In English / Reportage / Reportage in English

“Sas…what? Saskatoon! Where is that?”: Eight Months in the Land of Living Skies

Northern Lights over Saskatoon, October 2014

Northern Lights over Saskatoon, October 2014

Every time I say “I chose to go to Saskatoon”, it provokes the same reaction: people are surprised, intrigued. Those who know the city (mostly Canadians) open their eyes wide and ask me, “Why on Earth did you decide to go there?” Those who don’t (most people in the world) look confused, “Sas…what? Where is that?”

I will answer those two questions right away.

Saskatoon is the biggest city of Saskatchewan, a western province of Canada known for its prairies. According to City of Saskatoon website, the name of the city derives from the Cri -also written Cree – word “misâskwatômina“, which means “saskatoon berries”, and refers to the sweet, violet-coloured berry that grows in the area. The Cri is the largest native people in Canada and is one of the First Nations peoples, which have inhabited Canada for thousands of years, before European settlers came and colonized the land. A large Cree community still lives in Saskatoon. This is also the sunniest city of Canada (it truly is, fortunately), but the winter there is long and very cold (beware frostbites and protect your ears and nose!).

I must admit that I never heard of Saskatoon or of Saskatchewan before I decided to spend my last year of studies abroad. I made the most beautiful discovery of my young life.

Saskatoon

Saskatoon

As I had never had the possibility of studying abroad during my previous studies, I wanted to go far away from France and for a long time. Canada had always attracted me more than the United States, and I wanted to study in an Anglophone part of this country to be sure that I would improve my English. When I learned about the exchange program MICEFA between North America and France, I looked for universities which offered classes about Canadian culture (literature, history, films…) and native peoples. During the first semester of Master 1 MC2L, I became interested in Canadian history thanks to the course “The Western” given by Mrs. Bourdin. I realized I knew nothing about that subject, and the participation of our class in a seminar given by a Native North Dakota Professor opened a window upon an unknown and fascinating world for me. I decided I wanted to learn more about the life of native peoples in North America in the past and present. Researching about all the partners taking part in the MICEFA program, I found that the very new one, the University of Saskatchewan, had an interesting department of native studies. I also learnt that a big community of native people was still living in Saskatoon.

My cultural interest, my desire to discover a part of a country I absolutely didn’t know, and pictures of the beautiful campus I saw lead me to choose the University of Saskatchewan. It is a choice I absolutely don’t regret.

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Living

I personally chose to live in residence, as I found it easier to arrive there, knowing where I would live without stressing. The University of Saskatchewan has a large choice of residences available for all the University of Saskatchewan students and located very close to the campus. I had to apply for a place in residence at the end of spring, make my choice for the apartment and pay my room during the summer. I chose to live in the newest one, College Quarter, located only five minutes from the campus by foot. For me it was the best solution (and some friends, living in other residences, agreed with me) as it was close to the university, clean, cosy and well equipped, and you were independent as regard cooking.

The apartment's kitchen

The apartment’s kitchen

The Living Room

The Living Room

I was also able to choose with whom I would live, as we all had to create a profile describing ourselves, which appeared when you selected a room. I made the strategic choice to live with another exchange student from Spain, so that I wouldn’t be alone in my situation when I arrive there, lost in the wilderness.

Living with other people was an adventure in itself. I had always lived alone during my studies, so it was here that I learnt what it is to have roommates. I shared the big apartment with three other girls: two young Canadians and one Spanish student in biology, Carmen, who is about the same age as I am. Each one of us had her private bedroom, there were two bathrooms to share, and the kitchen and living room were common spaces. I got along with Carmen very well and very fast. We had a lot of common points, and it reassured us to be together in the same foreign boat. The first day we met, late August, I think we knew we would live happily one with another. My relationship with my two other roommates was not as strong, and sometimes – but rarely – problematic. Maybe, it was because of our age difference (they were both eighteen, and I was then twenty-two). And we probably had very different characters, which made it hard to enter a day-to-day dialogue. Still, I share a very good memory with Carmen and Stephanie, one of my Canadian roommates. The day after we moved in, we went to Wallmart to buy groceries. We bought so much stuff we just brought the shopping cart back to the residence. While we were walking along the long way home (we didn’t have our bus card yet), drivers who spotted us were laughing a lot, and we were as well.

