BackgroundI did my exchange year at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada. Queen’s is based in a small city called Kingston which is essentially a university town, it’s around a 3 hour bus trip from Toronto and Montreal. The whole university is campus-based and was founded by a University of Edinburgh graduate. As such, it’s broadly based on the University of Edinburgh campus and has very strong traditions. For a very brief period Kingston was the capital of Canada, so there are some old government buildings in the town centre.
My first piece of advice would be to any person wanting to go abroad is: if you don’t get your first choice (or any of your choices for that matter) see what they offer you instead…you may just end up having the time of your life! Here is some general information about Kingston and Canada:
AccommodationFor international students there are two main options:
- International Halls: These are located very close to university and are like most hall of residence. Unfortunately I do not know many details about these halls, but I know that the people who stayed there loved them, they are a great way of socialising with international students.
- Sci ’44 Co-op: This is a housing system where you are either part of a meal or non-meal plan house, and live with anything between 3 and 9 other people. Even though you may not like the sound of a meal plan (I wasn’t) definitely go for it! It’s the best way to meet people, you have to do three hours kitchen work a week as part of the deal which isn’t actually too bad…trust me I did it! Although try not to schedule your shifts for a Thursday or Saturday morning…you will more than likely be hungover from your night before at Alfie’s and cleaning dishes is not a good hangover cure!! The accommodation is good, and you can move houses after you first term so you get to meet more people. Co-op does attract some weird people, keep this in mind when you turn up and the first person you meet seems really strange! Two of the best things are the socials and you can mix with Canadians and international students, rather than just foreign students.
CoursesThe course structure is not that different to the UK’s, you generally have 3 hours of lectures a week per course, and tutorials will be worked into that time. You take between 4 and 5 courses each term. One big difference is that classes start at 8.30AM and you can have night classes which run from 6.30pm - 9.30pm.
Setting up a bank accountPossibly one of the easiest thing to do out here; just go into a bank with your student card and passport and ask to set up an account, you don’t even need to have any money to set it up! They give you your card and PIN number on the spot (so much easier!). I would suggest banking with TD Canada Trust, it’s the only bank that has machines on campus. Unlike UK banks, every time you use your card with a bank that isn’t yours you will get charged, thought...Try not to use the random cash points that don’t belong to any bank because they will charge you a lot more!
NEWTS week/OrientationThis is possibly the most bizarre thing I have ever taken part in, similar to Freshers Week but specifically for international students. You’ll get to experience Canadians’ craziness first hand...Our week consisted of visiting a baseball game in Toronto (lasted four hours!! It wasn’t the most exciting of days), karaoke nights, a massive paint fight, mystery tours around Kingston and general craziness. You learn random songs that your leaders have made up for you and spend most of the week crazily drunk. You also get to see what all the First Year engineers have to go through; go into a pit of freezing cold water and try and climb a pole covered in pig fat to get a tam (Scottish hat) off the top - it takes them hours! It is a week of pure madness but it’s worth it, you are all put into groups and it is a great way to meet people.
- Alfie’s: The university night club open on Wednesday and Fridays for your normal chart night out, Monday’s for Jazz night and random nights for special events. You will more than likely spend most of your time in this club! It’s free entry and free to leave your coats, drinks are relatively cheap BUT remember it is normal to tip for drinks in Canada (I would say only for the first one, but people have different opinions!), just leave a dollar on the bar.
- Queen’s Pub (QP): The university pub, does cheap food on a Sunday!
- Gym: You will get free entrance to the gym, they have just recently (end of 2009) opened the new gym which has great facilities and a swimming pool.
- Library: There are a couple of libraries, check out the Harry Potter room in the Douglas library. Libraries are more of a social place than they are in the UK, people are often chatting etc on the ground floor entrance of Stauffer (the main library)
- Common Ground (CoGro): The university coffee shop.
- TAMS: Queen’s clothing store, there is a ridiculous amount of Queen’s clothing and everyone has tonnes of it! Be prepared to invest into some Queen’s memorabilia!
- University Book Store: Where you can source all the books you need for your courses as well as stationary, and yes, more clothes!
- P&CC: Some courses don’t require you to buy books... Instead, they provide all the course reading in a pack which you will have to buy from P&CC.
- Walk Home: A service run by students that enables them to have a pair (male and female) walk them home at night. Kingston isn’t known to be one of the safest towns, but they provide a great deal of services to make up for this! I never encountered any problems when I was out there, so don’t worry! You can use it after a night out from a club or to walk you home from the library… but honestly do not worry, safety is not a major issue!
- Kingston has one of the highest amount of restaurants per person, so you have plenty of options if you are looking to go out somewhere to eat, particularly nice are Windmills for brunch and Wooden Heads for dinner.
