I’m well into my second semester at SFU, and haven’t reflected in a while. I’m starting to feel like this is my permanent life now- I’m in the swing of things and I know how things work around here… I’m no longer hyper-aware of my British accent and don’t jump at the sound of a Canadian one anymore haha. Things seem to be going very fast, so I wanted to pause and look back at some of the academic/general uni-life differences between SFU and UoM – hopefully this will be useful to future exchange students and will give you a little heads up as to what to expect!
‘School’, ‘Class’ and ‘Prof’ – the lingo is just like in the movies
This threw me off quite a bit at the start, but these words get thrown around a lot. Apparently, Canadians don’t distinguish between ‘school’ and ‘uni’- it’s all just ‘school’, which I would say is somewhat reflected in the general atmosphere on campus. SFU does feel a little more like school and I’m not sure why…
When chatting to your Canadian classmates about which ‘classes’ you’re taking, be prepared to blurt out the full course-code, otherwise they’ll throw you a puzzled look. For instance, rather than talking about my “Geographies of Consumption”class, it would be referred to as GEOG325. Sounds kinda weird but everyone seems to know every possible course code out there- quite impressive, really.
Unlike the percentage and class system used at UoM, SFU uses a letter grading system- from A+ to D, which is then calculated to a Grade Point Average (GPA). Sometimes, assignments will get marked as a percentage and then translated to a letter grade- they definitely use the full scale a lot more than at UoM. In the UoM Geography department anyway, a 70 constitutes a first-class grade which anyone would be chuffed with. But at SFU, a 70 is a bit mehh- that took some adjusting to.
Little and often
Prior to moving to Vancouver, I had heard that the Canadian university system favoured more assignments/assessment with less weight. I initially thought the workload might be too hard to keep up with, but I’ve actually found it pretty manageable.
In the case of Geography, a typical class might devote 10% of its grade to tutorial participation, which usually consists of the submission of weekly discussion questions – this is a sneaky attempt to make sure you do your readings ahead of time, and it works. Then, you might have to write a couple of papers/essays amounting to perhaps 15% each, deliver a presentation and sit a midterm and final exam. I’ve actually really enjoyed the diversity in assignments- a combination of group-work (doing things like presenting at an urban planning expo and participating in a mock council meeting) as well as personal research and reflection. Though the workload is arguably higher than UoM, I would say its definitely easier.
Your grade is kinda negotiable & extensions are a thing
This sounds like some kind of twisted cliché of a student trying to coerce their prof into boosting their grade, but it’s actually a pretty reasonable policy. Since my year abroad is just pass/fail, I haven’t had to question any of my grades, but some professors do welcome students to challenge them if they feel they met the criteria for a higher grade. At SFU, you are really encouraged to take charge of your education and to make the most of the resources available to you.
Also, I’ve found that some of my profs have more lax rules on deadlines. Understanding the pressures of student-life, they encourage you to consult with them if you have any concerns regarding deadlines- granting you an extension if they see fit.
Participation, discussion and debate is really encouraged
Though I’m not a shy person, the larger class sizes of lectures at UoM would often discourage me from putting my hand up and contributing- I guess it’s the fear of blabbering out something completely nonsensical. So when I had my first lecture at SFU, I was horrified that the lecturer wanted us to stand up and deliver a welcoming speech about who we are, ‘fun fact’ and all. However, I was so shocked at how calm and comfortable the Canadian students were with introducing themselves and speaking their minds. Honestly, sometimes it sounds like they are reading straight out of a text book- so annoyingly eloquent. Gradually though, I’ve become comfortable with offering up ideas- aided by the talkative 2-HOUR tutorial sessions, which I feel allow me the freedom to be messy and open with my thoughts.
Going to uni for the ‘uni experience’ isn’t a thing
The UK is notorious for it’s party-centric university experience, where social life is often a priority for students. At SFU, many of my classmates still live in their family home in Vancouver, or balance a full-time job with their studies. By consequence, they seem to place more importance on their studies. To cater for this, there is more flexibility in schedules, meaning some classes are as early as 8.30am and finish as late as 9.30pm!! SFU doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a party uni (no fear- the good nights exist with a bit of digging), so it can sometimes feel like students are on and off campus in a heartbeat. This means that social cohesion and a sense of student culture is a little lacking compared to Manchester. This took a while to get used to, but having found like-minded people with the ski-slopes on our doorstep, there’s been no shortage of fun to supplement the work.