Cambridge MMLL Office outlines plans for possible ‘virtual year abroad’

It could involve a ‘remote internship’ or ‘remote study placement’

Contingency plans for undergraduate language students affected by future coronavirus travel restrictions include a “virtual year abroad”, the Year Abroad Director Dr Tim Chesters said in an online Q&A session yesterday (Tuesday 6 May).

In the meeting, held between the MMLL (Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics) representative, Krista Cooper, Careers Advisor with the Careers Service, and MMLL students, Chesters said that whether year abroad students can remain in Cambridge next academic year is a “decision for colleges”.

Chesters added that he thinks it is “highly unlikely” that current Part 1B students will have to remain in Cambridge next year, saying that they will either “most probably be abroad, albeit possibly with some new social distancing protocols to follow in [the] host country”, or that they will be in their “parental home, pursuing some kind of virtual year abroad.”

“We’re on your side in this, and we absolutely don’t want the cohort to be disadvantaged”, he added.

Students in the meeting were told that there are “different versions of what a virtual year abroad could look like. It doesn’t exist yet […] we’re just trying to plan it, and think about the sorts of things it might entail. It’s unlikely to completely supplant any contact with a foreign agency abroad, the idea is that it would […] operate in tandem with it, so you might be doing a remote internship but which is topped up by some activities provided by the University, or a remote study placement that is topped up in a similar way”.

He said it “would be the worst scenario if you’re just doing grammar exercises every week, and calling it a virtual year abroad,” but added that this is “not the idea”.

Chesters said it’s currently a “skeleton plan” for which there “hopefully” won’t be any need.

In the case of this “virtual year abroad” going ahead, Chesters said that the Faculty will not “penalise anybody for something beyond their control”, adding that the affected students will still get their degrees.

In response to a question regarding how year abroad decisions will be made, Chesters said: “We are consulting students in the form of the student representatives […] we have met with the students, the Q&As that we have compiled for 1B students were compiled with the help of the student representative from CUSU and the current 1B student, so these are not just decisions handed out from up high.”

“Obviously the situation changes quite quickly, so new questions arise we weren’t necessarily able to foresee right away”, he said. “There are some things which are just very very difficult logistically speaking: doubling up years, having mass intermissions”.

In the meeting, Chesters and Cooper also answered questions regarding intermission, safety concerns, and the difficulties of finding international work placements.

Genevieve Holl-Allen, a third-year French and Russian student at Emmanuel College who returned from her year abroad early this year due to the coronavirus, told The Tab Cambridge: “I think that the decision about what to do for the year abroad students is so hard, but a virtual year abroad would not really emulate the experience of going and experiencing the culture and getting to know the people (which is such a big part of the year).

“I learned a lot of Russian by speaking to Russian friends and going out with them – something which cannot be experienced on a virtual year abroad. Language learning on a year abroad is not purely academic, it’s things like what do you say when you can’t find a specific food at a supermarket or somebody comes up to you and asks for directions.”

Genevieve Holl-Allen on her year abroad

Erin Hudson, a second-year French and Spanish student at St. John’s College, said: “I think it’s understandable that there are problems with the year abroad, but a virtual year abroad would be so inadequate for many reasons including language fluency. I think it would be better to cancel the year abroad for this cohort entirely with a possible option of something after graduation and let us all move to part 2.”

Erin Hudson

Chesters acknowledged that the situation is “very upsetting” for this year’s cohort and next year’s cohort, saying that he sympathises with students affected. “All we can do as a Faculty is remain flexible, to the extent that we’re able, particularly in the way that we assess our students”, and to “try and put on some kind of year abroad”.

In a statement to The Tab Cambridge, the Year Abroad Director Dr Tim Chesters said: “The possibility of a ‘virtual year abroad’ is currently being explored across the UK Higher Education sector by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML). The University of Cambridge is one of dozens of institutions participating in preliminary discussions. The UCML web page on the Virtual Year Abroad gives some indications of the sorts of things this could potentially involve. Please note, though, that nothing firm has yet been agreed, and the University will consult extensively with student representatives before making any firm commitments.”

Featured image credit: Genevieve Holl-Allen