Travel writer Madeline McInnis from Canada shares her experience of studying here in Birmingham
Coming to the University of Birmingham was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. Within a day of my acceptance in the year-abroad program here at Birmingham, I was offered the part-time job of a lifetime. Since I’m writing this article, I’m sure you know what I chose.
It is so different from what I have at home. Here, I have four modules with a 100% assessment at the very end. At home, I take five courses a semester that are usually assessed over three main assignments and participation. I’ve heard from all of my friends studying in Canada from the United Kingdom that there is so much more work at my home university, and now I can see why.
I am certainly not complaining about all the free time, though. Since coming here, I’ve been able to have so many amazing opportunities. I’ve been to more museums than I have classrooms, and I actually have the time to go to the cinema, something I never have time to do at home, even as a film major.
The very fact that your national museums here in Britain are free is something that I can’t even begin to express. At home, I can’t even get into a museum gift shop without getting charged a head-fee, but we have a Botticelli right here on the university campus that anyone is free to see.
That’s my biggest impression of the United Kingdom so far — everything is very concerned with history and culture. As much as maths and engineering are pushed, it’s not as stressed as it is at home. I can’t remember reading a single Canadian book or seeing a Canadian artist while I was in high school, but here they are absolutely celebrated as a huge part of society.
It’s very comforting to know that the arts — and the people who produce and engage with them — are truly appreciated. All of our big artists seem to be in Hollywood film and are always mistaken for Americans.
That’s fair — I’ve been mistaken for an American more times than I can count. It’s not as bad as people make it out to be, as long as you don’t think I voted for Trump. I think it also comes down to the fact that Canadians aren’t as nationalistic as Americans or Brits are.
As a collective group, we understand that our country has been quite awful at times. Colonialism is talked about in virtually every class from grade nine on. None of us goes around chanting that Canada is the best unless ice hockey happens to be involved. It’s rare to find a Canadian flag anywhere in the city that isn’t attached to an official building.
In America, you’ll find them everywhere you go. Here, it’s not as obvious, but it’s still there. One of my friends here will only watch and write on British films to avoid the Hollywood influence, for example. That’s perfectly understandable, but why only British, then? Why not Korean, Russian, Nigerian, Australian, Brazilian?
There’s certainly an air of British nationalism that Canadians don’t seem to have, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nothing is ever really good or bad about comparing cultures — it’s just different.
No one ever warns you that it’s the little things that will be the biggest burdens about going on exchange. They warn you about cultural differences, language barriers, academic expectations, and flight delays. They don’t warn you that roundabouts are absolutely deadly and you will not figure out how they work even months into your stay.
And it’s the little things — the subconscious things — that are by far the most difficult to deal with. I still look the wrong way while I’m crossing the street. I still don’t know what to call the loo — is it the bathroom or the washroom? When I’m flipping through my coins at the grocery store, I’m so used to the sizes of coins determining their value like it is at home, so I’ll consistently pull out 50p coins instead of the two-pound ones.
Speaking of money, the currency is still a major struggle for me. The pound is nearly double the Canadian dollar when you factor in all of the transfer fees and everything. In the beginning, I found myself just doubling the cost of every price tag when I went out, but I’ve had to stop doing that now, especially for food.
It took me a while to accept that prices here would be higher, and that’s what I had to deal with. Rather than comparing it to my home currency, I started looking at what’s a good deal here from place to place.
Some of the best deals I’ve found are in the actual travel. I don’t know what everyone is complaining about with public transport. It is cheap, it is fast, it is convenient, and it is effective. For the cost of one roundtrip train ticket to the city centre, I could only buy one bus ticket at home.
What I’ll miss most about the United Kingdom will definitely be the trains. If you’ve ever tried to travel by train in North America, you’ll know what I mean. Here, you can get anywhere and you can get there fairly quickly.
And the Tube? Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has a whole three subway lines. Imagine if the Tube only connected Charing Cross to Baker Street. Yeah, it gets pretty annoying.
Coming to Birmingham was an absolute whirlwind — my acceptance never came and I had to search it out myself. Due to hiccups in the system, I had been overlooked and I would never have been here if I hadn’t taken matters into my own hands.
I think, overall, that’s kind of the main lesson from a year abroad: things will get hectic. Sometimes, you will be in over your head, you will be stressed and you will be scared. But if you really want this experience, you’ll make it work and you will work for it.