Leaning in other countries
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Year Abroad Diaries: What it is like learning in other countries

Studying abroad is offered as part of many degree programmes. Learning in a new cultural setting provides students with a chance to develop skills and potential which may have been left untapped had they remained at home.

I am currently studying at the University of Siena for my third year. In my experience so far, there are more similarities than differences between the UK and Italian university systems but the differences certainly take some getting used to.

As a humanities student at Warwick, I am used to less contact hours and more independent work, whereas during my year abroad the opposite has been true. Having more lectures gives my day more structure which is helpful when trying to find your feet in a new city. It is definitely worth attending as much as possible because lectures are a chance to meet other students, something which does not happen as easily at a university without halls of residence, societies, or a student’s union, as Warwick students would recognise them.

Although it can feel chaotic and ad-hoc at times, this flexibility is refreshing

Italian universities typically have two semesters which run from late September to late January then from March to June. This leaves February and July as exam periods over which there are no classes. I’ve found real benefit in their splitting the exam season in this way rather than leaving most of the exams to a few weeks at the end of the year.

Another major difference in exam season is that most modules are assessed primarily with a final oral exam. Students can choose when to do their exam from a few different dates and can retake the exam multiple times if they do not achieve the grade they are aiming for. Although it can feel chaotic and ad-hoc at times, this flexibility is refreshing compared to my experience of exams at Warwick.

Having to prepare oral exams for modules on subjects like linguistics, literature, and anthropology has provided me with a chance to improve my presentation skills in a way that a written exam would not have.

I feel that living abroad for an extended period allows me a more authentic experience of the country

There are pros and cons to each system but without studying abroad I would not have experienced an alternative way of doing things. Any learning experience abroad, be it a year studying at a foreign university, a short exchange, or a summer programme, gives students a different perspective on what and how they’re learning. This is surely a worthwhile reason to step away from typical student life for a period while still engaging academically.

Aside from studying, during any experience learning abroad, there is always the potential for travel. This is especially the case when spending a full year abroad because, once you have established yourself in your new city, you have a base from which to explore the whole country and the time to do so.

I feel very privileged to be in the position where I can go on a daytrip to Florence or a weekend break in Verona, should I feel like exploring another city. Although I have university commitments, with a little planning ahead, I have been able to sightsee around Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto and Umbria so far. I feel that living abroad for an extended period allows me a more authentic experience of the country because I have the time to go beyond the rushed sight-seeing which I usually cram into my holidays.

It is exciting to overcome perceived barriers and realise that as you reach out to people in their own language, they reach out to you

As a languages student, my year abroad is essential for my academic progression. I came to Italy having studied Italian from beginner’s level in my first and second years, so I somewhat expected a language barrier. It can be hard to cope in situations which would ordinarily be straight forward in English, my first language, but learning not to get overwhelmed at times like these has helped my comprehension skills enormously.

Having spent the last four months in Italy, I have found that my fluency has improved, and I am picking up new words and expressions every day. It is exciting to overcome perceived barriers and realise that as you reach out to people in their own language, they reach out to you.

I could not have made such progress without complete immersion, which is why I am concerned about the UK’s potential exit from the Erasmus+ programme. Learning abroad is not just about going through the motions of attending lectures and revising for yet another cycle of exams, it is about learning something that cannot be taught in a lecture theatre or read in a book.

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