Why should some undergraduates get to escape Oxford for an overseas adventure as part of their course? Alec Fullerton investigates.

A year abroad – frivolous jaunt or matchless opportunityKatie McGhee visits the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu, Peru, during her year in Argentina

By Alec Fullerton (Trinity, 2014)

The year abroad is without a doubt one of the most attractive parts of choosing to study languages. Away from seemingly insurmountable reading lists and fearsome grammar tutors, a year abroad working or studying seems like a blessing.

Does that make the year abroad a ‘doss’ – just an excuse to go ‘off gallivanting around Europe’? To find out, I’ve interrogated a variety of Oxonians about it. What’s the point of a year abroad? What can students gain from them, both linguistically and personally? And how do they prepare students for fourth year and beyond?

James Reid (Wadham, 2012), who read History and German, spent his year abroad in Munich, teaching English in two schools as a British Council language assistant. As well as enjoying the experience (in particular the beer) James said his German benefited enormously. He said: ‘It is definitely the most important part of the whole degree, because Oxford doesn’t have loads of time devoted to speaking sessions in the first two years. Having to spend the majority of your time speaking the language means your fluency develops really quickly.’

A year abroad – frivolous jaunt or matchless opportunityJames Reid, right, samples the local pilsner in Munich

James also found opportunities outside the classroom. ‘The school I was at is the only school in Bavaria that plays rugby, so I helped out with coaching. Having to explain everything in German means you improve quickly.’

He thinks it has all dramatically increased his employability. After graduating, James completed an internship in Berlin and has a training contract with a London law firm. ‘The general experience and personal development has made me more confident in interviews, more prepared to try different things. It shows you can be organised, independent and you’re not going to find it hard to adapt to the real world.’

A year abroad – frivolous jaunt or matchless opportunityA year abroad also helps better prepare students for finals in fourth year. Jonathan Mallinson (right), Professor of French and fellow of Trinity, said: ‘Just as important as the linguistic development is the benefit of a year away from the pressured routine of three eight-week terms. Returning finalists are usually refreshed; they have had the opportunity to read more widely and to think about their work; and they tend to appreciate anew the many benefits – academic and otherwise – of being in Oxford.’

So should the same opportunity be open to more students, beyond those studying modern languages or joint honours? ‘In an ideal world, that would be the case,’ said Professor Mallinson. ‘Work experience has unquestionable value, not least if one is unsure what career to follow. And experience of a different culture does, inevitably, bring home the valuable lesson that normality is relative. But to achieve this, a fair number of economic, political and logistical hurdles would need to be negotiated.’     

Catherine Pillonel, Year Abroad Officer in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, agreed that widening the opportunity would be a good idea in principle. ‘The year abroad is an excellent opportunity for students and is an option that might be worth considering in other departments where feasible.’ She reeled off the benefits: ‘Independence; immersing themselves in new cultures; practising the language on a daily basis; coping using the foreign language; expanding the mind.’

Indeed, as a current ‘year abroader’ and consequently a veteran in the daily conflict against fiendish French bureaucracy, I can attest to the many different challenges, and to the indispensable life experience of overcoming them.

Katie McGhee (Trinity, 2014; pictured at top), a third-year Spanish and Portuguese student whose year abroad in Argentina has enabled her to visit sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru, has also faced her challenges. As an intern journalist at the online English-language Argentina Independent, she found herself ‘swept up in the huge sea of umbrellas’ as she covered a women’s march in torrential rain for a photo feature. ‘I had two photographers with me. Every time I stopped to interview someone, I would look up and they both would’ve spotted something interesting and run off in different directions! Coming home after four hours in a storm, drying off and then writing the article for the next morning was definitely a challenge, but was also a highlight for me as I felt like an actual on-the-ground reporter.’

A year abroad – frivolous jaunt or matchless opportunityJake Boswall carries out research for his alternative tourist guide while Alec Fullerton, right, takes a literary pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Company in Paris

An undoubted highlight of the year abroad is the chance for exploration and discovery. Jake Boswall (St Catherine’s, 2014), a third-year student of Arabic, Hindi and Urdu, spent part of his second year in Jordan and sent me his alternative ‘Lonely Planet’ guide. It begins with a journey to the Dead Sea: ‘Prepare for an early one. If the time of your arrival doesn’t exhaust you, then the border controls most certainly will. Once in town, it’s straight on the bus to Madaba. Fight with an incensed mother and her five children over seats and you’ll be at the Dead Sea before noon. Here the choice is yours: pay a 40 premium of 40 Jordanian dinar for some ludicrous “we’ll carry you in and out of the water” Dead Sea “experience”, or, choose the free public beach. They are both identical. Salinate yourself thoroughly and get back onto the highway in time to catch rush hour. Here will be waiting a variety of ideologically opposed hitch-hikes – from anti-Semitic lorries to full-blown Christian-missionary wagons.’

As well as linguistic development and the chance to have a really great time, for me the most valuable aspect of a year abroad is what it teaches you about other cultures and about tolerating differences. As Professor Mallinson rightly said, normality is entirely relative; what I might find weird may well be perfectly ‘normal’ to someone else. Sharing a flat here in Nîmes, France, with two people I’d never met from entirely different sides of the world – Guatemala and China – has taught me that. There are plenty of differences between us, some more obvious than others, but an experience like this teaches you to appreciate and accept other ways of life. At the end of a long year, tragically dominated by terrorism and divisive political upsets, promoting an outward-looking, open-minded and, above all, tolerant worldview is more vital than ever.

Photos courtesy of Katie McGhee, James Reid, Jonathan Mallinson, Alec Fullerton and Jake Boswall.


By Dr Andrew Crowt...

One aspect of time in a different country that was not mentioned is that working in third world countries opens one's eyes to how lucky we are in the UK. Working in central Africa after I qualified in medicine in 1969/70 taught me that the excellent training we were given in the UK was put to good use even though there may have been only basic materials and few drugs. Such experience meant that I rarely complained of the so called lack of resources in this country. Fresh water comes out of the tap!

By RH Findlay (SEH)

"So should the same opportunity be open to more students, beyond those studying modern languages or joint honours? "

Having taken a year out back in 1970, yes. It is an opportunity to see how the real world works, to have to work independently for a living and to recognise the commonality of purpose across apparently different cultures, as well as gaining useful work experience relevant, both directly and indirectly, to one's field of study.

Working on the shop floor of a foundry in the British Midlands, damaging my lungs making core moulds for kitchen appliances, and then working as a dustman throwing out the very same kitchen appliances that my fellow workers and I had been wrecking our health for was a salutary experience; working for three months for a Scandinavian mining company taught me a great deal about how to pursue my future trade as a geologist.

By Peter Hulse

Drinking pilsner in Munich - the heathen! Has he no cultural sensitivity?