- Options for going out are mainly the campus options already mentioned above, or why not try Stages or Ale House, both located in what locals call the Hub, which is at the junction of Princess Street and Division Street. There are also a number of bars along the road.
- There are relatively few shops in Kingston, the only brands being American Apparel and Urban Outfitters. Bear in mind when packing that you will be going in September when it is still really quite hot, you will want Summer clothes to wear and swimming things so you can hang around by the lake while the weather is still nice! You can buy Winter clothes out there, their clothes are more geared up for the weather than ours are here. You will have to buy winter boots, make sure they have good grip, you don’t want to be falling over all the time! Be aware that winter boots do cost a lot of money, mine were $180(CAN) but I wore them every day for the whole of Winter and they lasted.
- The Lake: Visit the lake in Winter and Summer, they are both amazing. In Summer, you can swim in it and in Winter, you can walk on it as it freezes over completely!
- Ice skating rinks: Victoria Park is partially flooded and turned into an ice rink for any wannabe ice skaters; there is also one in Downtown which has side rails (quite helpful if you are rubbish like me!).
TravelTo Kingston: You can fly into either Toronto or Montreal, though most people fly into Toronto. From Toronto, you can then get a bus from the station which costs around $110 return. Or you can go for the Megabus option, which means you need to get into Downtown Toronto. You can do this by tube. Although this is a cheaper option, for your first time I would just get the bus from the airport; battling the underground, jet lag and bags may not mix well! However for future trips to Toronto, definitely use the Megabus, book far enough in advance and you can get some really cheap deals! The bus will then take you to the bus depot in Kingston which is about 10 minute taxi ride out of town, or take you to campus, where there is a taxi rank you can take to your house/halls.
Around Kingston Everything is within walking distance, housing is generally only a couple of blocks from university and the Downtown area is also within walking distance. At most, you will walk for about 10 minutes to reach campus from where you live if you go with either of the above options, which is great when it is -20°C outside!
Away from KingstonThere are good bus connections with Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, you can buy tickets from the university tri-colour store. Travel by bus isn’t cheap, often it is cheaper to hire a car and split the cost between everyone. Internal fights in Canada are not cheap either, they do not have cheap airlines, you either book with Air Canada or West Jet; book in advance if you can. You can fly from Kingston but this adds way more cost to your trip, it’s better to check flights from Toronto or Montreal.
Top things to do
- Go to Alfie’s: Queen’s own nightclub, I literally lived there every Wednesday! Some people had records to see if they could not miss a single one!
- Visit Ottawa and ice skate on the canal: In Winter, the canal freezes over and people often skate to work, it is really fun(ny), I personally can’t skate and so was more dragged along the canal and didn’t quite make the full length…But it’s the trying that counts! Definitely worth going, we hired a car and drove there but you can also get a bus, the university run them really often.
- Visit Wolfe Island: Wolfe Island is a little island on Lake Ontario just off of Kingston, it forms one of the Thousand Islands. There is an amazing sandy beach (yes I know on a lake, not quite sure how it formed!) which, if you hire bikes or borrow a friend’s, you can cycle to and go for a swim in the sea!
- Snow tube in Montreal: Travel to Montreal and head to the big park where you can hire a huge rubber ring and race down the hill in the snow. You can also ice skate on the lake at the bottom. There is a Winter festival on as well in February which is worth a visit.
- Go to an ice hockey game: Ice hockey is a major part of Canadian culture, go and watch at least one game just so you can say you have done it! They are often on at the K Rock centre in Kingston and are relatively cheap to go to.
- Go on as many road trips as possible! Take every chance you have to go on a road trip, we did a road trip to New York within a couple of weeks of being there, we also visited Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara Falls and Boston. You are really close to the American border so it is so easy to hop over (just make sure you fill in the online visa form, it will cost you US$5 to cross the border).
- Join a society: I joined two while I was out there, there are a broad range of different societies that you can join and they are a great way of meeting people and going on socials! Particularly recommend the Outdoors Club, they do loads of different adventures at weekends, we went on one called Winter Wonderland where we cross-country skied, built a quincy (like an igloo) and acquainted ourselves with snow shoes!
- Try vodka bar lime: My new favourite drink!
- TRAVEL IN THE SUMMER: If you can afford to go travelling in the Summer, do it. I had the most amazing experience, we hired a car and drove through the Rockies. If you are on a tight budget I would suggest WWOOFing (World Wide Organisation of Organic Farming), where you work for person/family/couple and in return they provide you with food and accommodation, you normally work five hours a day and get weekends off giving you plenty of time to explore! You do various random jobs, one of the projects I did was helping to build an eco-house on a mountain, random I know…but GREAT fun! Also, instead of paying for accommodation look into Couch Surfing.