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Are virtual years abroad a feasible option?

It is safe to say that the academic year 2020/21 is feeling uncertain. As a student heading into my final year, I am concerned as to how the year will play out, with discussions surrounding university teaching and accommodation appearing almost daily on my social media. However, let us spare a moment for those planning to head on a year abroad.

My first question is to how will it actually work. Will students be able to live in their chosen destinations, quarantining for two weeks when they first arrive, while completing their studies online? This option seems unlikely and potentially risky if we face a second wave of COVID-19. The alternative would be to either live at home while working online or finding a last-minute student house to live in, neither of which are desirable options. 

At first glance, a virtual year abroad looks like an awful idea, but there may be some positives. The most difficult thing about a year abroad is having to completely uproot your life in the UK, leaving established support networks and familiarity behind. Completing it online would allow you to study or work in a foreign institution without having to face potential homesickness, loneliness, or the stress that comes with navigating a new culture.

Other challenging factors such as money struggles, lack of social life, or simply disliking the environment you are in can all lead to deteriorating mental health and even dropping out of the year abroad. Students who may face these issues can complete the year virtually, especially if it is a compulsory part of their degree. I also want to highlight how expensive a year abroad can be. A virtual year abroad spent in your home country takes away travel and flight costs, the cost of moving luggage, and the expensive accommodation that comes in major or capital cities.

With the future of the Erasmus scheme and grant being uncertain post-Brexit, perhaps staying at home is not the worst idea in the world.

Students must either take up whatever options are offered by their universities or opt out of the year abroad all together

Although we can scrape a few positives from the bottom of the barrel, the truth is that a year abroad is about much more than just study or work. Living abroad allows the type of cultural immersion you cannot experience any other way. You can deepen your understanding of a different culture and get a taste for real life in that country. This is particularly important for language students, as spending time in the country of your second or third language is regarded as essential to reach a high language level. In fact, Warwick regards it’s year abroad for language students as an “integral part” of their degree programme. 

The challenges of living abroad are also what makes it such a rewarding experience. Moving into a small town, starting a new job, and making new friends all in my second language was not easy. Yet it is something I can look back on with pride. Employers particularly like the adaptability and problem-solving skills that are strengthened by living abroad. 

Some of my fondest memories of my year abroad come from the non-work side of things. I spent many weekends travelling around my region of France, from visiting friends who lived in small country villages, to longer trips spent in Paris, Strasbourg, Luxembourg City, and Amsterdam. I was able to explore cultural cuisine while learning regional words that I would have never otherwise come across. I made friends from all over the world, brought together by our assistantship job and love for French.

Frankly, I cannot imagine what my year abroad would have been without these added amazing experiences. 

As easy as it is to rip apart the concept of a virtual year abroad, there may be a feasible alternative. Students must either take up whatever options are offered by their universities or opt out of the year abroad all together. They may have to rely on moving abroad later in the year, next summer, or even post-graduation. For now, students can only make the best of their situation, as all of us are doing during this pandemic. 

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