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How to (not) prepare students for the Year Abroad


Dr Claire Reid
School of Languages and Applied Linguistics, University of Portsmouth

Preparing students for their compulsory Year Abroad at the university of Portsmouth has been one of my primary responsibilities as Mobility Coordinator since 2014, and one I have thoroughly enjoyed. Having inherited a fairly efficient and successful programme of information sessions, a handbook, Moodle sites and website, I initially continued with previous practices, as students’ overall satisfaction appeared to be good. However, over the years, I have been noting an increase in comments from students regarding gaps in their pre-departure briefing and understanding of the challenges they would meet whilst abroad. In addition to this, more recently, we have seen an increase in students experiencing difficulties whilst on their year abroad, or prior to departure, resulting in more and more students opting out of the year abroad, curtailing their placement abroad or asking to return to the UK after the minimum period required.

From the discussions I have had with colleagues at other institutions, this trend appears to have developed in most programmes with a compulsory year abroad, and is linked to an increase in students facing wellbeing issues in Higher Education. An article from The Guardian newspaper dated December 2014 suggests that students going on their Year Abroad do not receive sufficient information and that “Universities are ignoring the plea of anxious students” (Ashenden, 2014). Several universities responded to the article pointing out that programmes and infrastructures were in place to assist students both prior and during their period abroad. Rightly or wrongly, it seems that the perception amongst students is that they are not sufficiently prepared for the challenges of the Year Abroad. In this paper, I will present how we, at the University of Portsmouth, currently prepare students for their Language year abroad and explore the aspects academics should prioritise in designing Year Abroad preparation activities.

At the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth, students on four different degree programmes must spend a year abroad (Applied Languages, Modern Languages, International Relations & Languages and International Development & Languages). Depending on the size of the cohort, this amounts to around 75-100 students each year completing one year-long or two semester-long placements, depending on language combinations or preference. Students may choose to study at one of our partner universities in Europe or beyond, undertake a work placement anywhere in the world, or work as Teaching Assistants as part of the British Council scheme. Helping students decide the type of placement and destination is the focus of five preparation sessions held in the first semester. These sessions provide information on the support available to source suitable work placements, funding and testimonials from returning students. By the end of the first semester, students are required to make a decision regarding their destination and placement type.

During the second semester, sessions in smaller groups are organised with students to brief them on the specificities of their chosen destination, to help them complete their registration or application, and provide further information on the Erasmus scheme. Two plenary sessions cover matters related to risk assessment and insurance, as well as academic requirements (year abroad assessment). This programme of predeparture preparation reinforces the information provided on a dedicated Moodle site which covers all aspects of the compulsory year abroad, from the aims and objective of the year abroad, to tips on how to find accommodation abroad.

All of the students on this programme are language students. The main languages taught at Portsmouth are French, German, Italian, Mandarin and Spanish. Throughout the first and second years, Language classes are very much geared towards preparing students for their period abroad. In line with Sandra Salin’s Better French Living Project (2018), independent learning and student-produced activities help students develop a better understanding of the target culture by taking an active part in their learning. We cover topics such as CV writing and applying for a job in the target language, the education, health and social infrastructures of the countries in which the language is spoken, how to complete day-to-day tasks, such as signing a contract, making enquiries over the telephone, etc. Lecturers also share cultural knowledge, which help prepare students for the culture they will experience; social dos and don’ts, food habits, societal attitudes, etc. In addition to this, second-year students are partnered with incoming exchange students to encourage them to not only improve their linguistic skills, but also learn more about the country they will be visiting the following year, as well as find out about what it is like to be an exchange student.

Every year, we request feedback from returning students to find out where there may be gaps in our practices, what works and what does not work. Although the vast majority of students are satisfied with the level of preparation, some appear to struggle and feel that they did not receive a sufficient amount of details on what to expect.

With this in mind, it is tempting to keep developing more and more workshops covering the minutiae of living in a different country: opening a bank account, dealing with a difficult landlord, making new friends… Returning students help us target those areas they felt ought to have been covered.

