April 18, 2013

What is the value of the Year Abroad? Part 1

The Year Abroad. A term that conjures up a whole range of emotions for language students, and indeed for students from other disciplines whose course allows for a spell away from their home country. For some students about to depart on a period abroad, the whole concept of leaving the familiar environments and networks of home and university can seem daunting and for some perhaps even terrifying. For others, the opportunity to leave familiarity behind and explore a whole new country is an experience they eagerly await. For those students or graduates who have completed the process, or who are coming to the end of their time abroad, the memory of a year abroad can be equally divisive. While the vast majority look back on their experiences with nostalgic fondness, others might be just as willing to forget the entire episode.

As the current crop of third-year language undergraduates approach the end of their sojourn abroad, the question of the ‘value’ of the Year Abroad is as pertinent as ever. For the past two years, I have co-developed, designed and co-managed a Year Abroad Virtual Learning Environment for students of French (and various combinations) along with delivering a pre-departure talk for outgoing British Council Language Assistants. In both roles, I have seen the ‘value’ of the Year Abroad put under very close scrutiny.

Every year when I deliver the assistantship talk, I see the effect that my preparatory advice has on students, as they slowly realise the step that they are about to take. The fact that, in six months’ time, they will be delivering lessons to a group of students in a foreign country can induce a whole swathe of responses, from outright fear to an immediate sense of responsibility. Some question why they have to go to teach a bunch of recalcitrant teenagers in France or Germany or Austria or even Martinique. The story that I tend to wheel out at each of these talks, about my thirteen year-old arch-nemesis, Kévin, at one of the schools I taught at back on my own year abroad, probably doesn’t help. Yet no amount of reassurance from a tutor or from a previous ‘year abroader’ (I ask one or two previous assistants to come to talk to the outgoing students) can quite ease the burning question for some students: just why is the Year Abroad necessary?

Fast-forward an academic year and the same students will be transformed. They might not realise it, and indeed some simply do not, but the Year Abroad is an influential process in developing students academically and personally. In my capacity as a coordinator of the French Year Abroad pages, I have watched with a mixture of interest and pride as previously timid students have recorded on the VLE’s forum that they are now perfectly happy managing a class of 30 students, or that they are not phased at being asked to teach vocation-specific and technical vocabulary in English. Other students have noted an increased awareness of their own self, comprising both their limitations and their skills and abilities, while others have recorded a developed sense of cultural awareness through experiencing the niceties of daily life in France—how to greet a new colleague or friend, with whom to use the informal ‘tu’ form and how to deal with the casually misogynistic approach of French men have all occurred in student reflections.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sarah

    This is a really good post, with very valid points. However, as a student myself I feel that there is not enough freedom in the choice of projects that can be completed on the year abroad. In my own personal experience, I commenced my year abroad on a permaculture project. Although not ‘official’, my French was challenged far more here than it was in the latter half of my year at a French University, although the latter placement was considered more ‘academic’. In fact, at the University, many of my professors spoke to me in English, many of my classes were in english and the majority of the friends I met their communicated in English. In contrast, on my initial project, I had specifically chosen a place where no English was spoken so I would be challenged.

    I appreciate the support and the fantastic advice I received from the university, however sometimes I have the impression that Students are not taken seriously enough. I admit, students are very good at complaining and then are often apathetic as opposed to being proactive about improving things. However, I am very passionate about my studies and I really wanted to do what I felt would be most beneficial to me in the long term. In addition, as someone who took a gap year before University, I felt more confident in my ability to do something more alternative, without the same protection/ safety offered by the other positions as either a student or a teaching assistant. I hope my reflections do not appear to critical; overall it was one of the best experiences of my life and the challenges I faced have made me far more confident and organised now!

    18 Apr 2013, 14:59

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks very much for your really interesting comments. I think part of what I’m trying to communicate in this post is that the YA is an opportunity to experience transformation through whichever activity you choose. While much of the focus is on the assistantship here (that’s where my own interests/experiences lie) the fact is that this transformative process can take place regardless of your YA activity. If you felt challenged during the permaculture placement then it would appear that you experienced this transformation during the project. Unfortunately, the resources for allowing a plurality of YA options are simply not available at the present time, hence why students are generally offered the three choices of work placement (which students organise themselves), an Erasmus placement or the assistantship. I suppose the real transformation and development of intercultural awareness and other skills takes place as much outside of these placements as during them, so through coming into contact with local people and through entering the local community.
    It seems to me that whilst you found the Erasmus placement to be uninspiring, your initial experiences did match the concept of socio-cultural development I’m trying to promote.

    18 Apr 2013, 15:14

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