Exchange in the Great White North

By Cheong Yi Hua, Alumna, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business


Exchange is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and an opportunity to travel somewhere less accessible – be it geographically or financially. Hence in Year One of my studies at SMU, I started planning on taking up an overseas exchange programme to give myself a chance to experience an almost entirely different environment for a few months. With interest in day landscapes and night skies, I leaned towards Canada, also known colloquially as the Great White North, as it boasts a host of cities and communities known for their astronomical views.

At the start of 2020, I embarked on my exchange to The University of British Columbia (UBC) at its Vancouver campus at the Sauder School of Business. Renowned for its international diversity, UBC offers an array of cross-disciplinary courses, so I was able to study business-related courses and build upon my interest in biomedical science.

I found myself benefitting academically even when taking ‘familiar’ operations management courses related to my major, as UBC courses referenced the local Canadian context. For example, witnessing containers carried on railroads – a basic mode of transportation across major cities in Canada – is something one cannot experience in Singapore.


Settling in at UBC

Lessons at UBC were ‘same but different’. When my friends and I took a self-tour around campus before the start of the term, the seminar-style classrooms and glass-panelled buildings almost made us think that we were back in SMU. Indeed, the academic curriculum was not unlike SMU, where class discussions and group projects are emphasised. But I could feel a subtle cultural difference in the classroom; students were more than eager to share their opinions, and discussions could go on for quite a bit – so much so that the professor would often have to leave a part of the day’s agenda to the following lecture.

This made me reflect on what I wanted from education. At UBC, I felt learning and internalising were more explicitly encouraged, rather than an emphasis on how to get that ‘A’. The opportunity to work with peers from different parts of the world also taught me how to manage others’ expectations, emotions and working styles. This was one of the key takeaways from the exchange – lessons that have made me into better versions of myself and are guiding me through collaborations with colleagues in today’s working world.


Learning through play

Campus life at UBC was not all work and no play. My friends and I were privileged to participate in UBC’s annual campus-wide snowball fight. Despite it being a Thursday, it felt as though classes had ended in the morning as the crowd gathered before noon. When we arrived, some students were stocking up on their snowball inventories; others were scouring the perimeter for vantage spots and whipping out their photo-taking devices. I settled for phone photography, capturing the scene as much as possible and as fast as my fingers could tap.


This was taken during a ski trip on Cypress Mountain. It was fun falling and rising together with my friend as we helped each other on the slopes.


There were also ample opportunities to try winter sports, such as skiing or snowboarding. Sports has always brought me happiness and has taught me approaches to various situations in life by pushing me to reach the limits of my physical and mental strengths. Hurling myself down the slopes, then learning how to navigate a path lined not with the stability of cement but with varying heights of snow, is an achievement that I will always be proud of. I think there isn’t a more practical lesson than this in building resilience – not only did we learn to ‘dare to fall’ (safely of course), but also how to get back up and push on.

I also managed to complete a road trip along the borders of Alberta and British Columbia with friends. Planning an itinerary only to find ourselves wandering onto interesting paths that we came across along the highway; going off-the-grid and staying in one of only two lodges located in the middle of nowhere up in the mountains; stargazing at approximately 1,500m in freezing -18 degrees Celsius, enjoying the ‘same but different’ sky of the Northern Hemisphere. This was my kind of road trip.


At Wapta Falls, British Columbia, Canada during a road trip


The start of the Covid-19 pandemic

My attempt at capturing starry skies – on the bottom left of this composite image is the Snow Moon (first Full Moon of 2020) taken during my first observatory session with the UBC Astronomy Club, and in the main image, constellations Scorpius and the Teapot (annotated), taken on-board the flight back to Singapore

As cases of Covid-19 started to emerge around the world in February 2020, I realised we might be asked to return to Singapore for safety reasons. Thoughts of the impending recall made me appreciate the precious last moments at the UBC campus.

I returned to Singapore nine weeks into the term, and continued to attend UBC classes virtually. The time zone difference was a challenge initially, requiring me to stay up for lectures into the wee hours of the morning. Arrangements were made for exchange students affected by the time difference to take our final examination papers separately. Overall, I am thankful that despite the recall, I was able to spend a few weeks on campus, where I could personally observe different behaviours and interact with people from different walks of life. I think this is the essence of going on an overseas exchange. It is a unique global exposure experience that is not easily replicated without in-person immersion.

I understand the frustration of students who have had to put their plans for an exchange on hold, and I wish the best to everyone planning for their next trip – whether it’s for exchange or other purposes. Let’s work hard to put ourselves in a better position to realise our next travel destination when the situation permits.



Cheong Yi Hua went on a semester exchange at the University of British Columbia in 2020. She has since graduated from SMU with a Bachelor of Business Management.

Given that the Covid-19 situation still prevails globally and will continue to have a significant impact on our daily lives and how the University operates for some time, SMU has shifted its suite of global exposure programmes to virtual formats where possible. The University looks forward to resuming all programmes physically when the situation improves, and when it is safe for our students to travel again.

[All images courtesy of Cheong Yi Hua.]