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Sandro Gianella recently spent a summer at U of T Berlin studying urban planning. For him and his fellow students, the city became a laboratory. “It wouldn’t make sense to go to Berlin and sit in a classroom all day,” he says
Sandro Gianella. Photo by Lee Towndrow

A World of Opportunity

Spending a term abroad used to be considered an expensive frill. Now many students see it as their key to a rewarding career

As he nears graduation, Michael Dzamba recalls that some of his best experiences at the University of Toronto took place 12,000 kilometres away.

The fourth-year computer science student specializes in bioinformatics, in which computers are used to study aspects of human biology. Last year, Dzamba interned with Computational Research Laboratories in Pune, India, thanks to a unique new partnership between the cutting-edge information technology company and Victoria College. “I’m pretty sure most other undergraduates wouldn’t have the opportunity to work on one of the fastest computers in the world,” he beams. “When I was there, I had all the access I wanted.”

The company, a subsidiary of Tata Sons Ltd., paid for Dzamba’s living expenses in Pune, while Victoria College covered his airfare. At the tender age of 21, the budding scientist earned six months of invaluable work and research experience in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies – an opportunity he calls “amazing.”

Dzamba isn’t alone. A rising number of undergrads now study overseas as part of their U of T experience. Studying abroad attracts arts and language majors, as well as aspiring doctors, lawyers, engineers and business executives to a wide variety of exchange programs and internships, all targeted to their programs of study and future careers. They know that as the pace of globalization accelerates, studying abroad isn’t just a nice idea – it may well be a necessary step.

“Students are taking a different view of their careers,” says Jill Matus, U of T’s vice-provost, students. “Many students feel that their education should not just involve a course of study at the University of Toronto. It might also include an experience that integrates work, study and travel in another country.” Once, North America was the world’s job hub, the place where you got serious after dawdling in Old World museums and cafés. But as our economy cedes power to China, India and other nations, North America has become the dawdling place. Abroad is where it’s happening.

Margi Moscoe knows this as well as anyone. This fall, the 29-year-old begins work in New York City as a consultant with Infosys Consulting, the U.S. subsidiary of the Indian information giant Infosys Technologies. In 2007, Moscoe interned at Infosys Technologies in Bangalore while pursuing her MBA at the Rotman School of Management. For good measure, she followed up this international experience by spending her fall semester in Shanghai, China, on an exchange program.

Before entering business school, Moscoe worked for four years in the consumer packaged goods industry, at Unilever. “There was so much talk in the boardrooms about what was going on in India and China, and every time I opened the newspaper I would see headlines saying the same thing,” she says. “I thought it would be a really interesting experience to travel to those countries so I could learn first-hand what everyone was talking about – to experience the culture and understand where the growth was coming from.” Rotman’s international study component factored strongly in Moscoe’s decision to enrol at U of T. The school offers “top-notch exchange partners, solid relationships with global companies and study tours to various countries,” she says. “A lot of these opportunities are not offered by other leading MBA programs.”

While in India, Moscoe worked at an impeccably landscaped, 80-acre IT campus. How much the offices in the facility reminded her of those in Canada initially surprised her. “I realized there were a lot of similarities between the working environment and what I was used to in North America,” she says. “I could have been in an office in Toronto and it would have felt the same. But outside of work? That’s where all the differences are.”

Moscoe quickly learned that women in India dress conservatively, favouring the traditional salwar kameez both in and out of the office. Moscoe stopped wearing skirts that showed her knees and avoided scoop-necked tops. At the gym, she traded shorts for sweatpants. “Women tend to be more covered, in general, and the men were quite formal,” she says. Other cultural differences were less obvious. Moscoe is left-handed, but was told to use her right hand when passing something to someone. “By not being educated in the local customs, you feel like you might be offending people,” she says. Toronto is a cosmopolitan city, but the predominant culture is still North American. Many of the differences Moscoe experienced are not obvious in Toronto.

The chance to live in a new culture is a good reason to travel; for many students, there’s also a unique learning opportunity. Sandro Gianella, a 23-year-old native of Switzerland, recently spent a summer at U of T Berlin, a facility that the university runs in the heart of Germany’s largest city. Gianella studied urban planning under the auspices of Woodsworth College’s Summer Abroad program. “Our professor, Patricia Petersen, really did a great job of connecting us to the city,” he says. “She took us out almost every day on field trips. We really saw how Berlin was divided, how it copes with problems. It wouldn’t make sense to go to Berlin and sit in a classroom all day.”

Nabila Qureshi, a history specialist, also participated in Summer Abroad, but she studied global politics through a newly created program at Fudan University in Shanghai. Qureshi, 20, spent half her day trading ideas with local students. “They sat in class with us, giving their personal opinions and views,” she says. “Sure, you can have a conversation on the Internet, but you can’t get that kind of instant, face-to-face dialogue.” Qureshi also spent one week in Beijing on a field assignment.

The importance of providing U of T students from all disciplines, including the sciences and engineering, with work and study experiences in the world’s most rapidly developing economies became clear to members of the university’s senior administration during a mission to China led by David Naylor in November 2007. China is where the action is, where careers in research and business can be fostered and collaborations forged. “We came home with the appreciation that it’s not just about bringing students to Canada,” says Lorna Jean Edmonds, U of T’s assistant vice-president of international relations. “It’s about creating Canadian capacity to work in a global community. As future innovators, leaders, professionals and researchers, our students need to see how the global landscape is changing. And we realized we need to significantly increase the number and variety of international opportunities for our students.”

