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Blog by: Isobel

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Studying MML - French and Italian. Read more

The Year Abroad: Everything you need to know

I’ve just entered my third year at Cambridge, but instead of enjoying a reunion with my friends, knuckling down for finals and talking solely about careers (at least I’m told that’s what final year consists of), I’ve moved to Italy. The year abroad is what makes language degrees across the UK unique, and personally I’ve found it a huge, terrifying but so far very rewarding step. Read on for my FAQs about the year abroad in general, as well as what you can expect as an undergrad at Cambridge.

Q: Is the year abroad for me?

A: Yes! Whoever you are: confident, nervous, outgoing, shy, fluent in a language or barely able to string a sentence together, the year abroad is for you. I remember seriously considering applying for a different subject through fear of doing a year abroad, but really, there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s a well trodden path by language students across the UK and Europe, and, even if I’m not quite calling it the best year of my life just yet, one month in I am already so glad that I took the plunge and dared to have the experience – the opportunities for personal development and to try new things are hurled at you all day everyday and it’s a fantastic change from university life.

Q: Where can I go on my year abroad?

A: Your year abroad will be in one (or more) countries that speak the languages you study. I study French and Italian and have chosen to spend my year in Italy, but friends of mine have split their year across two countries, something that isn’t actively encouraged at Cambridge (due to the fact that it’s more difficult to gain real fluency in either language), but that is possible with a bit of careful planning. You really can go all over the world, for example to Quebec or French speaking Africa or South America and Mexico with Spanish or Portuguese.

Q: What can I do on my year abroad?

A: There are three main routes that people take:

1) Studying at a foreign university – or Erasmus. The benefit of this is that slotting into university life is a bit of a home from home, and there are plenty of social events put on by the universities for foreign students. One potential downside is that it’s easy to end up sticking with the other foreign students, and can be harder to get in with locals. You can split the year with this option by spending each of the two semesters (like four month long terms) at a separate university.

2) Teaching English as a foreign language. This is what I opted for and the application process is super easy – you just apply to the British council specifying your preference of country, region and type of school and they sort out the rest. The downside of this is that you have to accept whichever region you’re given – I wanted Tuscany and have ended up in the deep South of Italy! The best part about this scheme is that it’s a paid position and you only work twelve hours a week, meaning lots of money and free time to explore! Plus of course it’s great experience if you want to be a teacher, or more generally develop your leadership skills. The downsides are that experiences vary hugely from school to school – some will treat you as a human dictionary in the corner while others will let you plan your own lessons – and Italian schools start at 8am. Be warned.

3) Work/an internship abroad. Not for the faint hearted, people opting for this pathway have to do a LOT of legwork in second year, including writing a cv and conducting interviews in a foreign language and looking for placements yourself. Although finding positions can be the most challenging, they are often the most impressive as well – people in my year have obtained internships producing films in Rio and working for Hermes in Paris! Sometimes you will even get paid too.

Q: What makes the year abroad at Cambridge unique?

A: As I mentioned earlier, at Cambridge you are encouraged to spend your year abroad in one place. The reasoning behind this is that you only take one set of language exams in final year, and while you can mix and match, it makes sense to do them all (i.e. oral, translation and written) in the same language. I was all too happy to do this, and in final year I will only be doing French literature and no language, but I had a lot of friends who really didn’t want to give up a language, so they have persevered with two countries. You will of course be supported whatever you decide to do, and the year abroad office holds lots of meetings and guidance events to help you decide the path that is right for you – as you can see from the above you can pretty much completely tailor the experience depending on what you want to get out of it. Our year abroad co-ordinator also sends round e-mails whenever they hear of job opportunities abroad, which is how many people looking to work abroad find placements.

In terms of university work while you’re abroad, most universities expect you to do something, just in case your brain turns to mush with all the grappa and pizza! At Cambridge this is a dissertation on a subject of your choice and an oral exam when you come back at the start of final year – nothing to worry about really when you’ve spent the whole year abroad practising!

Q: What is the hardest thing about the year abroad?

A: The first few weeks living alone in a new country are not easy. To be honest, it’s downright terrifying. Some people take to the experience like a duck to water, others require a bit longer to settle in. The point is that you will get the hang of it. And in learning to communicate, work, get around, buy a sim card and travel in a foreign country, you’re subconsciously learning a whole host of skills alongside these that will equip you for anything that life throws at you: from the stress of final year exams to renting your first flat in the UK (something that most Cambridge students haven’t yet experienced when they graduate!)

