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5 Reasons Why Everyone Should Take a Year Abroad during University

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In early November I returned to Exeter University to give a talk to current students about the benefits of spending a Third Year Abroad during their degree, as part of the university’s Global Showcase week which highlighted the various opportunities available to Exeter students overseas. It was the first time I’d been back in over 3 years since my graduation in July 2012 and I was truly honoured to be invited! By my own admission, I am certainly not the 2012 graduate who’s spent the most time abroad since university, having only spent 6 months living abroad since graduation, and I know plenty of others who moved abroad straight away after uni and have stayed there ever since. However the university stressed they were keen for me to share my experiences because of their sheer variety and the direct impact that my Third Year Abroad had on my subsequent career path and achievements. As I’ve mentioned before, it was my Third Year Abroad that inspired me to create The Well-Travelled Postcard.

The presentation went really well, with lots of questions from current students both in the Q&A and even afterwards, spilling out into the corridor long after the presentation officially ended. I was so energised by the students’ enthusiasm, it picked me up for days! It’s been a little while since I wrote about a Third Year Abroad and I really enjoyed giving the presentation, so I thought I’d convert it into a blog post as well. I hope this helps any current students wondering whether or not to take the plunge, and if you know of someone in the throes of a decision, perhaps send them this blog post.

1. Five reasons why I believe so passionately that everyone should take a Year Abroad during university

  • Firstly, it will be life-changing no mater where you go or what you do. You will learn more about the world by living it, than you ever could by sitting in a library or researching an essay on the internet, turning you into a global citizen.
  • Secondly, university is the perfect time to go abroad for many reasons: (1) You can get EU grants and other bursaries to take a Year Abroad; (2) You have a whole team at your university whose job it is to help you find internships, teaching jobs and study placements abroad – that support network simply doesn’t exist in the outside world! (3) It’s infinitely harder to move abroad post-graduation when financial responsibility, student debt and the pressure to climb the career ladder inevitably kicks in, let alone when you’re trying to organise it all alone.
  • Thirdly, employers love graduates who’ve spent a Year Abroad, as it correlates with increased maturity, adaptability, problem-solving, intercultural and language skills and it sets you apart from the competition. No matter which sector you’re applying for, in our globalised world, all employers are looking for proof on your CV of an ability to work with other cultures, and a Year Abroad is the easiest way to demonstrate this.
  • Fourthly, the Third Year Abroad was my favourite year of my entire degree, and I really loved both the city of Exeter and the subjects I studied, so that really is saying something.
  • Fifthly, I’ve met far too many people since university whose one regret is not taking a Year Abroad. It’s the biggest regret of graduates, so don’t be one of those who missed out.

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2. My own background and why it’s about all the small steps that add up

I’ll spare you poor readers my life story yet again, and if you’re new here then you can read my About Page instead or see the slide below that I included in my presentation. The overarching message however is that each small step I took abroad lead to the next and the next. Success at something doesn’t happen overnight nor does it hit upon individuals like the lottery. Success is the result is lots and lots of small steps and actions that gradually grow and lead to the next and then the next thing. For example, had I not worked as a waitress in the UK while at school, I wouldn’t have secured menial jobs abroad such as chalet girl, receptionist and au pair in my Gap Year and university summers. Without those menial jobs abroad, I wouldn’t have developed the intercultural competence and language skills required to be offered an internship in an Armani office in Italy and an English teaching job in Spain during my Third Year of university. Without that professional experience working abroad in my Third Year, I wouldn’t have gained a place on my 2-year graduate scheme in a huge international telecoms company, which in turn has allowed me to use my languages and work abroad in Madrid.

Working for this company allowed me to attend One Young World and get involved in various campaigns and charities such as Plan UK, which in turn helped obtain my upcoming position as a Team Leader for Raleigh in Nepal. And no doubt that experience of volunteering in a developing country and leading a team of six will help in my future career when demonstrating my adaptability in foreign environments and my leadership skills. In a similar vein, had I not studied abroad, I wouldn’t have felt “well-travelled” enough to set up a travel blog, which bit by bit over the last 3 years of blogging, has given me some truly amazing opportunities to travel right across the world and equipped me with a whole new set of in-demand skills. Do you see? Small steps, lots of small steps.

