by Siddharth Gupta, a fifth-year Dual Degree student of Civil Engineering
My exchange story, though physically observed in the even semester of 2014, began about a year back when I started talking to some professors and friends about ‘whether to exchange’, ‘where to exchange’ and ‘when to exchange’. Having clear answers to these questions, especially to ‘why to exchange’, was probably why I learnt a lot from and was able to cherish my four months in the Canadian winter.
As with most of my well-structured plans, everything started deviating from the expected even before I got my Canadian visa. I was offered an internship position in Australia and found myself packing simultaneously for the Australian summer and Canadian winter. Skipping past my warm-up exposure to the first world in Australia, I found myself boarding a flight in Brisbane at 30 degrees bound for Montreal at approximately negative 30 degrees. As expected, I was oozing with excitement.
I still like to keep reminding myself that the first night at Montreal actually happened. The thing about entering a co-ed North American dorm on a Friday night is that, no matter how much you prepare your mental self, if you are an Indian kid from a small town in the northern plains, you will be, mildly speaking, surprised. Coupling this with the facts that Montreal was playing Boston in the NHL that night, and that my roommate (an American + Canadian + to be French citizen) was a big hockey fan did little to curb the night’s insanity. The two things I experienced that night were that human civilization has not advanced much — pitchers of beer in a bar while rooting for a cause are still commonplace — and that a poison called Poutine is, in the truest sense, a delicacy.
Over the next few days I, being a transportation engineer, acquainted myself with how the city moved. Montreal is one of the biggest underground cities of the world and you can probably get lost somewhere in some of those tunnels and find yourself emerging somewhere unknown. Coursework had begun two weeks before I arrived although, as anticipated, catching up was a walk in the park. Anyway, I was not here for classroom-based learning.
Towards the middle of February, I had the chance to go on a 10-day trip to the US. And if you have seen me wearing that Google t-shirt somewhere on campus, it should be no surprise that I chose the Valley. Other than the respite from the snow, those 10 days were all I could have wished for and more. From Google and Stanford to the air of a hot startup in Mountain View, it provided me with the exposure to the people and culture I had long awaited.
It probably took me a couple of months to truly settle in. I gradually began to enjoy French culture and was relishing my time among people whom I would otherwise never have met in my life. The International Student Association organized a trip to Quebec City, which is a unique place in itself. If I were to think of a city from the European Castle age still in use today, it would probably look a lot like Quebec City. And thanks to the severity of the winter, we had a winter carnival and a chance to visit an ice hotel!
Montreal is a city overflowing with students and schools. Apart from the research being done at the labs in Concordia, I tried to explore the work being done at other schools as well. The engineering school of Concordia is in the downtown campus — so you can imagine being surrounded by those gazillion-storied buildings bustling with activity all through the day. Each of the other schools I got to visit was unique in its own sense. McGill, as one of my friends puts it, will immediately remind you of Hogwarts. In the weirdly interconnected buildings of the University of (de) Montreal, I started chatting with a Brazilian guy who knew what the IITs were but had no idea that they had a Civil Engineering school. That was not the highlight of my day. I found associating with the professors at different schools immensely fulfilling — not only do you end up meeting them at unexpected places, you also get a bunch of ideas for research topics.
Though I only found two of the five courses that I took there somewhat intellectually fulfilling, it was really satisfying to have term projects that were, in proper terms, a team effort performed throughout the semester. I think this is one critical trait that IIT needs to embed in its culture, though this might only be my view based on the small set of people I have had the opportunity to work with.
Meanwhile the NHL and other stuff continued in full swing. There are a few nights that I would love to recount here but I cannot. Not only because this is not the appropriate forum to do so, but also because I literally cannot.
The semester was coming to an end when I was offered a second stint at Australia. I had the option to go start straight after Montreal. The semester abroad had however made me realize the depth to which I loved my life and friends at IIT. This was probably the most valuable lesson that I had learnt — to appreciate the advantages that my life as an undergrad at IIT had to offer while simultaneously being aware of what I was missing out on. I simply had to say goodbye to the friends I had made and life as I knew it at IIT. I postponed my joining date by a few weeks and said my final farewells. I approached my life after returning to IIT as a fifth year with the same excitement that I had as a freshman.
To people who are thinking about applying for an exchange, I’d say: be clear about what you want from it. Don’t do it for the bragging rights, don’t rush to the OIR one fine day and ask them to ‘send you wherever they can’ — do it to develop character, to experience new situations and broadly align whatever you do once you get there to your overall goals. For me, these were to be sure about my plans after IIT, to develop the ability to respect the lifestyles of people from different nationalities and to spend some alone time away from anything familiar. An organized exchange program as provided by other schools was not in keeping with what I wanted and hence I chose Concordia.
Overall, if you have clear goals, you will have the most enriching time of your life — tough at times, fun at others, but definitely always enriching.