Interview with an International Student - Allison from Canada

Author name
Ilana Weisman

My name is Allison Braithwaite, I’m from Toronto, Ontario (Canada) and I study biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering. I spend a lot of time doing engineering, and one of my main outlets is interior decorating my apartment solely in purple and green furniture. Thumbnail

What was your favorite class at Duke?
So many! For content, I really enjoyed Cell and Developmental biology (I like biology) and Intro to Medical Instrumentation, which goes through how a bunch of different medical devices work. My focus class, Genomes Biology and Medicine, also fostered some really interesting discussion, and I enjoyed it immensely. For the work that is done, I had the most fun in Computer Science 201 (even if it got very frustrating at times). For pure enjoyment and non-academic benefits, improv. I also really enjoy the more project-based classes I’m in right now, such as Medical Instrument Design.

What were you involved in on campus?
My two main activities are the Duke University Debate Society and Gamma Phi Beta sorority. I’ve been doing debate since high school, and it’s been great to be able to continue that in college. It’s helped me improve my analytical and communication skills, and also is just a lot of fun. It’s especially nice as a double engineering major to participate in an activity that utilizes such a different skill set. We actually do have some Greek life in Canada, and my dad was in a fraternity so I always thought I’d join a sorority, but Gamma Phi has been a really special experience as I got to be a member of the charter class. It’s been amazing to meet so many talented and driven women, and to help build such a strong organization from the ground up. I’ve been involved in a few other miscellaneous organizations; I did marching band freshman year and was on the club equestrian team the past two years. I’ve also done research in a tissue engineering lab for the past few years. One of my favourite things about Duke is that I’ve gotten to explore so many different types of activities, that I likely wouldn’t have been able to in another setting.

How was the transition to the US for you?
Transitioning to the US was largely pretty simple, there aren’t a lot of really significant cultural differences. The most difficult thing is probably all the paperwork and visa forms that need to be dealt with. It is also hard because international flights are so expensive and can be so roundabout that it’s often not worth it to go home for most holidays, so I really only see my family over winter break and for a bit in the summer.

Many people perceive the US and Canada as being similar. How do you think they are different or similar?
Where I’m from in Canada is probably the most similar to the states, so I don’t notice that much of a difference. Our political landscape is definitely a lot more reasonable; we actually had a pretty contentious federal election last year, but that was like a civilized dinner party compared to what’s going on here right now.

What do you miss about Canada?
I miss a lot of subtle things that I can’t quite conceptualize when I’m at Duke, and then when I go home I realize “Oh it’s all these little things.” Things like seeing people wearing Jays hats, using Canadian currency (especially loonies and toonies, I hate $1 bills), the specific design of the street signs, etc. I spend a lot more time in nature in Canada, and although obviously there is nature in the states, the forests just feel slightly different, perhaps the ratio of coniferous to deciduous trees, I’m not sure. Cliche things also, like using maple syrup instead of breakfast syrup. I didn’t even know non-maple breakfast syrup existed before I came here.

How has your identity changed since you came to Duke?
I think I have a much clearer idea of how people work; I’m a lot more self aware and aware of others. I’ve also gotten a lot more laid back in my personal life. Coming out of high school I think I had a much more aggressive mindset, always needing to be right, and collecting grudges and such. That’s not necessarily totally gone, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better at recognizing when it’s better to just let something go.

Would you have done things differently?
I waffled back and forth between two different majors basically up until the end of junior year. I ended up with a double major, which obviously isn’t the worst thing, but if I could do it again I would have made myself think more carefully about what exactly I wanted to get out of my major and then made a decision and stuck with it. Retrospectively it would have made a lot more sense for me to major only in ECE, and then take BME courses I found interesting as electives. That being said, I am proud of sticking through with the double major, and I think a lot of the courses I ended up taking complemented each other really well.

If there’s one thing you could tell yourself before you came to Duke, what would it be?
I don’t know if there’s anything I could have said to past Allison that would have made her do anything differently. Everything’s a learning experience even if it’s not super pleasant at the time. I guess relating to the last question, I would say let go of your preconceived notions of what you ought to study based on what you’ve decided is your field of interest, and instead just see what classes you enjoy and which you do not. You declare sophomore year for a reason.