Breaking out of the comfort zone: A reflection

Salma Rana, Queen’s University

I want to start off by thanking God for all the opportunities I have had. I am incredibly grateful for everything that has come my way, through His will.


When I was leaving Manchester last year, although I was excited about my upcoming journey, I was equally hesitant. I wondered if I was making the right choice, if it was worth finishing university a year later than everyone else, and missing out on so much time with my friends and family at home. I had so many “what if’s?” in my head, to the point where I was thinking of backing out in the last few weeks before I left. But now looking back, those worries are nothing compared to all the beautiful memories, lessons and friendships I gained. If I could go back, I would tell myself to stop worrying because the most important year of my life so far was to begin.

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Fitting In

Salma Rana, Queen’s University

During my year at Queen’s, there was a huge variety of ways to get involved with both the University community and the larger Kingston community.


I am very much involved with the Muslim community at University of Manchester (shout to Manchester ISOC!). However, I quickly realized that Muslims are a true minority in Kingston, Ontario. Even more than any place I have been to in England. There is only one mosque. Nevertheless, I quickly realized something else: the love in this community is one of a kind. The transport links to the mosque aren’t too good, so it can be difficult to get there, but QUMSA (Queen’s Muslim Student Association) do a lot to make sure students are truly catered for. From hosting congregation prayers, regular lectures, socials and charity events. Continue reading “Fitting In”

Street Art: Montreal, Toronto and Mexico City

Salma Rana, Queen’s University, Canada

One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new city is to see the artwork home to that place. Other than museums, something that have I loved about my travels was the beautiful street art embedded within the cities. These told me unique stories about the culture and history of the cities they were created in. Below I give you some of my favorite pieces and recommendations of neighborhoods you should visit if you get the chance.


A friend and I ended up in St-Laurent by accident. After climbing up Mount Royal, we thought we would take a different route back, to get more of a feel of the city, and ended up there, a boulevard home to some of the most incredible art, music, fashion and food festivals. There are murals painted on all corners of St-Laurent, and we were so captivated that we ended up walking through the whole boulevard until we arrived back to our hotel on the other side of the city.

As I observed the beauty painted on boards above parking lots, on the sideways of shops, and even on the road below my feet, I remembered the words of Rainbow Rowell, “Art wasn’t supposed to look nice, it was supposed to make you feel something.”

Eyes by D*Face
Location: Rue Clark / Rue Prince Arthur
Portrait of Mary Socktish, by Kevin Ledo, for Montreal’s 2014 MURAL festival
Located at a Rue Prince Arthur parking lot
A Jackie Robinson tribute by Fluke, for the 2017 MURAL festival


Toronto is bustling with gorgeous murals throughout the city, with many neighborhoods and alleyways dedicated to creativity. I absolutely love Kensington Market in particular, because as well as amazing artwork, the choice of food is abundant – from halal burger places (Burgernator and Top Gun!) to ice cream shops, bakeries and cafes.


Kensington Market photos shot by Basmah Rahman

Mexico City 

When my friends and I arrived in Mexico City, in the early hours of the morning, the first thing I noticed on the drive to the hotel was how there was vibrancy everywhere. Even in the dark I could see that all the shop shutters were painted in a rainbow of colors. We stayed in Centro Histórico, and I definitely would recommend taking a stroll before stores open (9/10 am) because the store shutters are genuinely so beautiful.

The shutter of a store opposite our hotel in Centro Histórico
A stroll through the streets of Centro Histórico


Outside station Xochimilco, shot by Christy Ng
Art featuring decorative sugar skulls are all over Mexico, used in festivities celebrating Day of the Dead

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The People of Mexico

Salma Rana, Queen’s Unversity, Canada

Needing a break from the cold Canadian winter, a couple of friends and I flew out to Mexico for reading week. We spend most of the week in Mexico City and the last couple of days in Cancun. Everything was incredibly beautiful, from the colourful streets and detailed architecture to the delicious food. However, I want to dedicate this post to what made the trip truly special.

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Mercado 23, Cancun

The people I came across in Mexico were so happy and grateful. The photo above, of a man cheerfully selling us corn on the cob, is one of my favourites from the trip. I did not want to leave his presence, it was so full of warmth and wholesome energy. I think this captures some of the spirit of the people there. Like this man, the people I came across were so content with all they have, which may not seem like much to us, but the size of their hearts and smiles outweighs any sort of material comforts we might compare against.

Christy in Centro Histórico, Mexico City

The people of Mexico were so incredibly accommodating, and I am still processing the kindness I was given throughout my visit. There were many incidences when I couldn’t express what I wanted to, due to my lack of Spanish skills. However, every single time someone would pull out their phone and launch google translate before I could even do so, or find some other way to make sure I didn’t leave without getting what I wanted. At one point, a mother who overheard my conversation, as I was struggling to communicate with the sales adviser, brought up her son and exclaimed excitedly and proudly, “my son speak.. English!”, while telling her son to help me out. At another point, my friend left without collecting her change after buying coffee from the cart. Even though the change was equal to less than 20p, the boy making the coffee chased her up in order to give her money back.

A lot of the shops we visited and the places we ate at were local, and the kind of hospitality we received was extraordinary. The waiters, waitresses, shop owners, tailors etc. genuinely wanted us to have the best experience from the moment we entered, and they were so proud of where they worked and so happy to be there.  I think these photos below sum up what I am trying to say. I asked the owner if I could take a photo of the shop and the way he stood along with his products, so proudly and yet slightly shyly, was just amazing.

Centro Histórico, Mexico City


These experiences were a reminder to me, about the kind of person I want to be. I want to be much more grateful for everything I have and count my blessings as much as the people of Mexico. Just like them, I want to be content with and proud of whatever I do. A friend pointed out that this kind of thankfulness doesn’t come as easy in the West, but it is something that we should aspire towards.