In May 2019, in a desire to keep improving the provision to students, I organised a series of focus groups to help identify how academic could better support mobilities. The intention was to present the findings for a workshop during the University’s Learning and Teaching conference to spark discussions amongst academic staff. I received the assistance of one of our final year Applied Languages students. She had completed her year abroad the previous year, spending one semester at a French University and another working in Spain. She enjoyed the experience so much she wanted to share it with as many as possible, but also felt others would benefit from some predeparture tips and advice. For those reasons, she published a book, Brit Abroad: How to survive a Year Abroad (2018), which she hoped would help answer questions students may ask. During her final year, she became an Erasmus ambassador and was highly motivated to help students preparing to go abroad. She helped me find participants, prepare questions and discuss the findings. Although there is existing literature and research on the subject of year abroad preparation, notably Parker & Rouxeville (1995), or more recently, Goldoni (2015), we felt it was important to collect data locally in order to ensure that any conclusions we would draw would be specifically relevant to our own student population. The focus groups included students from the School of Languages, but also students from other Schools and Faculties who had participated in an exchange or placement abroad programme. We felt that comparing the experiences of students who received varying levels of preparation (students from the Faculty of Business & Law undergo a thorough predeparture programme, whilst other Schools and Faculties offer limited preparation) would help us assess the efficacy of such programmes. Surprisingly, those students who had not been offered extensive predeparture preparation all agreed that; ‘In terms of preparation, less is more’. They enjoyed discovering new cultures first-hand. One student, who had done extensive research before going on a study exchange in Belgium, even said she wished she had not done so because she would have preferred to discover the place with new eyes. Admittedly, this was from a small sample, moreover a group of students who had enjoyed their placement abroad and were keen to discuss it with others. However, hearing these students talk about their experience and what they felt they gained from having received little preparation, got me thinking about the purpose of our current predeparture arrangement.

The experiences of young people today are not comparable to that of twenty or thirty years ago, but it can be useful to reflect on personal life lessons. I was lucky enough to go on study abroad programmes twice,  first as an Erasmus undergraduate student in Oxford in 1992, and later as a Language assistant in Ireland in 1994. On neither occasion had I received any kind of predeparture training, and although I had previously travelled to England and Ireland, life as a student in the first and as a teaching assistant in a small town in the second, was drastically different. These were the days before the Internet, so communication with home was less easy, and travel and accommodation were arranged over the telephone or in person once in situ. Were there teething problems? Of course, there were. Many issues arose at different levels, and solving them was not always easy. I am not suggesting that we ought to send students thirty years into the past and experience going abroad without today’s tools and information. What I am wondering, however, is whether spoon-feeding students information about their forthcoming Year Abroad can be counter-productive. Indeed, there is a wealth of resources available online and from University libraries with tips and advice on how to prepare for your year abroad (for instance the aforementioned Brit Abroad (Nobes, 2018), which is particularly relevant for our own students, or Lidstone & Rueckert’s The Study Abroad Handbook (2007), and a plethora of websites providing advice to students), but even though students are directed to those resources, there is an ever-increasing demanding for students to dedicate more time to help them prepare for their period abroad.

It seems to me that the more information we give, the more students ask for. The more details we give, the more we are likely to set expectations for those students of what their year abroad will be like. However, the unanimous view of students returning from their year abroad, is precisely that each experience is unique, shaped by the specific setting, interactions and opportunities each will have. Over-planning may help some cope with the anxiety associated with uncertainty, but it also deprives them of spontaneity, and the ability to develop new coping mechanisms. The problem-solving skills students are meant to develop during their experience abroad, and which make them all the more attractive later in the workplace, risk being spoilt by our reluctance to let students find out for themselves what is it like to be thrown in at the deep end. Indeed, the literature on the benefits and the enhanced employability of students who have studied abroad emphasise real-life management problems (see Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde (2013)). It could therefore be argued that providing ready-made solutions to students risk compromising this valuable experience.

Over the past few months, whilst I have in practice been developing a more systematic programme of predeparture briefings and liaising with colleagues University-wide to establish an institutional approach to preparing students for their mobility, I have personally been questioning the purpose and the content of these preparations. Ad-hoc evidence collected from debriefing regularly point to students asking for further preparation and more information. However, if we compare the feedback received from departments who do not spend as much time as our School of Languages on year abroad preparation, the feedback indicates that those students felt they did not require further preparation. With this in mind, I wonder (and at this point, it is merely a hunch), whether less is, in fact, more.

