SFU Semester 2 so far…

In my experience, study abroad can sometimes feel like living in a different world, (especially at SFU, which is so different to UoM), in which you feel like everything back home has paused, and you’re sprung into this new life- one which you never would have encountered without the study abroad programme at Manchester. In that sense, it’s easy to keep breezing along and riding the wave, but I wanna make sure I’m savouring every experience- even the seemingly mundane moments- I encounter here. I’m over half way through my 2nd semester at SFU, and in light of the limited time I have left here in Vancouver, I wanted to look back at the spring term and all the special moments that have made a lasting impression on me.

Returning to snowy Vancouver

It was weird going back home for Christmas for 3 weeks- there were things I started to appreciate about England that I hadn’t ever really noticed. My hometown looked like an idyllic toy-town with tiny winding roads (compared to the contrast of Vancouver’s wide, airy grid-system) and it felt great to be able to order a casual pint of beer at the bar (They’re all about table service and formality over here…) and hear Brits chatting spiel in the background- the bar culture in Vancouver isn’t as lively, but I would say the beer is better (They love a weird craft beer out here).

Anyway, I was feeling a bit nervous about returning to Canada- I think because I knew that this would be the last time I’d be coming back, and we’d no longer be able to use the excuse of ‘it’s calm we’ve got another semester’. I didn’t know what the spring term was gonna bring- especially having lost some great friends (Aussies, Kiwis, Germans etc) who returned to their home universities at Christmas. Thankfully, I can say that this semester has been amazing- with the frequent skiing as the main factor in that. I had been itching to get on the slopes throughout semester 1, so you can imagine how good it felt to start using our season passes and own [very battered] skis.

Within the first few days of being back at SFU, Vancouver lived up to its reputation of being a cold, snowy, Canadian city- though one that defo doesn’t know how to function with snow. So for a couple of days, Vancouver kinda shut down and travelling around was slow (got stuck in the cold a few times). But this didn’t stop me and my bestie from home (she flew all the way from Brighton!!!) getting out (see pics below).

Trips to Whistler

One of the major reasons why I chose Vancouver as my study abroad destination was because of its great outdoors and access to world-class skiing. Within Vancouver itself, there are 3 mountain ski resorts (Grouse, Seymour and Cypress) which are small, family-oriented resorts that offer day and night skiing. So far I’ve only been to one of these; Mt Seymour, for an evening of night skiing. Unfortunately, it was super foggy and the vis was bad (which was worsened by my dark, reflective goggles- look good but so impractical haha), but I’ve heard that on clear days you can see over the whole city. I intend on doing a ‘ride night’ with the ski club here, since they offer discounted evening passes to these resorts.

Though Vancouver itself boasts lots of options for skiing, Whistler (2 hour coach drive away) was the real-deal, and the £450 student season pass made this so worth it, baring in mind a day-pass costs upwards of £100. During the first few weeks of the semester- when uni commitments were low- we tried to get up to Whistler once a week, using Whistler Rides and Skylynx coaches to do day trips. Though this was tiring- having to wake up at 5am to catch the coach from downtown and returning to campus around 9pm- days spent in Whistler always fill me with gratitude, and offer a mental reset, a good cure for home sickness/stress etc.

My highlights of Whistler so far are spending the reading week there with 3 other exchange friends, staying in the H.I hostel and being able to apres and party without rushing for a coach back to the city (Whistler is known for having decent nightlife, where only Friday and Saturday nights are dead??). There’s no shortage of Aussies in Whistler either, which can only be a good thing right? All 4 days spent skiing over the reading break treated us to blue skies and sunshine (though very icy), and we were lucky enough to go inside an Ice cave near the top of Whistler mountain. See pics below for my highlights so far.

Midterms & what’s next…

Coming back to reality after reading break in Whistler was weird. As much as I love the city-life aspect of Vancouver, I sometimes find the SFU campus (located 40 min bus ride from downtown) a little isolating and boring. However, sometimes all it takes is a little reminder of the beauty surrounding me, and I head over to the mountain park view point (I’ve taken endless pics of the views from up here- it’s defo my favourite spot) or drag myself off campus to go to a yoga class at KarmaTeachers (a beautiful studio that offers free or by-donation yoga). After all, the stereotypical Vancouverite lives n breathes yoga, hiking and Lululemon- so I might as well try and milk that before heading back to Manchester.

I had a couple of midterm exams after reading break, which I tried not to stress too much about… hopefully that’s all good. Last semester I joined student-led activist club ‘Ban the Bottle’ as their new events coordinator, and I’m so excited to have organized my first event for them last week. The main goal of our club is to literally, ban the [plastic] bottles on campus, urging people to utilise the water refill stations located all around campus. After lots of back-and-forth communication, we successfully hosted an event screening of the beautiful documentary ‘The Heart of the Fraser’, which deals with the issue of environmental degradation the Fraser river, a declining salmon population and the associated issues with operating industry and agriculture on the river’s floodplains. The screening was followed by a Q&A panel discussion with the film’s director, professor Ken Ashely (who was very involved with the project and film) and the Pacific Water Research Centre’s (PWRC) executive director Zafar Adeel. We also gave out free ‘Ban the Bottle’ reusable bottles to everyone in the audience, as well as popcorn and logo stickers for promotion.