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Floating Gardens of Xochimilco


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Love for learning, reignited

Salma Rana, Queen’s University, Canada

My first semester as an exchange student, in Canada, is coming to an end, and those of you at university know that sometimes this can feel like a lifetime. I’m going to do some pitstops of my experience here so far, showing you my highs and lows, some of the lessons I’ve learnt and things I have been inspired by. This will be split into a few blogposts that I will be posting over the next couple of weeks.

Ontario Hall, Queen’s University
University Avenue, Kingston

The past few months have been a true learning experience.  The academic structure is very different here at Queen’s. Firstly, “electives” are encouraged here. When I arrived at Queen’s, I was only given two psychology modules for this semester. Although this was stressful at first, it turned out to be one of the best things. I took some gender studies courses instead, where I got the chance to understand history, politics and sociology in ways I hadn’t considered before. I was also given a chance to learn about the indigenous history of Canada, something that isn’t talked about enough.  These ideas combined has allowed to me think about my major, psychology, in a more inclusive context, opening my mind to knowledge that I may not have been exposed to if I had stuck to only psychology courses.

First tip: Take some courses outside of your degree! I promise it will be worth it.

Every student, since the 1920s, has been given a tam (the funny hat) during initiation

The workload here is A LOT more intense than what I am used to at the University of Manchester. Over there for each module, I am given one piece of main coursework and one exam at the end, with both being weighted around the same. Here, however, there is coursework due in almost weekly per course, with midterms, participation marks… and a final exam. This was stressful at the beginning of the semester, but now I am actually very grateful for it. It has meant that I have been learning a lot as the semester goes on (not just around exam time), as I am assessed regularly. And, as incredibly cliché as it sounds, I have to say that I have been improving my time management skills.

Second tip: When considering which country and university to do your exchange in, it is important to research the assessment methods and weighting. This can affect your satisfaction with your exchange as a whole. I have met many students who are unhappy because the emphasis on coursework does not suit their needs.

Lake Ontario surrounds Queen’s University, and its residences

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I also have been very inspired by the lecturers. Something I love about the experiences I have had with my lecturers here is that they make an effort to connect with us. I have managed to collect so many anecdotes and wisdom passed on from the experiences by my lecturers. My psychology professor often turns segments of his lectures into motivations talks, where he talks about how important it is to be optimistic. He contextualised his own experiences, where he went from wanting to be an accountant, to becoming a cleaner, to becoming a Clinical Psychologist and a hockey coach. This reminded me that there isn’t just one linear road in life, you can take many twists and turns and end up being more content than you ever imagined.

One professor talked about how life circumstances left her financially independent during university, having to pay for tuition and living expenses by herself, but is now an insightful writer, a passionate activist, an inspiring teacher.  She makes me want to stop feeling sorry for myself when things don’t go to plan. Just being in her presence makes me want to do more. Another professor has taught me things I have yet to truly understand (no seriously, I have a word document full of long words I have not had a chance to I will always remember her coming up to me up at an MSA (Muslim Student Association) stall, and while not being Muslim herself, she told me that she is rooting for us. This led me to redefine my personal understanding of unity. My lab instructors taught me that patience is a bigger virtue than I had realised. Honestly, I don’t understand how they dealt with me being confused about statistics for a whole semester.

Third tip: Introduce yourself to your lecturers.


The path is rarely linear – Dean Tripp
Douglas Library, Queen’s University

A huge part of my learning experience has been spending time with other exchange students, from all over the world. I have been living in “Jean Royce Hall”, located a 10-minute bus ride away from the main campus. This is the only residence offered to exchange students and at first, I was a bit hesitant, because of the location and the fact that I would have to live in shared accommodation with many people.  However, it turned out to be a good choice. Firstly, there is a shuttle bus that goes to and from main campus every 15 minutes, as well as other city buses that are even more frequent. All students at Queen’s also get a free bus pass, which is definitely a plus. Also: there is a very pretty library just next door, which has meant that on my days off, and especially when the weather is bad, I can study productively… in my pyjamas.

Disclaimer: If you are considering living in Jean Royce, a fallback is that it is on the more expensive side – it turns out that if I lived off-campus in a house it would have been half the price….

Fourth tip: Pros of living in residence at Queen’s are meeting lots of different people, it is regularly cleaned, it is very safe and there is a library. Pros of living off-campus are getting to know Canadian students better, it’s cheaper and possibly closer to the main campus.  

MacDonald Park, Kingston



Living with other exchange students has meant that I have been able to get to know and learn from students from Japan, China, Nepal, Australia… and more! This has been so eye-opening and inspiring. I have been inspired by students such as Satsuki, who keeps an “English” journal – whenever she learns a new word during a conversation, she writes it down in her journal, researches it later, and tries to apply it in another conversation. There’s also Juno, who works hard day and night, reading everything she can about Renaissance art and Romanticism, dreaming of opening a history museum when she is back in China. Then there’s Franziska, who is one of the rare people in her town to have left it, breaking the norm and stereotype there, that women are to stay at home.

While experiences like this are motivating, they also have made me aware of some of my privileges that I have unknowingly taken for granted, especially in England.  It can be very easy to stay in a safe bubble in life, spending time with people like you, but it is definitely worthwhile to talk to people who are different to you (whether it is because they come from a culture that is different to yours… or just study a different course). We can’t live a hundred different lives, but we can learn from a hundred people who live a different life to ours.

Fifth tip: Spend time with people who are different to you. 


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Homecoming 2017
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The final group meal at Ali Baba, before some exchange students go back to their home countries, as they are only here for one semester.

Questions and comments are welcome!

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