Cultural Exchange

investigates the advantages of taking time out to study abroad

If you have ever wondered what the transatlantic or European study of your subject is like, then now is the perfect time to find out.

At the beginning of February, the International Office at the University of York release application forms for host universities across Europe and America, and in flood the applications.

The opportunities seem endless: the schemes offer the chance to spend a term or a year at another, invariably sunnier, institution, where you can stretch your cultural and academic horizons and challenge your language skills.

But the decision to elope away from York at such a crucial, and often penultimate, stage of academic development should not be taken in haste. Most of us only spend a total of three years at York, so choosing to spend a third of our degree at a place that wasn’t initially one of our academic preferences can seem somewhat misguided.

Whilst the prospect of not having to pay any fees at a place such as the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium or the Universitat De Valancia in Spain seems silly unless capitalised on, it is questionable whether financial freedom is mirrored in academia too, and whether a careless approach to studying becomes commonplace. Do the schemes essentially become ‘free holidays’?

“Having to make new friends is one of the great benefits that students cite.” Judith Thomas, the British Council

Judith Thomas, the Marketing Manager of the national Erasmus scheme at the British Council, which is responsible for all the exchanges offered to universities across the country, certainly doesn’t seem to think so: “Students have to work. I would also say that it’s probably harder studying/ working abroad than attending a lecture in your home university/ English language.”

She continues to explain: “Students who go on Erasmus or do a work placement get better grades so it is academically beneficial.”

According to Thomas, it is not only academia that flourishes on the schemes, but the personal development of students: “Having to make new friends is one of the great benefits that most students cite – they make friends from all over the world, forming life-long friendships and gaining lots of sofas to sleep on all over Europe and further afield.”

Such sentiment is echoed by students currently on the exchange in North America this year.

Adrian Choa, a second-year English student studying at UCLA, says: “Coming to UCLA is without a doubt the best thing I have ever done… The experience of another culture, academic structure and place is extremely important, especially to people of our age range.”

Choa believes that he is “working considerably harder than I was at York, which seems personified by an ‘achieve nothing; shit out an essay night before’ attitude.”

Holly Hyde, who started at UCSB in California at the beginning of this academic year, understands the limits of a work ethic in such an exciting and sociable location: “It is definitely hard to find motivation to work especially when it’s such nice weather outside and everyone is at the beach or out by the pool, and it’s very social here so I tend to save all my work until [the] last minute and cram before the exams.”

Choa and Hyde both agree that a year exchange is a perfect amount of time; but many of the European exchanges are only available for a term. Which is the right amount of time to go on an exchange for?

“It is easy to hang onto the known in life, but there comes a time where you must take the plunge.” Adrian Choa, second-year English student at UCLA

Thomas sees a year abroad as more fulfilling that a term: “One term isn’t long enough… I think developing domestic and financial independence is a good and necessary thing – young adults who have not lived away from home, learnt to cook or look after themselves will have a much harder time when they leave university and go out in to the market place than those who have done a period abroad.”

This preference for an extended experience seems reiterated in the statistics given to Nouse by the University’s International Office, which shows that 25 per cent of students opt for the nine and a half month schemes whilst only 2 per cent of students choose to go on the three and half month and four and a half month exchanges.

The termly European schemes are especially advantageous for students looking to improve their language skills, however.

Sarah Leach, the International Officer at the University of York, says: “Our largest cohort goes from Language and Linguistics on study placements and also more recently on work placements with the British Council Language Assistantship (and Comenius) programmes… Study destinations vary greatly from one year to the next, as the departments may have several options in different countries and students have different reasons for choosing a particular country/ destination.

“A lot of students will go where they feel most comfortable with the language – e.g. if they have taken A-level French they tend to stick to France.”

But to what extent are language skills really exercised to the maximum when on an exchange? Thomas thinks that it “entirely depends on where you go and your own efforts – if you mix only with other Erasmus students/ English speaking students, then your language skills won’t improve as much as students who choose to live with local students or families and really get involved in the community.”

YUSU Academic Affairs Officer, Charlie Leyland, is currently organising the Our Interest Campaign, which centres around 22 areas of Academic Affairs. Charlie explains: “We’ve established that there could be some work to [be done] about what students like, want more of, or would like to change…. In the summer term after our work we’ll be presenting to the wider student body, then the University with a dossier to outline out thoughts of what our academic priorities should be. “If you’d like to be involved in the interest area for Exchange schemes and study abroad programmes, then get in touch with Charlie at c.leyland@yusu.org.

Choa maintains that a student cannot really get the most out of the opportunity whilst only studying abroad for a term: “A term [in UCLA] would certainly not be enough time, I would advise those applying not to consider such a short period of time.

“It is very easy to hang onto the known in life, but there comes a time where you must take the plunge.”

One comment

  1. I’m not sure what your point is with this article. Are you simply warning students that studying abroad might not be academically beneficial or are you commenting on the dangers of ‘losing’ a year of university life?

    I studied abroad at UC San Diego last year and I agree with Adrian Choa that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It was academically challenging in ways I never could have experienced at York. As a History/Politics student I would have taken at most 6 classes last year at York, but in California I took 13. The terms are 10 weeks long, like York, but in most classes you have midterm exams in weeks 5/6, essays due in week 8 and finals in week 10. Many arts students at York have never and will never experience that sort of academic intensity. It certainly wasn’t a ‘free holiday’- we got 4 weeks off the whole year (3 weeks at Christmas and 1 for Spring Break), that’s half the amount of a York student.

    Yes, I got to live by the beach. But, despite what you may think as a York student who’s used to cold and rain, that doesn’t equal slacking off. UCLA, UCSD, UCB, and UCSB are all top 10 universities in the USA, and rank much higher in the world than York ever will.

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