Intercultural awareness or ‘preparing students to be global citizens’ (Highum, 2014) is undoubtedly an essential element of the predeparture preparation for studying or working abroad. For Language students, the view is generally that the study of language, translation, area studies, intercultural communication, etc. will contribute to preparing students for a possible ‘culture shock’. At the University of Portsmouth, a review of predeparture requirements for students has indicated that this would be an area that all departments should be developing.

In my future approach to predeparture briefing, I intend to focus on the skills to carry out the necessary predeparture research, to solve problems independently and to communicate effectively whilst abroad rather than on fact-based information. Our first attempt to try and include this in the preparation programme, in September 2019, we asked students departing for their year abroad to write a short paragraph entitled My Aspirations. The aim was to get students starting to reflect on their own experience and trying to identify what it is that they intend to gain from their period abroad. As this is relatively new, it is too early to comment on its success, but an initial read through the students’ submissions suggest that many had set themselves personal objectives beyond linguistic skills and academic performance. Students talked about wanting to push their own limits, striving to adapt to a different environment and culture, to become more accomplished, to learn more about themselves. It will be interesting to compare how this little predeparture reflection will impact (if at all) debriefing next September, and whether students will feel that they met these ambitious personal objectives.

Ideally, I believe the preparation of the Year Abroad should ensure that students are equipped to face the challenges that it may present and make the most of their experience. I am wondering if the best way to achieve this may be not through the delivery of information-packed lectures, handbooks and web content, but perhaps through activities that help students develop attributes such as open-mindedness, resilience and self-confidence (for instance via reflective workshops and student-led activities). We know that these are the attributes a successful experience abroad should provide or increase, but we need to ensure that students start off with an adequate disposition, so that they can nurture these qualities.

Ultimately, it is important that staff supporting students’ mobility consider the experience abroad holistically: it is not simply about developing language skills, or discovering a new culture, or gaining valuable experience in the workplace. All these aspects are important, but they need to be considered alongside the ‘soft skills’ students will acquire and develop throughout that experience (see Dwyer & Peters (2004)). In times when there is growing concerns for the mental wellbeing of young people, it is important that the year abroad preparation is not limited to practical aspects, but also equips students to make better decisions, develop coping strategies and reflect on the benefits of all experiences – good or bad.

As such, I am wondering whether a year abroad preparation that focuses too much on details, on an overload of information, may be a disservice to both the institution and the students. Perhaps the key is to refocus the preparation so that students leave the UK with an open mind, ready to learn new skills and discover new people and cultures, a strong, resilient mindset with a full understanding that the experience ahead will have ups and downs, rather than leaving with lists of dos and don’ts.

Address for correspondence: 

Ashenden, A. 2014. Year-abroad students say universities don’t offer enough support. The Guardian. [Online]. 15 December. Available from: universities-failing-provide-welfare-support-year-abroad-students

Dwyer, M.M. and Peters, C.K. 2004. The Benefits of Study Abroad. [Online]. Available from:

Goldoni, F. 2015. Preparing students for studying abroad. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 15(4), pp.1-20. 

Highum, A. 2014. Predeparture services for students studying abroad. In New Directions for Students Services (2014) 146.

Lidstone, A. and Rueckert, C. 2007. The study abroad handbook. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nobes, A. 2018. Brit abroad: how to survive a year abroad. Independently published.

Parker, G. and Rouxeville, A. 1995. The year abroad: preparation, monitoring and evaluation. London: ALF/CILT.

Salin, S. 2018. The Better French Living Project: how to encourage linguistic, practical, and cultural year-abroad preparation outside the classroom. In: Rosell-Aguilar, F., Beaven, T. andFuertes Gutiérrez, M.  eds. Innovative language teaching and learning at university: integrating informal learning into formal language education., pp. 79-88.

Steers, R., Nardon, L. and Sanchez-Runde, C. 2013. Management across cultures: developing global competencies. Cambridge: CUP.