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College Quarter Residence

Something you have to know when you go to Canada is that Canadians eat really early. When I met my other Canadian roommate, Shelayna, she was going to have dinner with her family…at 4.30 pm. Carmen and I couldn’t get used to this, so we just kept our European “late supper” habit. I was also shocked (yes, shocked) by the number of vegetarians and vegans around me. It was odd for me to cook crêpes with almond milk and no eggs for all the potlucks I did with some friends. As a meat lover, I really had to adapt my diet sometimes. For our daily lunch at university, I had a lot of choices. Most of the time, my friends and I just brought our own food, heated it and ate in the ISSAC lounge (a very good place to gather with people and relax) or sometimes we bought something in the food court, where there were varied fast food restaurants (sushis, salads, burgers, pitas…). But when we were too lazy to cook and we wanted to have a big and healthy meal, we went to Marquis, where there was a royal buffet. As students living in the university residence, we had ten meals in Marquis prepaid on our student card. Those days we had lunch there, we felt like kings and queens. I have to say that I missed French cuisine a lot though. Even if I love pancakes, cheesecakes and poutine – the national dish made of fries, gravy sauce and melted cheddar – I couldn’t find anything to replace French cheese or bread in my heart and my stomach.

Pancakes and sausage for breakfast. Yummy!

Pancakes and sausage for breakfast. Yummy!

Studying.

Last spring, before I went to Canada, I had to select some classes in order to establish a “contract” between Paris 8 and the University of Saskatchewan. At first, I was a bit lost, as I didn’t know which level(s) of classes I could choose. So I exchanged some emails with the coordinator of the International Student and Study Abroad Centre (ISSAC) and the Academic Advisor at the University of Saskatchewan, who were able to answer all my questions concerning the procedure. I could choose whatever level of classes I wanted within the college I had been admitted into. The whole procedure was computerized, which was supposed to make it easier. At least, in theory. It took me almost one month to register in all the classes I had chosen. I had to contact the head of the English department and ask her for the permission to register in the courses. In an email, I provided her with my choices and my transcripts. After she gave me that permission, she had to enter some special codes into the computer system. We had a few troubles related to those codes and it blocked the registration process for a while, but finally the Academic advisor figured it out, and I managed to register in my classes for both terms. I was really impressed by the availability of the coordinators and professors I talked to. They answered my emails within a day (and it was during summertime!), and were trying to solve my issues as fast as they could. Even if time and distance could delay the final resolution, I felt they really paid attention to my cries for help and did their best to assist me in the registration process.

University of Saskatchewan, Thorvaldson Building

University of Saskatchewan, Thorvaldson Building

When classes really began, I had three weeks to make any change in my choices before coming if I needed or wanted to. I met a Student Advisor, who helped me to choose new classes. I could also ask her any question related to my studies. When I told her about the compulsory internship we have to complete during the Master 2 MC2L, she directed me straight away to the professor in charge of the internship program within the English department. She also guided me to the Sheaf, the newspaper created and directed by the University of Saskatchewan, and introduced me to the crew as a new collaborator. She was really efficient helping me with my questions!

It turned out I was more than happy with all the classes I chose. During the first term, I took five classes, which gave me lots of work. As most of them were literature classes, I often had two or three novels to read for the same week, which was a difficult but stimulating challenge to complete. I took four classes, including one short internship of 80 hours, during the second term, which was a bit more relaxing as I didn’t have as many weekly readings as during the first term. I noticed some differences with the French university system. First of all, the weekly schedule is organized differently. When in France, most of our classes are blocks of two or three hours students have once a week, in Saskatoon most of my classes lasted one hour, some, two hours, and given three times a week. I found another big difference in the way classes are taught in Canada and in France. At the University of Saskatchewan, a lot of professors I had enhanced participation by gathering us into smaller groups where we could talk about the texts we read for the lesson, or about the subject in general. In the end, we would gather with the whole class and share our ideas. Discussions and conversations were very frequent, which surprised me at the beginning as I was more used to the lecture type of class given in France in classes préparatoires. I think most of the professors in the Master MC2L also try to launch discussion in class, but it is so unusual in France it can “scare” the shy students. In Canada, students have internalized this kind of teaching and are more at ease with it. It took me a while to get used to this.

At first I stayed mute, and listened to people in my group, too afraid to talk and say something stupid, or not being understood.

