Philip Edgcumbe’s first thought when he left the airport in Delhi was how cold it was. It was a foggy day in January of 2009, and Edgcumbe, an engineering physics major at the University of British Columbia, had just arrived in the chaotic Indian capital on a four-month exchange at the elite Indian Institute of Technology. In retrospect, he probably could have done a little more research before making the 11,000-kilometre journey; the two novels by Rohinton Mistry and Salman Rushdie he’d read hadn’t provided the kind of detail that would have seen him pack a few more sweaters in his bag. But here he was, underdressed and nervous and excited, with classes due to start in a few days.
Edgcumbe had always known he wanted to study abroad, but he didn’t expect to end up in India. Then two things happened: He read an Economist article about IIT, which chooses 2,500 students from among 400,000 who write the entrance exam each year; and a classmate signed up for the Delhi exchange and urged Edgcumbe to come along. “IIT’s academic reputation is good, and I felt that going on exchange should be as different an experience as possible,” says Edgcumbe. “India certainly fit the bill.”
By the time he flew home six months later (he stuck around for an extra six weeks to volunteer at an orphanage north of Delhi), he had made lifelong friends. “I was amazed at how easily I was able to connect,” says Edgcumbe. “There really was very little that fundamentally differed between myself and the students I spent four months with. I gained an appreciation for how global we are, and the universal hope and culture of young people.”
There are other benefits to studying abroad: learning a second language, developing an international network of contacts, building self-reliance. And there’s this: A 2009 survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education found that 91 per cent of employers value prospective employees with international experience because it develops cross-cultural understanding. And half of them said they’d choose a candidate who had studied abroad over one who hadn’t. “Understanding other cultures and relationship-building are real assets among employees,” says Christine Tausig Ford, vice-president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “You just have to look at the way the world is shaped these days by global forces and the speed with which knowledge moves.”
Canadian universities offer more than 3,000 exchanges to 175 countries, in just about every discipline imaginable – international development in Ghana, indigenous studies in Mexico, history at a 15-century English castle, engineering in Shanghai. Yet, just 12 per cent of undergrads study abroad, compared to one-third of students in Germany. And that has university administrators nationwide fretting that Canada’s young people won’t be able to compete in a global job market. “It’s just better for Canada as a whole,” says Daniel Woolf, president of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., which has 150 exchange agreements in 45 countries (plus the aforementioned castle in England). “We’ve always been positioned as a middle power, an honest broker between different power blocks. We’ve been very well respected internationally. That won’t continue if we don’t produce graduates who are at least comfortable in another environment.”
Universities have traditionally sunk far more resources into attracting foreign students to Canada than in sending homegrown ones abroad, since incoming students boost a school’s bottom line with fat tuition fees. “It used to be we took a field of dreams approach to international exchanges,” says Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison
University in Sackville, N.B. The school would set up an exchange to, say, Oslo and just expect kids to sign up. Today, the 2,500-student school has 17 exchanges to 14 countries, including economics in China and theatre studies in New Zealand. “We’re being much more deliberative in making agreements that are useable and practical for our students. We don’t just wait passively.”