Sunday, September 25, 2011

“This is all already on the website...”

This time last year, I was heading back to university anticipating an immediate influx of emails and information about study abroad. Three twelve week terms actually isn’t that long to work out where you’re going to go to, what you’re going to do there and what you need to do to organise it, while still trying to do all your university work and exams.

At the end of October, three weeks into the first of these terms, we finally got our first email telling us when the first meeting was going to be. It wasn’t until mid-November that I’d had my first meetings for both departments, and these mainly just outlined our options.

The year abroad is arguably the most important part of a languages degree, so it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want to do with your time, and where you want to go. Often deadlines for finalising these decisions are in December or January, and so thinking about what you want to do in mid-November doesn’t allow much time for decision-making. All the information about year abroad options is on departmental websites – it’s better to start thinking about what it is that you really want to do when you start second year, rather than waiting to be prompted by the university.

Having worked for a French firm before, I wanted to work for them in Paris during the first semester of my year abroad. The whole process, from finding out whom I should contact, to hearing about the results of my interview, took from September to January. Fairly typically, having interviewed me, they then told me that they only really wanted to take French business school graduates who could do six to nine month contracts, a profile which I evidently do not fit. However setting work up abroad is no mean feat, and if it’s something that you’re really keen on doing, there’s no way you can wait for the university to tell you to start thinking about your plans.

The other lesson that the process taught me was to be fully aware of all the options – as I was so involved with getting a job, I didn’t think too much about university and Erasmus placements. I found out that I didn’t get the job on the day that Erasmus placement applications were due in, leaving me about two hours to decide on my top three French universities. I was lucky, as prior to my job application I’d looked into the cities available for exchanges, and it didn’t take me long to make my mind up – but for such a big decision it really illustrates the importance of being completely aware of all the possibilities, and not putting all your eggs in one basket.

The other thing this experience gave me early warning of is the importance of making yourself really aware of all the deadlines. The language departments face the difficulty of having to communicate a huge amount of information to a huge number of people, so the meetings were frequently a couple of hours long and contained a lot of generic information. All the study abroad coordinators made exactly the same mistake – almost every meeting started with the phrase “We’ll put this up on the website tomorrow”, and those that didn’t seemed to consist of following the web pages on a large screen. There is no better way of ensuring that students won’t actually listen. Instead we all moaned about how we’d have been better spending the time finishing that essay/translation and how we’d definitely just read all the information online or in the handbooks instead. We then proceeded to mutter between ourselves. We got home and forgot to read anything online.

But somewhere in those two hours of generic information, the odd really important fact or deadline is thrown in. One meeting it may be the deadline for Erasmus grant bank details submission. Another time it will be the date by which you must have applied for insurance. Someone at some point will tell you how long it takes to get a European Health Card, and someone else will mention that actually, if you’re going to Russia, your passport needs to be in date up to six months AFTER your visa expires.

All these snippets of information are carefully hidden between the things that someone else had already said and the things that it just takes common sense to know. Or alternatively, they’re dotted around several different emails and two or three different websites. For me, the best idea was to write down every single date I found out, in chronological order, on one piece of paper, as one giant year abroad to-do list. And actually, that also helps to quantify what seems like a huge indefinable experience into a series of small, logical tasks.
There’s enough stress involved in trying to sort out what you want to do with your year abroad while trying to pass second year. It’s senseless to add more pressure by not keeping up-to-date with options, requirements and deadlines. I’m lucky, Montpellier is a brilliant place – but I could have easily ended up stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be for four months. Plus you need to be on the ball when you arrive, because the admin starts all over again – there’s no time to be tying up loose ends in England.

For most languages students, the year abroad is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. It is the most important year of our degree. And with the right awareness of the preparation and decision-making process, it has the potential to be one of the most exciting years of our lives.

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