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.