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3. Other graduates whose Third Year Abroad was essential to their career

But just in case you don’t believe me, here are examples of other Exeter graduates from my year who’ve gone on to do amazing things with their careers just 4 years after their year abroad:
  • Mary: Studied International Relations with European Study, year abroad studying in France, volunteer in Jerusalem & Burkina Faso, now on the prestigious Civil Service Fast Stream
  • Jonathon: Studied Arabic & German, year abroad studying in Cairo, now works for a think tank on Middle East, appearances on BBC News & Sky News
  • Jonny: Studied German, year abroad working in Berlin, works for Mercedes Formula 1 team and travels to every race around the world
  • Olivia: Studied French, year abroad studying Fashion in Paris, worked for Burberry in Paris, now a fashion designer

4. Options and opportunities

Your three main options on a Third Year Abroad are to work, study or teach abroad. Working Abroad usually involves paid or unpaid internships, but use any contacts you have to find opportunities in industries that are relevant to your future career. Studying Abroad is organised through your home university and destinations depend on where in the world they have exchange agreements, but usually it’s pretty global! Teaching Abroad normally refers to teaching English specifically, and is usually organised through the British Council Language Assistant Programme. You can find out more about these three options in these blog posts: Pros and Cons of Studying Abroad or Working Abroad or Teaching English Abroad

You may also be able to volunteer abroad (depending on what your home university allows you to do) and in the summer holidays either side of your year abroad you can most definitely travel abroad.

In my presentation I gave an intro to how to get the most out of a year abroad, some of which you can find in this blog post on the topic. It includes advice such as:

  • speak to 4th year students who’ve just returned from a Year Abroad – they’ll have all the tips and tricks relevant to the exact place you’re going to, and may even be able to introduce to you potential housemates and help you find a place to stay
  • live with locals – avoid the temptation to live with fellow Brits just because it feels easier and safer, you’ll learn more by making local friends
  • get a part-time job – a great way to meet locals and new people
  • head for smaller & lesser-known cities for a more authentic and immersive experience – in the big cities you may well be treated like a tourist and there’s less opportunity to practise the language
  • find a local boyfriend / girlfriend – pillow talk really is the best way to learn a language
  • volunteer as a translator – if you’re interested in becoming a translator, or just want an excuse to really work on your language, volunteer to translate something for charity. I translated 17,000 words of a local Italian charity’s website into English for them, which looked great on my CV and really increased my vocab

In general, head to your university’s Year Abroad office as the options and opportunities differ in every university. They’ll have all the information you need and will be able to clear up any myths or rumours going around campus, and they may have suggestions you’d never considered before.

5. How to present your international experiences to employers

Make sure that potential employers actually know that you did a Year Abroad, as it’s a great feather in your cap!

  • Your CV – Upfront in the intro sentence at the top of your CV, mention your Year Abroad. Make sure you dedicate more than just one line to your Year Abroad, for example, include an internship or teaching placement as an independent entry under the ‘Work Experience’ section, don’t just leave it in the ‘Academic’ section where it might be skimmed over.
  • LinkedIn – Mention your Year Abroad in your bio at the top of your Linkedin page and treat it as a separate entry in the Academic section too, for an example here’s my Linkedin
  • In job interviews – Any number of competency-based interview questions can be answered by referring to your year abroad: “Tell me about a time when you’ve …faced a challenge and how did you overcome it? …had to solve a problem? …had to work with someone who’s opinion differed to yours? …had to work in a multicultural team? …felt outside of your comfort zone and how did you manage?” Working with other cultures, communication difficulties and unfamiliarity is all part and parcel of a Year Abroad and the examples neatly roll off the tongue. And I’m no interviewer, but I personally think the stories behind these examples from a Year Abroad must be far more interesting than from just a boring old office context in the UK…
  • Social media – Use your Twitter bio to “brand” yourself for employers by mentioning the countries you’ve lived in or the languages you speak, and connect to companies who might be looking for graduates with experiences of those countries or markets.
  • Blogs and portfolio websites – These can be useful for certain industries, namely the creative and tech industries. Not everyone needs a blog or portfolio website, and I’d advise you to set one up only if you’re going to keep it updated and relevant.

