Get the most from a year abroad

Gap years and cultural exchanges are growing in polularity, but many students are unprepared for possible pitfalls.

Nadejda Vidinova reports

Various cases in the last few years have drawn attention to the risks that people face when studying abroad. The infamous murders of British exchange students Meredith Kercher and Lindsay Hawker shocked the world in 2007. The controversial trial of the Kercher murder suspects highlights the legal situations students may find themselves in, whether they’re the victim or the accused.

Students on placements in Arab countries, such as Egypt and Syria, have faced considerable dangers during the unrests. Those in Japan had to be evacuated following the earthquake.

Such cases are extreme and relatively rare, and by no means should deter students from taking part in cultural exchanges. The benefits outweigh the possible dangers, but people should be on their guard.

It is almost impossible to predict natural disasters or riots, but there are reasonable precautions that students can take to keep themselves out of trouble. Dr Nerys Young, co-ordinator of the International Student Exchange Programme (ISEP) at the University of Ulster advised “not to do anything that you wouldn’t do at home.”

Most importantly, students should thoroughly research their chosen location. A basic understanding of the country’s history, politics, religion, culture and society are a must. Knowledge of the local language is preferable, although not essential.

A highly publicised case in the USA, which highlighted the difference in political attitudes across the world, was that of American student Pathik Root. After taking a picture of an anti-government protest in Damascus, he was arrested on suspicion of being a spy.

Although it is an isolated case, it emphasizes the need for caution while in a foreign country. It takes a while to adjust to another country’s culture, and during the period of adjustment people need to be especially vigilant.

This is especially important for students going to regions whose politics are drastically different to those of their own country. Natasha Robinson, originally from Coleraine is a final- year student at London School of Economics and spent a year teaching in China. She said: “I would never talk about politics or religion online, over the phone, in letters or in public places.”

It’s not all doom and gloom however. Most people don’t experience major problems while abroad, and the advantages are plenty.

Studying or working in a foreign country could improve one’s cultural understanding, confidence and employment prospects.

Debbie Peake, a former student of the University of Ulster in Coleraine took part in a work placement organised by the British Council. She taught English at a secondary school in Huelva, Spain and described how her experience has helped her. “My confidence in speaking Spanish has grown, as has my independence. I am now a language teacher and know that I’m a better teacher because of my year abroad.”

While safety is vital, it is also important that students explore their host country and make the most of their time there. One of the most common mistakes people make is spending too much time with people of their own nationality. Natasha Robinson advises students to “throw themselves into making friends with local people.”

On the other hand, there are hundreds of foreign students coming to Northern Ireland each year. Although they also face problems with safety and homesickness, they tend to have a positive experience.

Dr Young said: “Let’s face it, Northern Ireland doesn’t have the best reputation in the world…but it isn’t like this every day.”

One of the issues for exchange students coming to the University of Ulster is the style of learning. In many European countries and the USA, timetables are very full.

Here there is a big focus on independent learning and fewer lectures, which tends to throw people off. However, the University of Ulster has taken a number of steps to help foreign students adjust.

A pilot scheme, called the Cultural Experience programme is being launched at the Magee campus. It takes students on field trips to places such as Stormont and Donegal, allowing them to see things they’re learning about first hand.

Dr Young is keen to stress the importance of preparing people for coming home, as well as for going abroad. Many students find that they get depressed after coming home, once the excitement of the year abroad wears off.

The best solution, while abroad as well as when they come back, is for students to stay in contact with each other. They often find that everyone has similar experiences.

Ultimately, living abroad for more than just a holiday period is an experience of a lifetime.

And what better time to do it than at university, while you’re still free from ties and responsibilities?


Year Abroad Survival Guide:

Research, research, research before you go!

Make friends with the locals and immerse yourself in their culture.

Try to learn some of the language if you haven’t done so already.

Note down emergency numbers, hospitals, police stations and areas to avoid.

See as places of interest in your host country as possible.

Go with an open mind. It won’t be like home, but embrace the differences.


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