I am a US Citizen and live in the US now. But, I went to school in Montreal. When I tell this to people in the US, I am almost always asked: “Why did you go to school in Canada?” The question often comes implying a few false premises. I get asked this enough that this deserves a thorough answer.
Here are the premises I think are implicit in many US citizens’ (who don’t live on a border state) attitudes:
- There is something abnormal or inferior about foreign countries.
- Canada is a far away land.
- Canada is somehow less socially developed.
- The Canadian healthcare system is inconceivably inferior to ours. An extended stay is dangerous.
- Foreign degrees either won’t carry over to the US or are inferior to US degrees.
I’m writing this because I’d like to address this question in one place in a cogent fashion often not possible within the context of conversation.
Canada is a pleasant place to live and learn. Montreal is an ideal place to attend university. The city is safe and clean. In 2016, Montreal only had 19 homicides. Philadelphia, a smaller city, had 248. When I visited the city for the first time, I fell in love. Montreal has enough North American grit to be unpretentious while maintaining a strong hold on their French Canadian heritage: language, food, and oddities. Travelers to Montreal will notice that the city is quieter than NYC, and cleaner.
The food is awesome. I’d bike to Chinatown for weekday $4 lunch specials. Poutine: French fries, gravy, and cheese curds was a special savoury treat. They serve cheap steamed hot dogs on toast at the provincial fast food joint, Belle Provence. There were the $5 double-ham and butter melting inside a crispy baguette. The Moules Roquefort at L’Academie: Fresh Steamed mussels soaking in their own briny juices, blended with pungent Roquefort cheese. The taste is as if the mountains were dancing with the sea. I could go on forever. The juicy tender Portuguese chicken brushed with spicy and peppery sauce at Romados. The thin slices of fatty sliced smoked meat from Schwartz’s. Freshly brewed beers in unique flavors frothing over tulip glasses at Dieu Du Ciel Brewery. The fresh and endless colors lining the stalls of Atwater and Jean Talon Markets. The melding of crispy meats and sharp pickled Lebanese radish with creamy garlic sauce inside a warm and soft pita at Boustan. It’s all so good and there are always new places to try.
Montreal has an impressive system of bike lanes. You can drive everywhere on a bike. Bike lanes are separated from traffic with medians, greatly increasing the safety of biking. I’d ride the bike lanes for miles, discovering new corners and parks, fascinated as the world whizzed by. Sitting along the Saint Laurence river watching the boats float on the deep blue majestic waters, a backdrop of flat lowlands dotted with small mountains in the distant blue sky.
The city’s parks dot the city. It’s a common spring and summer tradition to bring some wine, a blanket, and some snacks and go lay out in one of the many green and sunny parks. The frequency with which this happens is greater than any city I’ve experienced in the US. Though, Central Park NYC is an impressively crowded place in the summer.
Canada isn’t that far away. Going to school in Canada doesn’t necessarily mean going far. Montreal is not far as far away as many US schools. The drive from Philadelphia is about 7 hours, New York a bit closer. This is not an uncommonly far distance to travel for college within the United States. Canada has access to the same technology, health, education, and transit standards as the US.
Living abroad doesn’t need to be a stressful experience. I reframed the difference in cultures as having every aspect of life become an adventure. They handle rent laws differently. Insurance. Studies. Drinking. Socializing. I loved it. While going to school I was also learning about Canada and its people. It was a welcome challenge. I was immersed in a culture wholly different than my own while still getting a great education. I was learning what traits are unique to the United States and what were common to Canada. Montreal wasn’t a harsh transition for an American. It is a familiar environment, with access to English service, in a comfortable and safe setting.
I can’t speak highly enough of my time at McGill. The school is addicted to excellence. They are consistently rated in the top 50 schools in the world. The student body hails from over 200 countries. That diversity and excellent is what I wanted. McGill was affordable. University costs were less than one-third of equivalent US schools at the time. This has changed since I left. But geographic tuition arbitrage is a strategy every high school upperclassman ought to consider. Their degrees are recognized in the US. Please note that some professional degrees (law school, med school, accounting certifications, etc) may have different requirements across borders. The “diversity” we see in the United States is mainly an effort to rectify social injustice. Montreal and Mcgill have global diversity. Many different cultures live alongside each other. If America is a melting pot, Canada is a buffet. The range of cuisines and cultural options in Montreal is seemingly endless.
I can’t comment in depth on their health care system, because I didn’t need to worry greatly about it. As a US citizen I enjoyed access to foreign-citizen private health care. For any major surgery I could have traveled back across the border for (only 60 minutes.)
I found Canada more accepting of diverse ideas and global viewpoints. Canadians are less risk-taking and more moderate in their political and consumption attitudes than Americans. I found myself and other Americans in Canada to be more obnoxious and geared towards embracing extremes (eating the biggest meal, driving the fanciest car, and being served by at one’s beck-and-call.) These are generalizations, but based in reality.
Many people bring up puerile jokes regarding Canada in the process of my explanation. While this is funny, we shouldn’t let that get in the way of international cultural exchange. We need to remove even innocuous stigmas from our thoughts on foreign education and foreign living. It is imperative that our world become more socially and intellectually engaged. Cross-border education is a significant piece in the puzzle. Canada, especially Montreal, isn’t just an acceptable college choice. It is a sensible choice. If I could go back, I’d do it all the same.