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The Alien Student

Alien Mailbox
Alien Mailbox

At university, I feel like an alien among students.

I have always had this idea that North American students were more independent than European students, and that they had already one foot in the real world because a lot of them were already working to pay school’s tuition. Apparently, this is just a stereotype.

It seems to me that students are a little bit older than French students when they start university. I’d say around 20 years old rather than straight-out-of-high-school 18 years old. Yet, at 26 years old, I feel old. Like another student told me last week: “you look, like, mature”. I’m still not sure how I am suppose to take it.

I’m only taking two classes because I’m working full-time. Since I already have a university degree and several years of work experience behind me, I don’t feel pressure in completing anything fast. I attend university because I want to. I made a choice, basically.

The sentence I must say the most often these days is “I can’t, I’m working”. Want to come work on the research proposal this afternoon? “I can’t, I’m working. After 5:00 pm if you want, I’m free”. “There is no class next week, all students must deliver their research paper at the secretariat which close at 4:00 pm”: “I can’t get there before 5:30-ish, I’m working”. “Why don’t you come around 11:00 am to solve the administrative problem with a counselor?” “I can’t, I’m working”.

And each time I say that, people look at me, thrown into confusion. They hesitate between “then what the hell are you doing at university” and “how do you do it?”.

I know there must be some other students working. I can’t possibly be the only one. When I took my first class this summer, there were more people my age who were working full-time. It is true that during the two regular semesters, Fall and Winter, it is almost impossible to work and take several classes. The schedule is the main problem: it is obviously made for people living on campus and attending classes full-time. I had a lot of troubles picking my courses for two reasons. First, because the admission process was hell for me. Then, because by the time I was accepted, I was left with very few choices. There is no way I can attend a class which has mandatory discussion groups between 9:00 and 10:00 pm: how am I going to go home that late, especially during winter? It is not practical either to attend lectures that are divided into three of four very short sessions each week. I’d rather attend a 3 hours long class than to come three times during the day for an hour each — I don’t think my employer would let me do that.

But above all the practical considerations, I feel like I’m living in another world.

I come to class after work, which means I’m usually wearing “work clothes”. Nothing fancy or extremely strict: just pants, a sweater and dark shoes. But when the class started in September, and when it was still hot, I felt like a nerd in the middle of a bunch of wanna-be strippers. Since when did mini-shorts and backless shirts become the students’ uniform? Gosh, I was once kicked out of class — admittedly in high school – because I wore jeans with holes in the knees! And can can someone tell the guys to take off their caps when they are in class? I can’t see the board when I’m sitting behind them!

There is a certain narrow-mindedness that drives me nuts. What most students seem to care about is how many pages term papers must be, how late you can deliver them and why it is not fine to base a bibliography on Google searches. Students also have an amazing sense of self-confidence that I certainly didn’t have. During the first class of a lecture this year, the prof explained that she requires all students to write a term paper on a subject of their choice, related to the lecture. She added that she wanted to read something personal. Suddenly, in front of the packed amphitheater, a student stood up and interrupted her: “can I write a paper on something that nobody has ever written about?”. I couldn’t help thinking: “good luck, buddy. You are a first year student of a subject you don’t even know about yet, an you already claim to do better than academics!”.

All students are certainly not like that. Most are quite nice, although I still can’t help thinking I live in a different world.

Maybe it’s cultural too. In France, we were taught to respect the profs and that our opinions didn’t really matter after all. Apparently, in Canada, students’ opinions do: I can’t count how many classes were spent with a student arguing the prof was wrong.

All in all, studying in Canada is a fun cultural experience, similar to finding a first job abroad.It’s just… different.

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