Arriving at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton, I was quickly overwhelmed with all the names, countries and information that I had to remember about the new people that I met, the campus, classes and in particular, the cold! The amount of winter-related information we received from helpful Canadians and ‘Surviving the Canadian Winter’ sessions and e-mails, made my newly-made friends and I hit the beach in temperatures in which I was used to pulling out boots and jackets in Canberra. Sure enough, only a few days later in early September, the little hope we had for a few more days of warmth was whisked away by the first snowfall in Edmonton. I was so concerned about surviving the rest of exchange against the bitter onslaught of this country’s horrid temperatures that I didn’t realise this seemingly awful weather made all the activities that I later came to love possible.
Joining the UAlberta Outdoors Club was the best decision I made on exchange. If the wonderful executives of this club weren’t busy organising trips to the beautiful Rocky Mountains almost every weekend, they were holding other social events like Oktoberfest, running dinners, pub nights and more. Having mostly made friends with other exchange students, this was a chance to not only grow those friendships, but also to make friends with local Canadians who ran or came along to the trips. These trips involved activities I never envisaged myself participating in. In the first trip, after setting up camp in the snow, I slept with 4 layers of clothing and dreamt about the glorious views of the upcoming Sulphur Skyline hike which I had google imaged earlier. After an 8km hike the next day, my google image expectations proved to be false when we found ourselves surrounded by nothing but white clouds at the top. Though all was well after we had the chance to eat some food and relax in the nearby hot springs. Our weather luck eventually improved, making the numerous trips that followed nothing short of magnificent. These included backpacking through the Canadian Rockies, setting out on hikes with views so breathtaking, all previous viewless hikes were forgotten, witnessing gorgeous waterfalls, canyons, lakes, and wildlife such as moose, elks and mountain goats, playing forest games, splitting firewood, singing, talking and eating by the fire, and becoming a part of the Outdoor Club family. I used to joke to my friends back home: “I don’t go outside”; now they’re surprised to find me anywhere but inside.
Despite the freezing cold temperatures, I fell so in love with the outdoors that I took every opportunity to limit my time spent indoors. At the suggestion of my Norwegian roommate, I even slept outside… in a hammock… in the middle of campus… not once, but twice! It only took becoming the subject of other students’ Instagram and snapchat stories and being approached by university peace officers who wanted to make sure we weren’t homeless; to convince her that spending the night in the cold in a hammock was not a regular occurrence for everyone. The officers were so bewildered that when we asked if what we were doing was okay, they replied: “We don’t know, no one has ever done this before…” I guess they will later make new regulations about this.
The Outdoor Club trips inspired us exchange students to do our own trips to Banff and Jasper national parks as well. Of particular note is our trips to Big White Ski Resort, as well as Banff’s Sunshine village and Lake Louise, where I learnt to ski for the first time. I had so much excitement that within the space of two days, I went from feeling the soft powder under my skis for the first time on the bunny hill, to skiing down a 2730m elevated mountain with low visibility such that all I could see and follow in the midst of all the fog was a hint of blue on my friend’s backpack. Of course, I didn’t ski down these mountains as smoothly as I would like to let on. Rather, I fell so many times that I became a source of my friends’ amusement and had to tell random but kind strangers that I was ok more than I can count!
The feeling of pure joy I got from learning something new encouraged me to try many other things such as ice skating, Acroyoga or the RedEye games, which is an overnight multisport competition running from 11pm to 7am, hence the name! The sports were very varied including paddleboard and wheelchair basketball, laser tag, pool noodle and sledge hockey, and much more. While our team didn’t win, we had so much fun cheering and encouraging each other all night that we wouldn’t have had it any other way. And our eyes were literally too red to care!
Through the week, we studied together in the student common study space (ECC), but our nights were still not left unadventurous. Every week we all gathered for Karaoke Mondays, Taco Tuesdays and Wings Wednesdays. The rest of the nights were spent dancing and making memories on the famous Whyte Ave, going for late night pizza, ice cream or poutine runs, chilling at each other’s apartments or having sleepovers. We tried to gather as many people as we could for the bigger events like our international thanksgiving, where everyone cooked something from their own country; our Christmas party, where everyone gave each other thoughtful gifts as Secret Santa; or our farewell party which my roomies and I hosted. Everyone’s willingness to spend as much time together as possible, brought us all so much closer together. While I missed my friends and family back home, it wasn’t possible to become homesick in an environment where I felt I was part of a big, loving family.
Going on exchange gives you the opportunity to try new things, meet new people, see new places, and learn about different food, languages, and cultures, and form long lasting friendships. I can easily say that I met people from at least 20 different countries across the globe, who I now look forward to visiting. Especially my incredible German, Dutch, Norwegian and French roomies who made exchange the most memorable experience of my life to date. To me, the only disadvantage to exchange is having to endure the painful but inevitable goodbyes at the end.