The Well-Travelled Postcard Social Media Tech Trends for Travel

6. Lastly, please don’t be the 30-something-year-old who regrets missing out

Embrace the FOMO and spend a year abroad while you can, before things like mortgages, families and other commitments get in the way. As a student I felt so flexible, and I’m sad to say that that flexibility vanishes the longer and longer you spend in “the real world”. It pains me whenever I meet a late-twenty- or thirty-something who would love to move abroad but just “can’t”, because life has got in the way. Take my word for it and take a Year Abroad while you can – I promise you it’ll be the best decision you ever take. And if none of the other reasons above has convinced you, then take a Year Abroad purely to postpone entering the real world!

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I hope that conveys some of the passion I felt on the day of my presentation in Exeter, and of the excitement and possibility I felt in the air while speaking to current students hoping to embark on a Year Abroad. A while ago I wrote a series of blog posts giving advice about Third Year Abroad and the various options, as well as more practical matters like how to afford it and how to find a flat, etc. You’ll find those here.

And if you have any other questions about a Third Year Abroad then please do comment below and I’ll try and reply. I’m notoriously bad at replying individually over email (apologies to all those students who’ve emailed me in the past!) and if you ask the question here then at least the answer is available for others too.

Did you take a Year Abroad or are you thinking of doing one? I’d love to hear your experiences too and if you’ve anything to add to my musings above.

13 Comments »

  1. I totally agree with you on this. I didn’t travel during college, but went right after graduation. I think it is a necessary part of education that gives you confidence and a greater understanding of the world.

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    • Taking a year abroad (whether during or after) is one big learning curve and therefore a hugely useful part of an individual’s education, teaching independence, resilience and problem-solving and a whole host of other skills. Invaluable in short!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post 🙂 I thoroughly enjoyed my gap year in Germany while studying at Exeter. Finances might deter a lot of people now though what with student fees being so high? So much so that a lot of people from lower income families can’t even go to University in the first place 😦

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    • Thanks Biggsy! When I did my year abroad we were exempted from paying tuition fees for the year, and we received a monthly grant from the EU to cover costs, on top of still receiving the maintenance loan from the UK government, so I don’t think finances should really be an issue nowadays (unless the situation has changed since I took my year abroad in 2010/11)…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I spent a year abroad last year as part of my degree (I study French) and your article really sums up well the benefits of a year abroad! I taught English in Colmar, France, through the British Council Language Assistantship scheme (which I’m now an ambassador for) and had a fantastic time- it’s well worth considering their scheme even if you don’t plan on going into teaching, as international work experience is valuable for tor CV, and by working abroad you’re more likely to meet locals and use your language skills more! I would also advise anyone thinking of spending a year abroad to check out the site Third Year Abroad (which you included a link for) as it’s packed full of information for all stages of the year abroad including insider city guides 🙂

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    • Thanks! I’m glad you agree and that you also found your year abroad as valuable as I did. We now just need to get the word out to more students, especially those who are studying non-languages, as I still think there aren’t enough Brits taking a year abroad.

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      • I think half the problem is that there are so many students who just aren’t aware they could do a year abroad – there are just so many opportunities that don’t need foreign language skills. It’s all about promoting the diverse experiences available and how it will benefit them both short and long term.

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  4. Hi Virginia, your presentation really helped me decide what I want to do for my Year Abroad which will start in September! I’m really happy with the choice I made following your talk to split the year between two countries, which I previously wasn’t going to do, so thank you! Even though my Year Abroad hasn’t started yet, I know already that it’s going to be a fantastic experience and I can’t wait to get out there now!

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    • I’m so glad my talk helped you and I definitely think splitting the year between two countries is the best thing to do – you’ll get so much more out of it and have much broader experiences, meet more people, learn more, have more fun! Win win. Best of luck with your year abroad and enjoy – let me know how it goes!

      Liked by 1 person

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