Students abroad feel “lost, lonely and hopeless”

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Durham University is providing inadequate support for students who spend a year of their degree in a foreign country, a Palatinate investigation can reveal.

Students described to Palatinate how they were left feeling “lost”, “very lonely” and “hopeless” whilst abroad, with many describing a lack of communication, care or advice from the University whilst away as contributing factors.

Gabriel Radus, a third-year student currently abroad, says that “many students feel the University places too much of an emphasis on completing paperwork at the expense of good pastoral preparation.

If a student spends 10 months abroad, they will spend half of those months feeling “predominantly lonely”

“Just because we fill out a risk-assessment form does not mean that we are ready for the real risks and difficulties we face abroad”.

Despite this, most of the students who spoke to Palatinate said they felt that the University was oblivious to such problems. A fourth-year History student who studied in Sweden said “I did not have contact with Durham at all. I could have just sat at home all year and they wouldn’t have cared. “Every single penny of the £1,350 [tuition fee] is a rip-off. What is the fee actually for? Administration? I didn’t even get an email.”

When approached with these claims by multiple students, Professor Jonathan Long, Head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures said: “Our Year Abroad Officers make regular contact with students and can be called upon to discuss additional support matters.

“Those undertaking a study placement can access both academic and pastoral support at Durham and at their host university during a placement.

“A revised ‘fitness to study process’, carried out in advance of the year abroad, ensures that students are able to undertake an overseas placement.”

Andrew Dickson, a fourth-year who studied in Paris, said that he had to wait almost three months to receive a reply from his academic supervisor. An email sent on 13th May was replied to on 8th August. He said this represented a “massively pathetic effort” from the point of view of pastoral care.

Universities are bring back students who are more anxious, more stressed and more alone

The lack of support provided by Durham provoked Radus to initiate his own pastoral support network, by connecting students who were living in relative proximity to each other. Since starting the scheme in October, he has been contacted by 1,100 students who want to be included. This is something that students from other Universities such as Leeds and Birmingham explained already exists as part of their program.

Radus said: “I don’t claim to have split the atom with this. I just wanted to raise awareness of the fact that universities are sleepwalking into bringing back students who are more anxious, more stressed and more alone.”

Ian Moore, who is studying for a PhD in Education, has spent the past year researching the personality and language development of those studying abroad. He has found that on average, if a student spends 10 months abroad, they will spend half of those months feeling “predominantly lonely.”

However, Moore’s research also finds that students are able to develop resiliency before departure, and that joining societies while abroad is a key way of combatting loneliness. He also found that over the long term, individuals found that they were better equipped to deal with stressful or unknown situations.

A current PPE student on their year abroad told Palatinate that Durham hadn’t ‘checked in’ with them. Although they felt they didn’t need support, she told of friends in the same city that had moved three times, had accommodation roofs fall in and felt loneliness, who would have benefited from proactive pastoral support.

The issue of inadequate pastoral support was raised at the Modern Languages and Cultures (MLaC) Student-Staff Consultative Committee (SSCC). The minutes from the meeting say that “students raised concerns about the lack of communication while they were on their year abroad.”

The University told Palatinate that they are currently undertaking a review of the Year Abroad, including student support before and during their time abroad.

Some students face even more serious problems whilst abroad. Two students studying in Tomsk, Russia, were interrogated by Russian police having mistakenly entered the country illegally.

Lawrence Sharpe and Sam Reay Smith were attempting to re-enter Russia having travelled on holiday to Astana, Kazakhstan. However, their multi-entry Russian visa had yet to become valid. Sharpe says “we were kicked off the train and detained in a little cabin in the middle of nowhere. They eventually took us back to Kazakhstan – luckily it wasn’t technically a deportation, which means there’s no criminal offence and we just got fined.

“We had no idea that our visas weren’t valid until after the single-entry ones expired”.

Two students were interrogated by Russian police having mistakenly entered the country illegally

Maddy Wattles, who spent the second half of her year abroad in Chile, said she received no advice on finding accommodation in South America. “I soon discovered that my landlords had been entering my room and taking my belongings while I was out.

“Having heard nothing from Durham all year apart from a couple of mass emails, I sought help elsewhere.”

A fourth-year student was the victim of sexual harassment while working in Paris. She told Palatinate: “my boss, who was in his sixties, put his hand on my thigh and tried to kiss me.” She did not feel comfortable telling Durham what had happened and instead resolved “to prove myself in a professional role.”

Professor Jonathon Long commented that the University attempt to alleviate these additional problems: “In preparation for a year abroad, students are given a full Pre-Departure Briefing that includes advice and guidance on what to expect around issues such as culture shock, emotional challenges of study abroad, health and safety.”

Students are also provided with information on how to access support.

Image Credit: Ismail Hamzah via Unsplash

One thought on “Students abroad feel “lost, lonely and hopeless”

  • Although I appreciate that the Year abroad can be challenging and stressful and that not everyone will have a positive experience, I feel that the article is rather one sided and focuses entirely on the negative aspects. I don’t want to minimise the difficulties that students abroad encounter, but the value of these challenges should also be highlighted. Students often tell us that overcoming problems had the effect of making them more resilient and self sufficient. Furthermore it’s not true that we don’t care about our students. Althought there might have been the odd lecturer who failed to answer a student’s email I can assure you that most of us do our very best to help and support individual students while abroad. The Year Abroad remains a valuable and formative experience for the majority of our language students and it’s a shame that a more balanced view was not offered by this article.


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