We’re super happy to have confirmed with the SFU facilities team that plastic bottles will be removed from all shops and vending machines on campus in Summer. The next event to plan will be a celebratory social/party at the end of semester, hopefully with the announcement of an exact date. See pics from the screening event below (credit to Ryan De Jong).

Right now my focus is on making the most of every last day in this beautiful city, as well as saving money for travelling- hopefully through California and Mexico- at the end of the semester!

Uni life at SFU- academic differences

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.

Grading systems

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.

My First Few months in Vancouver…

This blog post comes at a good time for me, since it feels as though I haven’t paused for a minute since I arrived here over 2 months ago! I’m gonna try and write about my first impressions of Vancouver and SFU in retrospect, and reflect on what’s changed.

I decided to fly out in mid August so that I could take time to familiarize myself with the city before uni kicked in. Studying abroad was something I’d talked about with friends and family for over a year, and to finally have arrived gave rise to such a conflict of emotions. I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, but at the same time I was so excited to be embarking on a journey like this on my own.

I was suddenly alone is this seemingly huge city (I’ve since realized that the city itself is pretty small and walkable) with no concrete plans as to what I would do with these first few weeks at the hostel. In my mind, the first few days felt like they ran in slow-mo… I hadn’t met anyone yet and I felt unusually shy (and I am not a shy person). I knew that these were normal feelings though, so I just allowed myself to explore freely and took myself out for lunch and drank weird coloured fruity beers. I’d caught the very end of summer and was amazed that I could be sat on the beach, with the mountains ahead of me and city behind me.

English Bay beach

Lone travelling was a new experience for me, but I got over myself pretty quick and tried to initiate conversation with everyone I could – turns out hostels are great for this anyway (Plus, Vancouverites are very friendly, sometimes suspiciously so haha). The hostel hosted daily outdoor activities which allowed me to meet people in a similar situation to me and to get out into the spectacular great outdoors on my doorstep. With the hostel, I hiked the Dog Mountain trail from Mount Seymour, which I found to be really meditative… literally didn’t look up from my feet til we reached the top. Hiking wasn’t something I’d considered a passion of mine back in Manchester, but I quickly realized the therapeutic effect of simply being around nature- I could honestly get hooked on that euphoric feeling you get from the mountain top.

Top of the Dog Mountain trail from Mt. Seymour
Trip to Granville Island Market with the hostel

A week into my stay at the Hostel, some fellow Manchester Geographers (who were going to UBC) joined me, and we cycled round Stanley park, ate poutine and attended an outdoor movie screening near the beach (Textbook Vancouver tourist things ya know).

The time to move up to the SFU Burnaby mountain campus came around very quickly, and once again I bundled myself into a taxi with my embarrassing amounts of luggage to move into residence. The location of SFU’s main campus was one factor I was apprehensive about, since it’s a little isolated from the city (I’ve since found ways around this, though). My first impressions of SFU Burnaby can be summed up in three words: quiet, concrete and construction. The brutalist architecture of SFU is apparently world-renowned, but I found it to be incredibly dull- very far from the vibrancy and mixed-design of UoM. The architecture has grown on me though, and I’ve come to appreciate the functional building design, which allows you to travel across campus [almost] without getting caught in the rain. The construction was also a little dis-orientating on move in day, and residence lacked the buzz I had encountered when moving into Oak House back in Manchester.

To an extent I was expecting this though, and had read lots about the unsociable reputation of SFU- owing to its commuter campus nature. However, I promised myself I wouldn’t carry any expectations with me- after all, UK student culture is pretty unique and socialising might just take a new form… I quickly met other exchange students, and we kinda bonded over our shared bafflement of the lack of freshers events. After a few trashier nights out on Granville street, we discovered the underground scene, which partly resembled what I was used to back home. Regardless of the nightlife, I understood that Vancouver was so unique, and boasted outdoor experiences that simply don’t exist in the UK.

Though SFU residence is a 40 minute bus ride from downtown, It hasn’t restricted me from getting out as much as possible. I now use the bus ride to listen to podcasts and have come to value this time. Though I initially had plenty to moan about regarding the mountain-based campus, perks include a free gym membership, access to the pool and sauna, a selection of shops and restaurants and spectacular views over Vancouver. Below are some photos taken on campus.

A few of my highlights from my exchange so far are:

  1. Going to Squamish with exchange friends. We hiked the Stawamus Chief first peak (best view i’ve EVER seen) and stayed at the cutest hostel for a night. Very wholesome times- this is where all the cool outdoorsy Vancouverites retreat to.
  2. Hiking the Grouse Grind. I’d heard from many people that this hike was a real mission, and required prime fitness to get you to the top. I felt such a sense of achievement reaching the top, which was topped off with stunning views over Vancouver. I’m so excited to come back to Grouse during the ski season

All in all, I’ve had some ups and downs here and have faced challenges along the way. But the compilation of great people, incredible outdoors and the general buzz of living in a new place has made these first few months some of the most enriching in my life. I can’t wait for the ski season to arrive, which will hopefully allow me to meet some more Canadians!