Pandemic Years Abroad: “I don’t know anyone whose plans didn’t change”


Having just passed the halfway point in the academic year, Profile has been checking in with three students currently on their years abroad. Erin, a French and Arabic student, is currently working in a marketing firm in Paris. Bob, who studies the same course, is working as a language assistant in a school in the Alps and is planning to study at a language school in Jordan over summer. Liv is a Liberal Arts student studying Chinese, Spanish and History of Art. Students of Chinese are expected to spend their whole year abroad in China studying the language; however, Liv is currently taking online classes at Zhejiang University from her family home in Essex.

Erin described her current situation in France as being similar to the Netflix series Emily in Paris. Like the title character of the show, she is working in an advertising agency, although a notable difference is that Erin can actually speak French and claims to get on well with her coworkers. Erin’s original plan for the year was to spend time in Morocco and to do an Arabic placement but she is now living in Paris indefinitely.

Bob and Liv also had to shift their plans to fit with Covid-19 restrictions. Bob stated, “I don’t know anyone whose plans didn’t change” and explained that he was supposed to spend four months at a language school in Jordan from the beginning from September but, on the advice of the Arabic department last March he has delayed this until the coming summer. He still plans to go to Jordan and study with the school, and if this is not possible, he will take the course online. Bob applied for his current placement in July 2020 and has found himself working with children between the ages of 10 and 18. French schools have remained open for the duration of the pandemic so Bob has been teaching throughout, always wearing a mask. He reflected on this and said “it’s worked out well for me” and that if he is able to spend four months studying in Jordan alongside his seven months of work in France, it will have been a year well spent.

In Liv’s case, her year abroad plans were derailed more dramatically and she has been spending her year in China very much not in China. As a holder of a Chinese Government Scholarship for international students, she has been taking online classes with Zhejiang University but was keen to make clear that those who do not hold a scholarship have not been offered this same opportunity.

“I am only maintaining my ability, not improving my content and knowledge”

Liv explained that she had planned to travel to China in June 2020 to spend time gaining a greater understanding of the culture, which is key when studying Chinese at a higher education level. At home, she has attempted to replicate some aspects of this by cooking Chinese meals and cultural research but this is a far cry from a year spent in the country. Instead, she started online classes in September studying 13 hours a week in Mandarin which she has found interesting. She praised her teachers but stated “I am only maintaining my ability, not improving my content and knowledge”. Liv explained that at this point on a year abroad, her language ability and grasp of Chinese culture should be skyrocketing; however, this has not been the case despite her efforts both in studying at the university and working for Engage with China, a charity that aims to build curiosity in China and ‘China literacy’ in UK primary and secondary schools.

“Since everything was online, two brands let me watch the live streams of their fashion shows!”

Liv went on to describe the experience of other students of Chinese who do not have the same scholarship as her, saying “They have no course”. After the Chinese border closed, some students attempted to travel to Taiwan to speak the language there, although a different set of written characters is used. She said most didn’t make it as the border also shut. Given that so many students’ plans were cancelled, the Chinese department have offered a ‘Durham year abroad’ which has consisted of two hours a week of language online in first term which has now been upped to four hours in second term.

Liv explained that there was no specific contact made with students of Chinese until 21st November 2020 about their years aboard and stated that she feels bad for her fellow students who have been left without arrangements for the year. She also went on to explain that her cohort will all be in very different places with their knowledge of Chinese language and that standardisation will be incredibly difficult for their last year of study.

“I was able to spend time in Durham last term and see people which I didn’t think I’d be able to do, but it’s just not a year abroad”

The issue with standardisation was something that Bob also mentioned, saying that year abroad students in the 2019-2020 cohort had the same problem, with some spending minimal time in their country of study. He explained that this had a huge impact on their opportunity to develop their language ability. In Liv’s case, she believes that this will significantly devalue her degree and that she will have to spend time in China after graduation to get to the necessary level of language ability.

After hearing all of this I felt slightly sheepish asking for any highlights of the year abroad; however, all three students responded positively. Erin said “The first one has got to be Paris Fashion Week; I became Fashion editor for Palatinate whilst on my year abroad because everything being online in Durham meant that I could fit it in. I used my Palatinate Fashion Editor email to contact all the designers and their press contacts for Paris Fashion Week. Since everything was online, two brands let me watch the live streams of their fashion shows!” She then said that surprisingly her other highlight was lockdown.

Erin explained that she had no flat mates during lockdown in Paris for the whole month of November so she threw herself into her work and being ‘Parisian’, which involved taking up painting, drawing and reading. Bob’s highlight was “just being here and using French everyday”. He also cited a trip to Berlin (before the tightening of restrictions and closing of borders) but did note the slight irony with a highlight of his year not being in France. Liv joked that her highlight may have been the University College Boat Club Zoom quizzes but went on to say “I was able to spend time in Durham last term and see people which I didn’t think I’d be able to do, but its just not a year abroad.”

“It’s worked out well for me”

Reflecting on the future and the next half of her year, Erin is optimistic and planning on taking an Arabic language course, stating “Whilst this is not what I expected, I’ve had a good time.” She feels that she’s made the most out of the circumstances and despite only spending four days in a physical office she has pushed herself in her work and has been able to enjoy living in Paris, especially the boulangeries which have remained open throughout the pandemic.

Bob’s reflection was similar: he said that he feels that he’s done well using his language skills and that, although he was unable to travel more widely within Europe and the Middle East as he originally planned, the language was always his key focus. Liv described the remaining months of her year abroad saying, “Its just me staying at home waiting and hoping for the borders to open which I don’t think they will.” She also said that she is hoping to go to Barcelona to stay with a friend in the summer to use and work on her Spanish language although, since she will be focusing her study on Chinese, it will not be a part of her degree in her final year.

“It’s just me staying at home waiting and hoping for the borders to open which I don’t think they will”

At the end of our discussion, Bob added some further forethought, saying that following his year abroad he is looking forward to coming back to Durham for what he hopes will be a more normal final year at the University.

Images: Erin Waks, Bob Howat, Olivia Farr

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