Every year, hundreds of international students come to McGill seeking an enjoyable and memorable exchange experience. Yet despite McGill’s administration working tirelessly to ensure that each and every student is able to realize this dream, many aspects of the experience are still lacking. Notably, many students face significant difficulty in finding housing accommodations during their semester or year-long stay.
Currently, McGill’s housing website offers no clear opportunity for exchange students to apply for housing. This may not be surprising given McGill’s residence limitations; even incoming full-time students are not guaranteed residence spaces. Instead, the website lists tips to help students find housing off-campus and to gain a sense of the rules of signing a lease in Quebec. While the information is helpful, this strategy leaves some students stressed and disillusioned. Students can be uncertain about their housing status before arriving at a new university in what is often a new country.
This issue is certainly not new for Incoming Exchange administrators. Tesfa Peterson, head of incoming exchange at the Desautels B. Com Student Affairs Office, cites housing as one of the challenges administrators and students alike face. Yet Peterson asserts that, for the most part, students have no trouble finding their own way.
“McGill doesn’t really offer housing for incoming exchange students, but a lot of other schools don’t either. The only difference here is that some people are coming here in the polar vortex from countries like Singapore and so they need an apartment fast,” Peterson explained. “A lot of students mediate that through the McGill Classifieds, through the housing office here, and through Facebook, and I’ve never in my time here heard a student say they couldn’t find a place to live after a week or two of being in Montreal.”
Still, many students feel the fact that McGill does not provide residence buildings for incoming exchange students has repercussions far beyond the difficulty of students finding their own accommodations in the city.
Tariqa Tandon, president of the McGill International Students’ Network, came to McGill as an international student from India. While the cultural and social adjustment was difficult, Tandon’s experience as a student living in a McGill residence allowed her to interact with a variety of people who eased the process of feeling comfortable in the very new and different university environment.
Filling the Void
Tandon’s experience might not be the same as those of semester or year-long exchange students. Still, students and administrators acknowledge that a lack of support for communal environments poses difficulties for structural adjustments.
Where the McGill administration fails, groups like MISN and the Desautels Exchange Network have popped up to address the problems present in the system.
“One of the issues that came up a few years ago was that our incoming exchange students felt a little bit lost and out of sorts, just being pushed into the general population at Desautels. What happened kind of serendipitously was that there was a group of students that went on exchange and had such a great time at their host school being integrated, that they decided to want to do something similar here. So that’s how the Desautels Exchange Network was born. And they’ve really taken the lead in going beyond what we do as an office,” explained Peterson.
DEN operates by taking students out to bars, restaurants, and events around the city in order to familiarize them with McGill, Montreal, and Canada. The network is hoping to expand to provide more culturally-oriented events to appeal to a wider variety of students.
For many, the experience, despite some difficulties, remains overwhelmingly positive. Rachel Knott, a U2 full-year exchange student in International Management at the University of Warwick, recounts her experience this year as being a warm and enjoyable one so far.
At the same time, Knott did not have to struggle through the housing issue, and was able to turn to older students who had been on exchange to McGill in past years for assistance. The University of Warwick encouraged the stream of communication between exchange alumni and prospective participants. With the help of previous students, Knott was able to guarantee her accommodations before arriving in Montreal.
“They recommended staying at Varcity515, just because it’s fully furnished, and for the sake of one year it’s just very convenient and in a good location. I booked my accommodation a couple of months in advance, so I knew where I was living when I came over.”
Still, Knott could have easily been in the same boat as many of her fellow exchange participants. “I did have the choice to apply for on campus residence, and I did apply, but I never heard back,” she explained. “From what I’ve heard, they don’t give priority to exchange students on campus.”
During her time at McGill, she has participated in a variety of events hosted by the McGill International Students’ Network, including a trip to Quebec City, an excursion to Igloofest, and attendance at various functions and formal events.
Despite the pain of house hunting and the difficulties of adjusting to new culture, most exchange students are very happy with their experience. According to Peterson, students are increasingly interested in the McGill exchange program.
“Our numbers have really gone up. We have about 160, 170 people coming to Desautels per year now. Fortunately for us, our incoming population is from the top schools in the world as well. The demand is definitely there. I think students welcome the challenge.”
While the experience has not been perfect, Knott assured that it has been more than worth it. “I’m really enjoying it,” she confirmed. “I’ve met lots of lovely people; I’ve done a lot of traveling. McGill’s quite a lot of hard work, but if you put in the effort, it pays off.”