Accordingly, U of T now has exchange partnerships with about 140 leading universities around the world. Enrolment in Woodsworth’s venerable Summer Abroad program, a staple since 1972, has nearly doubled in the last five years. The spirit is clearly willing, but the number of students participating in these programs remains lower than university administrators would like – only 1,000 or so ventured outside Canada to intern, study or conduct research last year. Finances remain a problem, says Paul Gooch, the president of Victoria College. The perceived complexity of applying for a term abroad can also be daunting. “We need a staff member on the ground to walk students through it,” he says.

Often, the students who take advantage of international study opportunities have already had significant travel experiences or have moved from country to country. Gianella, who is multilingual, says that moving is quite natural to him. It certainly is for Penny Feng, 20, a laboratory medicine and pathobiology specialist conducting cancer research under the auspices of an innovative summer exchange program between Oxford University and U of T. (Oxford students come here to study questions concerning the environment and social innovation and live at Victoria College, while Victoria College students go to Oxford to work on projects in bioinformatics and medicine.) “I grew up in Nanjing, China, but spent two years in Thailand before my family immigrated to Canada when I was 11,” says Feng. “I am very open to the possibilities of working in another country after graduation. I am looking forward to experiencing other countries and settling down wherever it suits me best.”

Whereas a previous generation of students may have viewed trotting the globe as a way of delaying entry into the “real world,” today’s youth don’t see it that way. “If you’ve spent time abroad, it only enriches your experience in Canada when you can come back,” says fourth-year political science major Phil Donelson who, like Qureshi, participated in the Fudan University exchange. They spent half the day learning about global policy issues from U of T professor Joseph Wong, and the other half being lectured on the same subject by a Fudan professor. “It was really interesting to get the Chinese perspective,” says Donelson, adding that this type of learning “helps you to understand the world.”

Moscoe agrees. “If you’re just sitting in an office in Ottawa for 25 years, you won’t be bringing as much to your career as you could,” she says. “Outside experience brings value to our country as a whole.”

Donelson and Moscoe come from two seemingly different worlds: humanities and business. Arts majors, such as Donelson, have long been involved internationally – archeology, history and modern languages have traditionally lent themselves to overseas study. Now, every discipline is open to cross-border exploration. A key mandate of the new Centre for Global Engineering is to prepare U of T students for the global workplace, to where the most innovative ideas are taking form. And law students, such as Nicole Simes, are venturing outside the confines of their library carrels to do internships abroad and learn about international law. While working in Geneva, Simes recently wrote, “My internship at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights consistently provides me with insight into the political and legal forces that shape the landscape of international human rights protection.”

One wonders. If students envision themselves spending years, instead of months, abroad, and treating trips as career choices instead of finite blips, will this contribute to a sense of rootlessness and social fragmentation? Will it fuel tensions that inevitably arise in dual-career marriages?

Many students are also asking these questions. “I think companies will demand more mobility of employees in the future,” says Moscoe. “But it’ll be a challenge because a lot of people just can’t move, especially later in their lives when they have certain responsibilities.”

This is why it’s all the more important that students gain international experience, in case they can’t later. “Among my peers it’s becoming very common to travel,” says Donelson. While in Shanghai, he communicated with Toronto friends stationed in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. “This is the time to do it because it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says.

It’s an opportunity that many senior administrators ultimately want to fold seamlessly into the U of T experience, so that work, travel and study do not exist separately; instead, they contribute to each other. This, of course, may mean that students spend a longer time earning a degree. “The idea of devoting an additional six months or a year to expanding one’s horizons is an excellent one,” says Matus. “Through an internship in another country students may explore their area of interest in ways they hadn’t considered before. But the added time to earn a degree and the attendant financial implications need careful consideration.”

Should every student who wants an international experience be able to have one? It’s a rousing goal, to be sure, but fiscally unattainable at this time. “Our job, at a minimum, is to make sure that students do not suffer financially as a result of an experience abroad,” says Edmonds. Alumni support for international opportunities for students would be particularly valuable for youth who can’t afford airfare and accommodation abroad.

The day may yet come when working abroad will not only be common but expected at the University of Toronto. For now, those few who can list China and India (not to mention Tanzania, Chile and Cambodia) on their resumé feel they’re at an advantage. Moscoe’s experience suggests that interning in a country with an economy that’s growing at an astronomical rate can be key to clinching a great job. She believes it was her experiences in China and India that helped her land a plum position in the middle of a global recession.

Or, perhaps any foreign country will do. Feng feels that while working in one of the world’s leading medical research facilities equipped her with terrific credentials, working far from home made her a more “independent and mature person,” something employers obviously respect. “Going abroad by yourself shows character,” agrees Gianella. “I think people look for that when they’re hiring.”

Gooch, for one, believes that an international experience is essential to a good education. “If you get out of your home, your country, and have to navigate another culture in another language, it makes you realize that you’re not the centre of the universe,” he says. “Students develop relationships and an understanding that they can draw on for the rest of their lives.”

Cynthia Macdonald (BA 1986 St. Michael’s) is a writer in Toronto. Her story about the Institute of Child Study appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of U of T Magazine.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ A World of Opportunity ”

  2. Sandro Gianella says:

    If anyone is interested in the program in Berlin, please feel free to contact me. I am in fact still in Berlin, pursuing a Masters in Public Policy, and let me tell you the city is definitely worth visiting.

  3. Sarah Chen says:

    Hi Sandro,

    It's good to hear that you are having a great time studying abroad. I'm currently doing my third year engineering study and also running a magazine club for Chinese student community. Your story is truly intriguing and I'd like to spread this out to more students as well. Since you are far away, do you think we could have some online discussion for a conversation. My email address is sarahsiyuan dot chen at utoronto dot ca. Feel free to contact me. Thanks!