Travel writer Estelle Dragon shares her reasons why every undergraduate should do a year abroad
I have been living in Toulouse for nearly a semester now and I can confirm that when returning final years say that your year abroad is going to be the best year of your life, they are completely and utterly correct. I simply cannot get enough of the amazing things I am experiencing every day, and I know that my friends, who are scattered around the globe, are having the time of their lives too. I also have a lot of final year friends who are now regretting not taking the decision to do a year abroad when it was so readily available to them. I wanted to spread the word about why I think doing a year abroad is so great and important.
Prolonging your time at university / delaying the upcoming stress
Students doing three year degrees often get to the end of their second year and are swallowed by panic when it suddenly occurs to them that they only have one year left of their degree. This is where a year abroad comes in extremely handy. This year out is a perfect delaying mechanism. Giving students extra time and space to figure out possible career and dissertation ideas (i.e. sorting their lives out), a year abroad gives students breathing space in which they can gather their future plans before delving into a very overwhelming and fast-paced final year. It can also be seen as a productive break from ‘serious’ education. Second year is a huge jump from first year, and final year is, from what I have heard from my finalist friends, a hell of a leap from second year. I feel extremely privileged to be drinking fine French wine and eating abundant cheese whilst my peers are slaving away in the library on the daily (and, often, nightly). A year abroad blesses you with an academic pause. Even if you choose to carry on studying on your year abroad rather than working, I can assure you that your home university is far more concerned about you getting involved in new cultural experiences and putting yourself out there linguistically rather than smashing out the high grades. Don’t get me wrong, being an Erasmus student is very challenging in the sense that you have no choice but to adapt to a brand new culture, language and way of living, but this is compensated for by the fact that sky high academic achievement is no longer a priority nor an expectation.
Immersing yourself in a new culture
By doing a study or work abroad placement, you are signing up to a year of brand new experiences, in a brand new country, with a brand new outlook. From the new foods, to new customs, to new traditions, to new social atmospheres, a year abroad doesn’t simply expose you to a new culture, it actually lets you live it. When going on holiday or travelling, there is simply not enough time to absorb the country’s ambience fully. Being part of its daily drill gives you so much more room to understand it. From the simplest things like doing your weekly shop in the local supermarket to figuring out how the public transport actually works, a country will go from being foreign to familiar in no time. You will also find that better understanding and appreciating the nation’s people and way of life will open your eyes to new ideas and inspire you in innovative ways.
Meeting new people
Many would agree that university is pretty cliquey by the time second year is over. Naturally, everyone has found their feet and established their friendship groups, and it can be quite tricky to make new friends. In this light, going on a year abroad enables you to meet new people, all whilst knowing you have your best friends back home waiting for your return. I would describe my year abroad as a first year on wheels. Here’s why – first year was very daunting for me because I felt a ridiculous amount of pressure to make new friends (and a lot of them) as quickly as possible. Third year, for me, feels much more relaxed socially. All the new people I’m meeting and things I’m experiencing are a bonus. In other words, your life back home is on standby, but, meanwhile, you’re able to fill this gap with so many new and exciting things, minus the pressure I, and many others, felt during first year. You are also not limited to surrounding yourself by one nationality. In fact, ironically, I’ve met far more non-French/English speakers than anyone! It’s very enlightening to meet all sorts of different people from all around the globe. I haven’t even finished my first semester here in Toulouse, yet I’ve made friends with people from Italy, Belgium, Spain and Australia to name a few. I learn new sayings and am fed different perspectives every day, and these people are great contacts to have for any future travel plans!
Employability & career opportunities
A student who chooses to go on a year abroad is a student who has voluntarily chosen to step right out of their comfort zone and immerse themselves in a new culture. For employers, this translates into flexibility, adaptability, and commitment. Whether you choose to study or work on your year abroad, you will get to experience a brand new way of learning and/or working. Once students finish their mobility programme and return home, they return with new language skills, an appreciation for culture and an intensified ability to adapt to new situations quickly. These newfound skills will not only help you be better armed for final year; they are also very much sought after in the career sphere. Being abroad for a year may even open up opportunities for working or pursuing further study in the host country in the future.
For language students, it goes without saying that a year or semester abroad in your target language host country will make your language proficiency thrive quicker than ever, which is also extremely attractive to employers. I often found that in my first and second years, my spoken French was rarely used nor perfected due to the heavy concentration on grammar. Being forced to speak French in new and often complex contexts is the best way to get to grips with a language properly. It also makes you so much more confident when speaking, which I find lays a sturdy foundation for my spoken French. The more confident you become in speaking a language, the less intimidated you are by the thought of making mistakes. This is where you allow yourself to learn new vocabulary and to perfect your accent.
Moving to Birmingham to start university hugely tests independence as it is, but traversing the Channel and starting a new life in France was a much steeper ladder to climb. Inevitably, moving abroad for a long period of time is always going to be daunting, but it’s ridiculously worth it. I’ve only been living in Toulouse since September, but I already feel so much more confident, open minded and ready for the ‘real’ world!