Killam Fellowship Virtual Exchange

Killam Fellowship Virtual Exchange

By: Bonnie Liu, BHSc (Honours), Class of 2021


When students think about completing an exchange, they might think about travelling/exploring new cities, eating exotic cuisines, etc. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the exchange offices suspending outbound travelling, one might think that studying abroad is no longer an option. This is not true! 


Virtual exchanges, which involve taking online courses from a different university, are an accessible alternative for students who still want to gain global experiences. With universities around the world adapting to remote learning and expanding their online course catalogs, there is no shortage of virtual exchange opportunities presently and in the future. 


This term, I am completing a virtual exchange at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) as a Killam Fellow. I am, in fact, the first McMaster student to ever complete an out-bound virtual exchange! 

The Killam Fellowship – a $5000/term scholarship offered by Fulbright Canada for Canadian students completing exchanges at select American universities/colleges. This is the scholarship I received for my virtual exchange. 


I never would have predicted this. In January 2020, I applied for the Killam Fellowship (Fulbright Canada’s $5000/term scholarship for Canadian exchange students in the USA). I was certain I wouldn’t get the scholarship because of how competitive it was. This is why it was such a surprise when just weeks later, I was selected! When I was selected, COVID-19 was not yet a major issue. Thus, I was confident that I could do my UT-Austin exchange in-person for the final term in my undergraduate studies (Winter 2021). Evidently, COVID-19 quickly became a global pandemic and the McMaster Exchange Office cancelled in-person Winter 2021 exchanges. 


They gave me three options: defer, opt-out, or switch to a virtual exchange program. 


Deferring was not an option for me since my exchange term was during the final term of my undergraduate program. I chose to go ahead with a virtual exchange for three reasons: 

  1. Experience university anew: I wanted to take courses not offered at McMaster and to experience a different university’s culture, teaching style, etc. Having spent my whole life in Ontario and the past three years knowing McMaster’s “ins-and-outs,” I wanted a break from the mundane and to challenge myself in an invigorating way! The USA’s healthcare system fascinated me, and UT-Austin offered many courses on that topic. One course I’m taking as a virtual exchange student is “CancerLand,” which is all about the social factors that shape cancer in the USA (e.g. stigma, insurance, costs, inequalities, etc.). Every session, I am exposed to eye-opening information from my American classmates, the guest speakers, and the readings. Thus a virtual exchange helps students to internationalize their education and become globally-minded learners. 
  2. Develop 21st-century skills: I was curious and open-minded to what a virtual exchange would be like! Virtual exchange can push students out of their comfort zone and help them build 21st-century skills (e.g. collaboration, initiative, adaptability, creativity). Doing well in a virtual class is also a testament to one’s time management skills! As a virtual exchange student, I get exposed to many exciting opportunities where I can apply myself. My host university frequently notifies me of American jobs, internships, and research openings. Here is a glimpse at the virtual events that the UT-Austin College of Natural Sciences Career Services emailed me: NASA Q&A panel, Miami Heat careers virtual panel, Mayo Clinic careers webinar, US Department of Defense fellowship talk. 
  3. Finance: I only needed to pay McMaster’s tuition for my exchange. Since it is virtual, I didn’t need to worry about the cost of relocating (e.g. airplane tickets, rent, insurance, grocery shopping, etc), and the repercussions to work/family responsibilities. I am still working part-time with my current employer and spending time with my family at home while taking virtual exchange courses. Fulbright Canada’s continued financial support for COVID-19 virtual exchanges was also an incentive for me to pursue a virtual exchange.


Having decided to not opt-out, the next step was to on-board. Transitioning to UT-Austin online school was a little overwhelming because their online infrastructure (e.g. Canvas, UTDirect) is completely different from McMaster’s (e.g. A2L, Mosaic). There were many administrative portals and course-related links that were new to me as well, including links to past syllabi, professor/course reviews, academic catalogs, etc. 


However, I was able to navigate the online terrain by constantly emailing my UT-Austin exchange advisors, following the Exchange Office on social media for news/deadlines, and keeping an organized bookmark folder on all the links I came across. 


I ultimately chose three UT-Austin virtual courses (9 units) that interested me: an asynchronous Human Sexuality course, and synchronous Pharmacology and CancerLand courses. 

Canvas: My New Avenue2Learn. You can see my 3 different courses on the platform – CancerLand, Human Sexuality, Pharmacology – as well as the International Student Orientation module.


My virtual exchange has allowed me to learn from and interact with academics at the top of their field. My Human Sexuality professors, Drs. David Buss and Cindy Meston, are internationally renowned and widely cited. It’s amazing to hear them intimately talk about their past research and their future research plans! With this virtual exchange, I feel confident that I’m learning cutting-edge information. 


My CancerLand course is a small class of 25 students and every class is a discussion-based Zoom call. This tight-knit environment has allowed me to quickly make American friends and engage in conversations outside the classroom (e.g. via GroupMe). My peers and professors are fascinated about the fact that I am from Canada, so they always welcome my Canadian perspective during discussions.  


Getting involved in my host university was simpler than I thought! There are so many clubs that have weekly Zoom meetings. By joining an international student organization’s Facebook/Whatsapp group, I was immediately connected to other students who were eager to learn about each other’s cultures and who related to my virtual exchange experience. I even had the chance to present a slideshow about Canada at the Planet Longhorn club’s recent meeting. While virtual exchange students may not experience a host culture directly (e.g. travelling, eating), they can still experience it indirectly through conversation and second-hand exposure. 

Here is a slide from my Canadian cultural presentation for the Planet Longhorn club meeting. I was able to tell students not just all about Canada (e.g. Terry Fox, our French second language, our geography, etc), but also about McMaster University. Many Texan students had never heard about McMaster before! 


Even though I am not in Texas, I am often reminded that I am studying in a foreign country.


Not only do we have different time zones, but we also have different news/happenings. 


For instance, during my fifth week of online school at UT-Austin, Texas was hit by a polar vortex snowstorm, which caused widespread power and water outages. From conversations with my classmates, I got an insider perspective on how it affected the state. However, since I’m a virtual student, I didn’t experience this storm, making me feel simultaneously close to and far from Texas. 

My Virtual Exchange Host University: University of Texas at Austin. The mascot is Bevo, a Texan cattle. The campus has albino squirrels, which the students consider as a sign of “good luck.” Students at UT-Austin are called LongHorns and their catchphrase is “Hook ‘Em.” From my virtual exchange experience, I realized that Texans actually do use “y’all” in conversation. Photo credits: dszc


I am also maximizing my virtual exchange experience by signing up for UT-Austin’s email newsletters, which inform me about the school’s online events and resources. In fact, I have attended several public presentations offered by the university’s virtual Science Festival. I am also regularly using UT-Austin’s Public Speaking Centre, where trained counsellors offer free consultations to help you improve your presentation/interview skills. Since virtual exchange students get a student ID, we can take advantage of the school’s unique learning resources.  


Overall, my virtual exchange has been beyond worthwhile. With COVID-19 and the transition to web-based learning, I believe virtual exchanges will become more common in the future and more students will be open to completing them. By elaborating on my virtual exchange at UT-Austin as a Killam Fellow, I hope to have answered some questions and hopefully also inspired future students to consider a virtual exchange.