Q: And the best bit?

A: Ultimately, the year abroad is being handed a gap year on a plate that your university will help you organise and even count towards your degree! It sounds corny, but the year really is whatever you make of it, and the possibilities are endless. It can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to ‘make the most of it’, but having a year to explore what you want to do, be that a career, a hobby or a travel adventure, really is a once in a lifetime opportunity for most of us. It definitely will never be as easy to find the time again! No matter how daunting a prospect it might seem when you apply, it is something that you will always be able to look back on with nostalgia, fond memories and a good deal of pride.


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Book Review: Pietr le Letton by Georges Simenon

The great thing about studying languages is that it’s a fairly cumulative learning process, which means that come exam term I find that my fellow linguists and I are considerably less stressed than those on more fact-orientated courses, having done most of the groundwork steadily through the year. The other great thing is that practically everything counts as revision. French novel? Revision. Italian film? Revision. Holiday to Florence? Revision AND College are giving me £250 towards it! So I thought I’d have a fairly leisurely start to my Easter workload by reading a french novel, courtesy of the lovely organisers of BeCambridge, so here’s how I got on.

Pietr le Letton is one of a series of detective novels by Georges Simenon, all centred around the amiable detective Maigret, who likes nothing better than to put his feet up by the heater in his office after a hard days work. Simple pleasures, eh. Unfortunately, this is a pastime that our detective is unable to indulge in much in this edition, as he must solve the mystery of a murder that took place on a train, conducted in such a sinister fashion that nobody actually noticed until the body was uncovered at the final stop. Events turn towards the bizarre when the victim is seen wandering around Paris alive and well a few days later. This is a book that could quite easily be read in a single sitting: the narration really carries you through the text, with Maigret quite literally running from place to place half the time, and the pace doesn’t cease until he finally pins down the murderer in the last twenty pages or so. I must say that I had absolutely no idea who the murderer would be, but that is perhaps more a reflection on my deduction skills. Still, I found reading Pietr le Letton an enjoyable and absorbing way to pick up some useful crime vocab, such as ‘bégayer’ and ‘la balle’ (you never know what the exam translations will be on!).

While the french itself is at a level that I would deem fine for an A Level student or higher, the plot is full of so many twists and character changes that, alongside being an impressive level of detail to cram into 190 pages, makes it quite a difficult story to follow unless you pay very close attention, so I would recommend reading it quickly: there’s a lot to remember! Still, as well as being quite low-stress language practice, Pietr le Letton is a pretty interesting read in its own right – I have to admit that I don’t usually venture into the detective fiction section at Waterstones, but I would definitely like to read more by Simenon.

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Room ballots

A fog of muffled anticipation has descended on college tonight – no one can quite bring themselves to look each other in the eye as they pore over their laptops in dark corners. It’s all part of the yearly ritual: the room ballot begins tomorrow at 8am.

The room ballot gives second and third years the opportunity to pick their room for the following year (first year rooms are allocated automatically). At Corpus, students are placed in a random order and given a time slot when they can choose from a selection of rooms online. It’s a surprisingly tense and time-consuming occupation (I’m fairly sure that last year I had at least three solid days off work dedicated to the cause), but it’s rare to end up with a room you really can’t stand. For second years going into final year there is one main battle: getting a room in College.

One of the great things about Cambridge is that most Colleges provide accommodation for most students for the duration of their time studying here, which takes a huge weight off your mind as you never have to stress about roommates or house buying! The rooms are pretty good value too as they’re rented out for higher rates in the holidays. In my first year I lived on the street across from my College in accommodation owned by them, I really enjoyed it as it was a central location and I was living with loads of other freshers, but there’s nothing like living in College.

This year I live in New Court, so the first thing I see when I step out my front door each morning is beautiful Corpus Christi – photo. I am 30 seconds walk away from the bar, the library, the canteen and the wash rooms, and (most importantly) all of my friends. The only downside in my mind to living in College is that it’s worryingly easy to see a whole day, even a weekend go by without leaving College walls. But, when everything you need is so close, and you can get Dominoes delivered to the porters’ lodge, there’s just no incentive to leave! For tomorrow I’ve got my eye on an en-suite room right by the bar (convenient) – let’s hope no one picks it first!

