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Carra Donaldson

SFU Student Undergraduate
Arts + Social Sciences

Experience Faculty
Going on an exchange is something I have always dreamed of doing. Now that I am back, it feels like I was in a 10 month fever dream; I am seemingly the same, but somehow indescribably different. It is easy to look back and remember how great it was, and all the positive memories, but there was a lot of prep work that went behind it.
Experience Details
Introduction + Preparation

In the beginning before I had even left or been accepted to a program, I was already overwhelmed with how many documents I had to collect, and how many things I needed to prepare to submit for my application. Documents you must submit can be a proposed study plan, financial proof, and academic references. Once accepted to UU, I then had to figure out travel insurance, flights, accommodations, and if I should open a Dutch bank account. I wasn’t able to secure student housing because just like Vancouver, there is a housing crisis in Utrecht. So, for my first month I lived in hotels, hostels, and slept on the couches of my new friends dorm rooms. At this point I honestly thought I might have to head home; this was not feasible or sustainable for two semesters. Eventually though, I found a studio in a nearby town. I took the train into Utrecht every day. It was not ideal, but it was the best opportunity that presented itself at the time. Many internationals in Utrecht had to do the same thing, student housing is incredibly limited and competitive. Fortunately, I was offered student housing for the second semester. 

Location Research

I knew I wanted to go to Europe, but I wasn't sure which country. For me, I used a process of elimination, and I was left with Utrecht, Madrid, and Prague. I ranked them all as equal in my application, but I was secretly hoping for the Netherlands. I had heard a lot about their sustainable policies and ways of living, and that really intrigued me.

Financial Preparation

I have been working part time since highschool, so I already had a bit saved up that I could use for my exchange year. The summer before I left, I took that semester off school and worked full time. Being able to work full time for almost four months solely for my exchange year really gave me peace of mind that I would have the financial freedom to not work in the Netherlands.


My dad came with me for a few weeks, so I packed one big suitcase, and I used half of my dad's big suitcase. I brought way too much stuff though, and I had to buy another suitcase before I left. My advice would be to pack light, because you don't really need that many items, and you will certainly buy things while you're away.

Preparation Tips for Future Students

For day to day transportation, biking is the go-to, Everyone in the Netherlands bikes, it is the fastest, most efficient, and cheapest option. There is a company called “Swapfiets” which offers monthly bicycle subscriptions; this is the best option for international students staying for a short among of time. I would recommend getting settled as quickly as you can. Getting your bike, living arrangement sorted, school supplies, residence permit, finding your go to grocery store, etc. will help you adapt, and start enjoying your experience sooner. I feel like I spent the first two months slowly doing these things, so I was not maximizing my experience and participating in as many outings as I could have. 

During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

UU had a lot of welcome events organized for international and exchange students, which made it really easy to make friends. Almost all of the friends I had were ones I met in these first few weeks. There is also a third party student organisations called “ESN” which I believe is in most EU countries. Its focus is to bring international students together and host events for them to meet, connect, and explore the country with (at a discount!). I went on a trip to Antwerp, Belgium with them, and it was super fun and affordable. 

Accomplishments and Challenges

As for the academics, I had a great experience with all the courses I took. I picked courses that seemed like ones I would not normally take at home. For example, I took a third year social and behavioural neuroscience course. I have never taken a psych or cogsci class before in my life! This was by far the most challenging course I have taken. I failed the exam the first time, but luckily for me, In the Netherlands, you are allowed to have a reset exam as long as you achieved a minimum grade of 4.5/10 on the first try. The weight of assignments was also something I had to get used to. At UU, there are only two or three items which make up your whole grade. For example, a paper worth 50%, and a final exam worth 50%. I have never experienced this at SFU, so in the first semester it was super intimidating that my grade was riding on only two things.

Cultural and Environmental Observations

I didn’t go home during any of the holidays, so I had the opportunity to spend Christmas with my German friend and her family. Her family lives in Munster, so it was only a three hour drive by car to get there. As a sociology major, it was incredibly interesting, and rewarding to be welcomed to such an intimate family gathering and see how they celebrated Christmas. Almost all of my friends were only doing exchange for one semester, so they all went home after the new year. This was incredibly sad for me, as I was now once again all alone in a foreign city just like in the beginning. However, I now had the opportunity to visit these friends when they went back home! I went to Norway and Austria to visit my friends, and stayed in their homes with them. I got a peek into what their life is normally like. 

Social and Extracurricular Activities

In my spare time, I joined a student club for ultimate frisbee, and got a gym membership for the student gym. At home, I would say I’m not very involved in student life since I live at home with my parents, and only go to SFU for classes. In Utrecht though, since I lived on campus in second semester, it was so much easier to get involved. I met so many people, and I realized that I really appreciate the international community.

Wrap Up

It was incredibly sad to come home after being away for 10 months. I had so many new experiences and opportunities which have changed my life perspective. I think the most valuable aspects of going on exchange were learning to live alone, meeting people from so many different backgrounds, and learning from a different educational system. I think particularly as a sociology major, I was able to put some of the theories and ideas about keeping an open mind to other societies into practice. I learnt firsthand about how different societies function, and different cultures, norms, and values. I also learnt what it feels like to truly be an outsider, living in a country where you do not speak the language, know any locals, or have any cultural capital was an incredibly valuable experience for me. I am grateful to have that insight.

Reflection & Tips
Most Valuable Aspects of This Experience

I had been to Europe once prior to this, for three weeks with my parents. So, this was my first time spending an extended amount in Europe as a resident. Since Europe is so well connected, I was able to travel to 10+ countries during the breaks and long weekends. I even travelled some of them solo, which was an incredible experience. I think this was an unexpected highlight, I did not go into this exchange with the goal of doing a ton of travelling, and for such an extended amount of time


Advice for Future Students

Going on exchange is an amazing experience which will open your mind up in ways you couldn’t even imagine. I wish everyone had the opportunity to do this, and I hope that people who do, take advantage of that.