Friday, May 21, 2010

Canadian Universities - A Great Find North of the Border

Nearly a year ago I posted a piece about the benefits of going to college in Canada. I cited reasonable cost and proximity to the U.S. (at least the northern states), as well as the opportunity to experience a truly international academic environment. My comments on the great value of Canadian universities were based on what I had learned, yet not firsthand knowledge. Last week I had the opportunity to test the accuracy of my impressions; I spent 3 days touring 7 universities in the province of Ontario. I came away even more convinced that Canadian universities provide a high quality and affordable option to students who are motivated, directed and those who desire the international diversity that such an experience offers.

My Canada excursion began on a Sunday which also happened to be Mother’s Day (it was not my preference to be away from my family, but college tour buses do not wait!). First point of note: it is so easy to get to Toronto! Just one hour flying time from the New York City airports and a 20 minute drive into the city made the outbound travel experience far easier than even going to the Midwest. For full disclosure I must note that long U.S. Customs lines in Toronto on the return were aggravating, however a frequent Canada-U.S. traveler standing behind me provided assurance that this was unusual.

But enough about the travel; more importantly, how do Canadian universities compare to U.S. colleges and what type of student would thrive at a school north of the U.S. border? Canadian universities share some common characteristics with each other: they are predominantly public, large by our standards (25,000 is an average size university), research oriented, big on pre-professional programs, and many have co-op learning options (students incorporate and get academic credit for paid work experiences in their course of study). What we label academic departments or programs, the Canadians call “faculties.” Much like in the U.S., students choose a university based upon fit, both academic and social.

For example, the University of Waterloo is well known for its engineering (13 separate disciplines) and math faculties, though the arts (more or less the equivalent of our liberal arts) still draw the largest number of students. The university appeals to students who are innovative, unconventional, and seeking ways to find connections to the world. Did you know that the Blackberry was invented at Waterloo? With greater insight into Waterloo’s academic approach, this no longer comes as a surprise. The university is also proud to tell visitors that all intellectual property belongs to the student, not the school. It’s no wonder Mike Lazaridis, Blackberry’s inventor, gives back generously in time and funding to his alma mater.

If artistry is your thing, Canada’s oldest art school, Ontario College of Art & Design, is an exciting learning environment in the heart of the vibrant city of Toronto. The school is not focused on job training for careers in the arts, but rather educating young people to develop their thought processes, be problem solvers as well as socially responsible citizens, using art and design as the medium; I would call it a cerebral approach to teaching fine and visual arts. Those who thrive at OCAD are artistic, curious, involved in their communities and enjoy the challenge of looking at the creative process from a more intellectual perspective.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Ryerson University in downtown Toronto, a school of 25,000 primarily catering to undergraduates. Talk about diversity: there are 142 countries represented among the students! With a strong pre-professional focus, Ryerson notes that faculty members work in their fields; they do not just teach. There are numerous strong programs, too many to list here, but it is probably fair to describe the university’s vision as discovering ways to marry innovation with the business of whatever discipline one chooses to study. Communications and media are big. If what you want is a focused, pre-professional education, this might be an excellent option.

For those who want the feel of a prestigious UK institution, yet prefer easy access from the States and a more likely chance of admission, the University of Toronto might be just the ticket. Stepping onto the St. George campus with its ivy covered buildings is like being transported to Oxford or Cambridge. It is big (50,000 undergrads, 20,000 grad students on two campuses), but the residential college system, similar to that of Yale and those hallowed institutions across the pond, allows students to feel connected to a community, even in a very large university. Students choose the University of Toronto for its 14 professional faculties (especially strong in engineering and music, but others are equally renowned) and its excellent research opportunities. I am personally indebted to this top notch research institution, for it is here that insulin was invented. This academic powerhouse is part of a cosmopolitan city rich in culture and diversity, with fabulous eclectic cuisine, and sports and athletic venues. Who thrives here? Students at U of T are mature, independent, and want the diversity and vibrancy of a city school community. As with many of the Canadian universities, classes, especially for introductory courses, are very large. Motivation and self-discipline are critical factors for a student’s success.

It would be a serious oversight if I didn’t comment on one of the best things about Canadian universities for foreign students: the cost! Most programs are less than $30,000 a year, and that includes the full cost of attendance. Furthermore, U.S. students attending many Canadian universities can take advantage of the U.S. federal student aid loan programs, as well as federal tax credits. Many of these universities also offer merit aid to academically deserving students.

For those of us raised in the U.S., we too often associate scholarship with the Ivy League and other prestigious American colleges and universities. My recent trip to Canada confirmed my hunch that we should consider looking beyond our borders to discover academic gems. The scholarly environments offered by many Canadian universities make them a very appealing option for students in search of a major research university where a top notch education can be had for a relative bargain.

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