Building bridges overseas


An international exchange during your undergrad helps you bring the world closer together… and build experience that can open doors to careers around the globe.

When you backpack through Switzerland, do you return to Canada with photos of aerial tramways and high-speed chairlifts? Vacationing in Oregon with the family, are you the only one who brings home snapshots of Portland bridges? In short, are you an engineering student who enjoys travel as much as your discipline? If so, consider joining the many engineering students who take advantage of international study programs offered by their universities.

Paradoxically, international experience increases the depth and variety of your local perspectives. This double focus can prove a tremendous advantage on the international job market, which often demands specific know-how relevant to projects in other countries. Concordia civil engineering student Andrea Judge gained expertise on New England realities while at the University of Rhode Island during the Fall of 2007. “I got to learn about regional issues faced by local engineering firms through guest lecturers on topics such as the infamous Big Dig in Boston.”

This megaproject, which rerouted Boston’s downtown elevated highway into tunnels beneath the city, was plagued by leaks and a fatal collapse during construction. Judge’s experience proved valuable when she applied to companies that worked on these very projects. “In interviews with other New England companies, I had the opportunity to show that I knew about the region.”

Even if you do not end up working where you study, you can apply the local knowledge you gain abroad in other ways. In an interview setting, you may impress a potential employer by aptly comparing a local project to a dam in Mexico, or by contrasting Canadian engineering practices with those in Russia.

No pain, no gain

Prepare to sacrifice a little time. Dr. Martin Pugh, Department Chair of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering department at Concordia University, warns that students who participate in international study programs can expect to delay the completion of their degree. Sometimes, he says, the particular course credits one needs are not offered by a foreign institution and, if they are, they may not coincide with the timing of a student’s exchange.

According to Nicole Lapierre, an administrative assistant in the Office of International Relations and Student Recruitment at the Université du Québec’s École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), you are more likely to find international courses that fit your program if you study abroad near the mid-point of your degree. Students cannot leave too early because they must complete a minimum number of credits before departing and some core courses may not be completed abroad. At the same time, students should not wait too long to leave, because it is easier to find equivalent international courses if they have more than a handful of courses left in their degree.

Even if your travel date is far away, Lapierre recommends contacting an adviser or program coordinator early in your program. These experts will have all the information you need to get the ball rolling and deal with obstacles well in advance. Lapierre adds that each university has its own selection process, based on a combination of factors such as your GPA, a portfolio submission, a letter of intent or a face-to-face interview. You should consult your school’s exchange office or your program coordinator for details. Lapierre also warns of intense competition: “Since a limited amount of funding is available for foreign exchanges, not all students will be accepted.” If you make it through this first step, however, you can receive a bursary to help pay for your studies abroad.

Lapierre and Pugh agree that once you’ve taken care of these logistics, studying overseas is invariably worth the extra time and effort. Pugh says, “Every returning student with whom I have spoken has been enriched by the experience.”

This sentiment rings true for Yacine Jeffrey-Ould Babaali, a Concordia industrial engineering student who twice spent a semester at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, a Mexican technological institute. He says the overseas experience “goes beyond academic learning” and describes the knowledge he returned with as “priceless.” While it may be a challenge to adapt to a whole new environment, he says the energy you invest can lead to growth and maturation.

Students may worry about culture shock, but Ali believes a tough adjustment period can have its bright side. When he first arrived in Mexico, “the most frustrating thing was depending on the people who were hosting me.” As he learned the language and got to know his new home, however, he began enjoying his well-earned independence.

Karine Beaudet, a Concordia classmate who participated in the same program at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, agrees that learning a new language can be its own reward. Her time abroad allowed her to add Spanish to her already fluent French and English. Speaking multiple languages “is a valuable asset in the civil engineering field,” explains Beaudet. “Some projects can bring you to any part of the world!”

When deciding where to go, honestly consider whether you want an intensive intercultural experience. Students who intend to work in a culture closer to their own may prefer visiting an English-speaking country.

Chris O’Donnell, a University of Ottawa civil engineering student who needed a change of scenery during his final electives at the end of a long degree, has enjoyed the comfort of an Australian exchange that caters to a large body of foreign students. “I arrived in February, and Victoria University’s exchange office has taken care of me since. They organized a lot of events for the roughly 150 international students to get to know each other. The ones I’ve made friends with have gone on trips with me to see the Great Ocean Road, Sydney, and now Tasmania.”

Are your papers in orders?

Whether or not you plan on adapting to a new culture and language, you will need to prepare thoroughly for the challenges you may face before leaving Canada.

Based on various unforeseen delays that affected her experience in Rhode Island, Judge urges students to “start all of the paperwork as soon as possible.” Don’t leave meeting requirements such as visas and passports until your last weekend. “All of the applications and approvals that you need take time to coordinate.”

Although studying in the U.S. rather than farther afield simplified matters, Judge still needed nearly two and a half months to complete her applications. Babaali learned the same lesson on his way to Mexico. “Make sure to have enough classes approved abroad before leaving,” he recommends. “You should even have more than needed, in case a change occurs at the host university.” He adds that you can simplify your task by choosing a foreign university that already has a direct agreement with your own institution.

Most universities have a long list of these; sticking to it ensures you will avoid paying international tuition fees and that your host university is accredited with standards similar to those of any major Canadian university. If you select an unlisted university with a program you cannot find anywhere else, you can work out your own arrangements, but brace yourself for a lot more paperwork along the way.

O’Donnell benefited from a ready-made exchange available through the University of Ottawa. “I applied, and the exchange department took care of the process. They really did handle all the details, so it was pretty easy.” Where a bilateral agreement exists, you do not have to worry about the credits you gain abroad. Moreover, course-credit equivalencies are all worked out in advance — you simply submit course outlines from the host university you wish to attend. Your department head then pre-approves these outlines on a course-by-course basis. Typically, your GPA will not be affected; courses are evaluated on a pass/fail basis only, which means unfamiliar marking schemes will not adversely affect your record.

Regardless of whether your host university has a direct agreement with your school, inform yourself about the various forms of financial aid available through your school’s international study office. If the institution you have chosen does not have an agreement, Ali suggests you inform them that you can obtain a bursary from the Quebec government. In their online guides, Concordia and McGill universities offer valuable information on the bursaries available from Quebec’s Ministère de l’Éducation, du loisir et du Sport [Did You Know?).

Home will never look the same

For some students, the most difficult part is returning home. Although it is nice to be back among family and friends, students like Ali “miss the frenzy of living in a foreign culture.” Others may find that their trip has been an opportunity to change old habits. Kunu Majmudar, a mechanical engineering student at Concordia whose exchange with the National University of Singapore brought him to Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, finds that students like himself are “more adventurous and open-minded abroad than they are at home.”

He notes that his travels have taught him the importance of “doing what you really want to do deep down.” For Majmudar, this meant visiting Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia during breaks in his studies. He urges students “to get off the beaten path a little and not to get caught in a rat race of collecting passport stamps and seeing who can get more Facebook photos in front of tourist traps.”

Whether your primary goal is to increase your employability back home or deepen your credentials for an international career, the great number of destinations available allows you to customize an experience that meets your linguistic needs and matches your personal and professional goals. If the prospect of this educational adventure tempts you, Judge offers this final piece of advice: “Apply to stay for two semesters. Once I got there, I didn’t want to leave!”

Did you know? Trading schools – programs that can help

The following universities have programs to help you find a school abroad and prepare your trip. Look them up!

in Quebec


Neighbouring Quebec