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Getting Involved – SCA

There are lots of exciting things that happen in Cambridge on a Thursday. Lola Lo’s nightclub has a student night, you can go to ballroom dance classes, and a quick google search tells me that there’s also a Thursday bridge club. But for me, Thursdays mean one thing: Betty’s.

Betty’s is actually short for ‘Betty Stubben’s Musical Entertainment Group’, an amateur singing group founded by (you’ve guessed it) Betty Stubbens in 1970, that travels to a different elderly people’s home in Cambridge each week and provides entertainment in the form of group sing-alongs, piano playing and even the odd poetry reading. I won’t lie, the main thing that appealed to me about this was that it was the only choir I could find that didn’t require an audition. Aside from that though, the great thing about being involved in Betty’s, or in fact any society, is that it really broadens your horizons. By trying something new you meet people from different years, different colleges or who aren’t affiliated with the university at all, and can try something completely out of your comfort zone.

Betty’s is a project run by Student Community Action (SCA), an organisation that provides volunteering opportunities for students of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities. Getting involved with SCA has probably been the best thing I’ve done at Cambridge – I’ve met so many new people, grown so much in terms of my self-confidence and had loads of fun! This year I’ve also been the secretary for the SCA student body, which makes it even more cv-friendly.

I’m now looking for ways to spend Summer and applying for a position to teach English abroad in Korea, which is something I know I would never have done before coming to Cambridge. I would thoroughly recommend seizing any opportunities that come your way at university – three years will go by in a flash, and it’s unlikely that there’ll ever be an easier time to pick up a new sport, write for a newspaper or learn a foreign language- you might even discover a passion that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

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Merry Bridgemas!

I can’t quite believe that I’m home for Christmas already. Michaelmas term has whizzed by, and with its end comes one of the highlights of the Cambridge calendar (with stiff competition from May week): Bridgemas! The odd thing about Cambridge is that term is over by early December (I came home yesterday, this time last year I’d already been home for a week), so Christmas celebrations are brought forward. It’s perfectly acceptable, nay encouraged, to decorate your room with reams of tinsel as soon as Bonfire Night is over and done with. Round about the end of November Christmas trees are erected in College, the city centre is beautifully lit up and you can barely move for shoppers in market square.

Bridgemas is about more than getting excited for the festive season: it marks a considerable achievement to have completed first term, especially as a fresher, so it’s really about letting your hair down and spending time with friends before the long (and well-deserved) six week break. Festive events not to be missed include Christmas formal, where we enjoy a turkey dinner in all our finery (crackers and paper hats included), the College Christmas party (fancy dress is a must) and the unmissable Footlights pantomime. If it’s something that interests you, there’s scope to attend a carol service pretty much every day in the last week of term, and (I’m being biased now) the candlelit service at Corpus Christi is really beautiful. Other services at other Colleges are available.

It’s inevitable that during the eight weeks of Michaelmas you have to put studying before socializing sometimes, so however you choose to spend your time, it’s great to wind down towards the end of term with friends that you probably won’t see until mid-January. Having left Cambridge on an all-time high of seasonal merriment, now all I have to worry about is keeping the festive momentum going for another fortnight, until everyone else is ready to celebrate!

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Interviews: A bit of advice

Hi everyone! As interviews are swiftly approaching, I thought I’d start with something nice and generic before the inevitable descent into all that is weird and wonderful about Cambridge in future posts. I’ve noticed that Matt has also written some interview advice, but I feel it’s something you can never have too many perspectives on, so here are my three top tips for surviving the interview process:

1. Know your Personal Statement

The interview is likely to cover some of your statement and the SAQ. It’s not meant to be a test, rather to give you the opportunity to talk about what really interests you in your subject.

2. Know your Interviewer

You aren’t expected to read up on your interviewer before you meet them, but doing a little research can be useful. Mine happened to be an avid Chaucer enthusiast, which I was studying at the time for my English A level. We ended up discussing The Wife of Bath, which fortunately I’d revised.

3. Know why you’re here

With all my research it had never occurred to me to think of a response to the most obvious question: ‘Why do you want to come to Cambridge?’ Reminding yourself why you’re going through all this process can motivate you to do your absolute best in the interview, which, as I’m sure wise teachers have told you, is all anyone can ask of you.

So good luck to everyone that will be coming up/down over the next few weeks! I hope this helps with any last minute preparation, and, as you can see from my experience, a less-than-perfect interview won’t be held against you, I made it here after all!

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