It’s time to rethink the year abroad

Image: Compass

By Sophia Smith-Galer

It should to be the best time of your life. You’re supposed to scarper off at the end of second year, casually pick up a couple of languages and frolic with the foreign for a year. Did my year abroad live up to these expectations?

Largely, yes. My languages improved exponentially and I did a lot of frolicking with the foreign (perhaps a little too much). But I won’t pretend that it wasn’t fraught with difficulties and, unfortunately, that I felt largely abandoned by the University not only in preparing for the year abroad but throughout the whole year itself. In coming back to Durham, I’m not alone. From funding to mental health issues, language difficulties to dealing with sexism, we all had our own problems which feel like they could have been better managed had we been better supported and prepared by the University.

So how can we work towards improving the year abroad? Compass, a new organisation at the University that aims to bring more cultural debate and investigation to students, will be holding a year abroad talk on 2nd December for first and second years. It will be the first major talk not only featuring linguists from across the departments but it is also the first entirely student-led talk. It’s there to give future year abroaders the preparation that we never had. Students will be giving small speeches on issues like boosting employability, living in more dangerous countries and coping with isolation, and plenty of fourth years – with varied languages and countries on offer – will be in attendance.

To make sure we are offering the best information possible, Compass are in the process of gathering information from fourth years on their experiences abroad and, frustratingly, the answer to the question ‘Did you ever feel a lack of support from Durham during your year abroad?’ is a resounding yes. This should certainly not be the response expected from the University’s first cohort of £9,000-a-year linguists. What is it we get now for paying the cost of what a Modern Languages degree used to be, three times over?

Being forced to organise our year abroads by ourselves admittedly demonstrates our resourcefulness, but when other universities seem to offer far more support to their students, why isn’t more money directed towards helping us find placements? Speaking of finances, nobody seems to have any idea how much funding we are allotted either. Several Arabic students were told halfway through the year that the department had run out of money for them, despite having offered other students significantly higher amounts of funding. Couldn’t our fees be directed to more transparency and organisation in our year abroad finances?

Whilst there are members of the department and University who go above and beyond what is asked of them on our behalf – especially in year abroad admin – what support do we realistically receive in how to cope with the day-to-day trials of being abroad before they escalate, and what support have we received now that we are back? Fourth years are expected to repatriate themselves with no input from the University. Is this realistic, fair, or just another test for what is surely the degree that demands the most adaptability, resilience and patience from its students?
An awful lot of questions and a worrying scarcity of answers. Compass hope to go some way in leading the student initiative in answering them, but we need something from the University too.

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