Looking for global learning opportunities? U of T has just made it easier

Emily Wong
Emily Wong, a second-year student in the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, studied abroad in Germany. "It was an incredible experience. It's taught me so much about the world," she says (photo courtesy of Emily Wong)

The University of Toronto is making it easier for students to see the world – and learn from it. 

The university is increasing the funding available to students so cost becomes less of a barrier. And to make it easier to identify opportunities, the Centre for International Experience – U of T’s hub for international students and domestic students who want to learn abroad – has worked with U of T's three campuses to unveil a website, learningabroad.utoronto.ca. The website has a searchable listing of international opportunities, answers to FAQs and student stories. 

“We know that one of the main constraints for students taking international learning experience is financial,” says Joseph Wong, associate vice-president and vice-provost of international student experience. “We as a university are committed to ensuring that international learning experiences aren't just for those with means.”

Wong knows firsthand how travel and learning abroad can enrich one's perspective. In the early 1990s, he backpacked through China, taking a 16-hour train ride from Beijing to Shanghai and visiting other cities in the eastern part of the country. “It was a totally different, eye-opening experience,” he recalls, “and I made a career working and studying in that region.

“That's not to suggest that you take one of these international opportunities and it's going to 100 per cent dictate your future, but it's going to have an effect on how you view the world.”

This year, the university is doubling the amount of funding for awards available to students with a demonstrated financial need. The goal is to provide $2 million in support in 2018-2019, and to increase it to $3 million annually by 2021-2022. 

Students interested in studying abroad can apply for International Experience Awards, which are assessed based on need, the length of one’s stay, airfare and destination. The average award was about $2,500 last year, but students can qualify for more.

The overwhelming majority of students who apply for a bursary to help them pay for an academic trip abroad receive funding, says Katherine Beaumont, senior director of global learning opportunities and international student success. The increase in funding will help support the university’s goal of 30 per cent of undergraduate students having an international experience by the time they graduate, up from 20 per cent now. 

One reason students tend to turn down an international placement is the unexpected cost of things like transportation and health insurance. The new site offers advice on how to prepare a budget and provides links to scholarships and awards, both at U of T and outside the university.

Since U of T is Canada's largest university with more than 90,000 students, the range of options can be overwhelming. Students can use the site to explore some of their options on a spinning globe. They can filter by short-term, summer, year-long and graduate opportunities, ranging from history courses in Dublin to paid internships in India. There are also first-hand accounts written by students who have travelled to every continent but Antarctica.

The site also links to outbound opportunities offered through faculties and divisions across the university, from U of T Mississauga and U of T Scarborough to Rotman Commerce. 

“What I want to reduce is the number of times we hear in the U of T community, ‘Oh I wish I'd known about that,’” says Beaumont. “Because we're a large and very dispersed community, it's really easy to not know about the range of opportunities available.”

Students who have more questions can go to the learning abroad fairs across U of T's three campuses or by booking an individual appointment online with a learning abroad adviser. The fairs are at Cumberland House on the downtown Toronto campus on Oct. 2, at the CCT atrium at U of T Mississauga on Oct. 3 and at the instructional centre atrium at U of T Scarborough on Oct. 4.

By taking a degree at U of T, Rija Saleem has also collected quite a few stamps on her passport. In her third year, she travelled outside North America for the first time ever to take cultural courses in Korea, learning Korean and some taekwondo. She used her time off to backpack through Southeast Asia before teaching Grades 4 through 6 in China for four months. On her travels in Asia, she hitched a ride with a camel – and let a monkey hitch a ride with her.

And just this summer, she was awarded a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship to conduct research and curriculum development at a school in Rwanda.

“The courses I was taking, the placement opportunities – these are experiences that aren't available at home,” she says. 

“Your 20s are for exploring who you are,” she continues. “When you go abroad, you get time to learn about yourself and develop a sense of independence. At the same time you're highly social because you don't know people, and you learn cross-cultural communication skills.”

These skills appear to be valued by employers, too. A survey conducted by Léger Marketing for Universities Canada found that 82 per cent of hiring managers at small and medium businesses believed that employees who have “inter-cultural knowledge” make a company more competitive. 

Saleem, who is now undertaking a Master of Teaching at the U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Educaton, says she's still as keen as ever to travel. She's already thinking about hopping on a plane to learn in another part of the world.