Semester VI at Waterloo!

Hi! I am Mohit Sharma, Senior Undergraduate in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Last winters, I was on a semester exchange to University of Waterloo, Canada and I write this article with an intention of encouraging student exchange programs in the institute. There are two main aspects of learning that come out of an exchange program, personal and academic and this article will elaborate on these one at a time.

A semester abroad in a foreign university is like a crash course to life beyond the hallowed walls of the campus. You are exposed to a lot of new experiences all at once which gives you an opportunity to learn many things in a short duration of time. There are many challenges that you face, most of them for the first time, and you learn to deal with them outside the support system of your family and friends. This feeling of independence and accomplishment is highly gratifying for an average Indian student who has always had layers of support to fall back on. An exchange teaches you how to manage your everyday life when everything you need has to be done by nobody else but YOU! From grocery shopping to cooking your own food, from drawing lines between study time and party time to planning every day of the next week in advance, this life was totally different from my comfortable, impromptu decision taking life at IITK.

So that was about individual learning, where you learn new things and acquire new sets of skills through individual chores and circumstances. But an exchange program also gives one the opportunity to grow as a person through interactions with the various kinds of people that you meet. You get an opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture of the host country, know about their food, tradition, beliefs, religion, festivals etc. and there are good things to pick in all of these that you never thought of before. Trying local sports and activities are other good things you may like to try at your new home. Your host university is very likely to have people from all over the world as exchange students. Hence most of what has been mentioned above for host country stands true for all countries that these students come from if you take the initiative to find out.

A semester abroad is very likely to broaden your perspective to life in many ways through introspection and discussions. You are also exposed to new opportunities outside India. You get first-hand experience of studying/working in a foreign nation. It helps in taking informed decisions on higher studies and later on, employment. You end up with a new found respect for your family, friends and institute, and most remarkably for your nation, for its culture and traditions. Personally my love and respect for all of these increased exponentially due to this experience.

There is a lot to experience in the education system outside India. It was always my wish to spend some time of my undergraduate study at a foreign institute and this exchange was a perfect realization of that. The in-class experience and research environment at University of Waterloo was very different from what I have seen at IITK and both have their own merits and demerits. There was a stark difference between the student life and approach towards education at University of Waterloo and again it felt great to be a part of it for one semester. I was impressed by the hard work and academic integrity that the students of the university displayed. I took courses with some of the top professors in my area of interest and receiving guidance from these front-end researchers was an out of the world experience. The course on Machine Learning by Dr. Shai Ben-David was one of its kind. There is always an opportunity to take a project under a professor, get a taste of research environment and even have collaborations for semester or summer break.

There are opportunities of networking with people from all around the globe which can be crucial and life changing at times. Latest information about universities and jobs from the locals at different destinations of the world is helpful in taking many decisions. Having friends all over the globe is awesome for more than one reason!

An exchange means lots of fun and adventure. Frequent parties, events and get-togethers lead to meeting every possible kind of person you can imagine and have discussions on endless topics. You get amazed by what the world has to offer by travelling to new places.

There are certain things on the downside too that I would like to share and forewarn of. You must ensure that you get sufficient courses approved from IITK as well as your host university so that you have options to add/substitute once you reach their campus. IITK curriculum and course structure would usually be better/tougher/more advanced than undergraduate courses at some foreign universities. Hence, you should probably aim for graduate courses so that you can be sure that course is at par with similar course at IITK and you can get the credits transferred. Also from personal experience, these graduate courses are just superb and you actually get a lot to learn. Learning to cook is a handy skill because if you are a real foodie, it gets difficult and frustrating without good Indian food. It is not rocket science. I myself learnt everything in last the week before leaving for Canada. Further, it is an excellent idea to have atleast one other exchange student to give you company at the host university and be an equal partner in all your joyous moments and to share all your problems. It’s a long period in a totally different environment and academic settings. Malleability and will to excel academically without any help is required. Home sickness, missing friends and IIT is common and you should be strong and determined enough to face such emotional challenges. You need to boost yourself up everytime to get the maximum out of the opportunity and as I said it becomes lot easier if you have a friend with you.

A big question that naturally arises is where should I go for an exchange. I have the following opinion which is very personal. The destination should not be purely decided by University rankings. Having done an exchange, I feel that undoubtedly quality of education is an important criteria but equally important would be factors like the country you are visiting, would there be a language barrier, how can that particular city add to your exchange experience, how many other exchange students from what all parts of the world would you get to interact with, so on and so forth. It’s a very broad thing and should not be narrowed down to 3-4 courses that you will be doing on the exchange because that is just part of the reason you are doing it. It can be a good idea to try a place where say you would probably like to go for your graduate studies, experience the academic and research culture there. So just decide your priorities and what you want to get out of it and make the decision accordingly. It can range from “ I want to see Europe , its culture and travel around” to “I want to experience education in a North American university and take a course X under that great guy Y”. It is very much personal.

To conclude, I would highly recommend anyone interested to take initiative and contact Office of International Relations for possible destinations. It could be a life changing experience, to say the least.

Happy Exchange!!

This article has been written by Mohit Sharma, Y11 Batch.