But after some time I felt more confident and participated more in those conversations. For example, near the end of the second semester, I had to read Kiss of the Fur Queen, a novel written by Tomson Highway, for my class Canadian Literature in English. I was able to relate it with one course I had taken a few months earlier, Contemporary North American Literature, when I had learnt a lot about aboriginal myths and history. I used this knowledge to enrich the group discussion about Kiss of the Fur Queen, which I found very exciting.

University of Saskatchewan.

University of Saskatchewan.

As regard the assessments, most of the professors marked participation and attendance in class (including quizzes, for some of them), and gave us two essays a term to write, from five to eight pages. Some classes also required a group presentation in class, an exercise which still doesn’t make me feel very at ease. For my web design and software use class, I had to complete a few projects, from correcting a picture with Photoshop to directing and editing a short movie, which was lots of fun (even if we shot in minus thirty degrees with non-professional actors!). For our essays, professors insisted that they should have a solid theoretical background and some references (without plagiarizing, which is harshly punished in North America). At each class presentation, and each time we had an essay to write, professors gave us instructions to avoid plagiarism, which could lead to expulsion. Some Academic Honesty Sessions were even organized during the schoolyear! I don’t feel this issue is taken as seriously as in Canada. When I arrived in M1 MC2L, we only quickly and lightly chatted about academic honesty. The last essays of the year were quite long, between eight to ten pages, and up to fifteen for my internship one. Those essays required hours of work, between research and writing, and sometimes it was very stressful as I could have two or even three essays due the same week. However, most of the professor gave a one week extension to students who asked for it. Dialogue with professors was very easy. They were very welcoming and open to answering any question I had, concerning the class or not.

All the classes I took were very enriching. They stimulated my desire to learn more about Canadian culture and the history of native people in Canada. I discovered how rich this nation is, culturally, humanly, and naturally.

Socializing.

My roommate Carmen and me before a football game. Go Huskies!

With my roommate Carmen before a football game. Go Huskies!

A lot of activities were organized by different organizations, in order for us to meet and to get information about how the university offices, residence, and classes, work. At College Quarters, the R.As (Residence Assistants) gathered us for movie and game nights, which helped us to meet one another. The orientation day took place early September, before classes began. That’s when we received those beautiful orange tee-shirts! After a speech given by the President of the University of Saskatchewan, we gathered in the Physical Activity Centre when the organizers made us dance and laugh and, once again, meet one another. We split in the afternoon to attend meetings organized by departments, where professors and graduate students informed the new students about the expectations and contents of the programs, which was very interesting to hear. Also, during the first week of September, the members of ISSAC organized an orientation day especially for exchange and international students, which was the perfect opportunity for us to meet other exchange fellows, start friendships, and learn more about Saskatoon. They invented a special Tic Tac Toe, where the boxes contained features (preferences, particular experience, belongings…). To win the game, we had to find people who matched those features (it went from “left handed” to “I witnessed a tornado”). It was an excellent way for us to meet people from everywhere. After that game, we gathered to eat pizza and to continue talking to the exchange students we just met. I was impressed by the number of exchange students in the auditorium. We were about one hundred, coming from Europe, South and Central America, Africa, Asia… I realized there that Saskatoon had attracted a lot of students from all over the world.

Country skiing in Elk Ridge - Prince Albert Park

Country skiing in Elk Ridge – Prince Albert Park

I tried to join every event organized by the association of Canadian students USSWU (which became AXIS in January), created to welcome International and Exchange students at the University of Saskatchewan. Those activities – a picnic by the river, a trip to a rodeo competition, a weekend in Northern Saskatchewan… – were wonderful opportunities to meet other exchange students and to develop friendships, but also to meet Canadian students devoted to make us have a good time. Unfortunately, we never had personal Canadian “buddies” – a kind of godfather or godmother – as there had been an issue with the email system. But it didn’t prevent us from spending some time with those lovely locals, who helped us discover Canadian practices and the pleasures of the area. With some exchange students, we met regularly at the restaurant next to the university to hang out, relax and exchange our daily experience or our national practices, and joined to watch movies at the residence or in the movie theatre.

Canadian, exchange and international students.

Canadian, exchange and international students.

In Vancouver

In Vancouver

Thanks to all of this, I met wonderful people with whom I traveled across this vast country, drove through the prairies and the mountains up to the Pacific, watched sublime landscapes and wondered at the skies, experienced extreme sensations of joy and fear, and danced to rhythms of the world.

And thanks to all those beautiful people who are now my friends, I had the best time of my life in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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