We spoke to MML students about their Year Abroad experiences under the pandemic and Brexit

How have students planning their year abroads been managing after the chaos of the last year?

For many students, the prospect of a year abroad working, studying or volunteering is the selling point of a languages degree. However, as with most things the Coronvairus pandemic, alongside the joys of Brexit, has thrown a spanner into the works. Many students on their year abroads are stuck in lockdown in a foreign country, whilst others are attempting to immerse themselves in a language from their childhood bedroom.

The Tab Cambridge spoke to  MML students in second and third year to get an idea of how the pandemic and Brexit have affected their Year Abroad experiences.

Depending on the language studied and whether or not they’ve been able to live abroad for none, some of, or the whole of the year, MML students’ experiences with their Years Abroad under the pandemic vary wildly. As different countries have been responded to the pandemic in varying ways, and have been affected by the ending of the Erasmus scheme differently, it seems that each student has a different story to tell:

Photo credit: Camfess via Facebook

‘I’m glad to have done my YA this year to get out of Lockdown Britain’

Despite the difficulties this year has brought, many students have still been able to live abroad this year, with some reporting amazing experiences in Paris, Barcelona, Moscow, and Kiev.

Students who have been able to go abroad this year seem to still have received the benefits of their experiences. One said that there has been a “marked improvement on [their] lang[uage] skills”. Another student agreed, saying that they had experience almost no negative impact on the year abroad as a result of the pandemic. They told the Tab “at the moment my year abroad experience should affect my degree and language skills in the same positive ways that it has done for pre-pandemic cohorts.”

It’s clear just how advantageous the Year Abroad experience is, allowing students to find friends and work, and drastically improve their fluency in their language. Students who are currently abroad are taking advantage of the opportunity, with one saying, “For me personally I’m really glad to be on my year abroad right now, despite all the chaos, instead of at Cambridge or at home.”

A number of students told the Tab they had found that the countries they’re living in are handling the COVID situation better, wearing masks without question and taking restrictions more seriously. One student remarked, “I’m glad to have done my YA this year to get out of Lockdown Britain.”

‘I wouldn’t want to spend it in lockdown in another country or having to deal with the stress of uncertainty about travel plans’

On the other end of the spectrum, a number of students are happy to be at home and escape the stress of living in a foreign country during a pandemic. One student, studying French and German, told the Tab they spent the first part of the year abroad but were now returning home as, “the situation is much worse than [they] envisaged. ”

A second year student expressed their relief at not having to worry about their year abroad until next year, saying they are “glad to be leaving the year abroad till the third year of [their] degree as [they] wouldn’t want to spend it in lockdown in another country or having to deal with the stress of uncertainty about travel plans.”

Many students who have been able to go abroad have had to change their plans, whether that meant living in a different country or city than the one they had intended or not being able to work in jobs or internships they had set up. The pandemic has resulted in the need for a lot of compromise on the parts of students both at home and abroad, either not having the year abroad experience they had been looking forward to or having to delay it and possibly put themselves at a disadvantage.

‘It is more than just being separated from families, being in lockdown alone and bored is really hard’

Students have said that the faculty haven’t given them enough information on how to handle the situation, although they recognise that it’s a time when no one really knows what’s going on.

A St. John’s student said, “College has been great and my DoS even set up social media groups, zoom calls and a slack for us all to share. [The] faculty (year abroad office and international office) were borderline useless, although probably not their fault because of all the uncertainty, but they could have been a lot more supportive.”

MML students have been experiencing the same lockdown blues as students doing other subjects, but have the added stress of being away from their families. Speaking about the faculty’s response, one student said, “I don’t think they understand that it is more than just being separated from families, being in lockdown alone and bored is really hard.”

However, the students interviewed seemed to broadly agree that the MML department doesn’t want to cheapen students’ degrees by relaxing the requirement of the Year Abroad to graduate, and MML students seem to agree on the importance of the Year Abroad to achieving their qualification.

‘It’s actually made me change my mind from a career using my language into a more historical or heritage type of career’

Some students have even decided to change their future plans as a result of their year abroad experience, with one student saying, “I’ll take another sort of YA after uni as I don’t feel I’ve been able to benefit from this year at all.”

Another student told the Tab that their experience has caused them to ” change my mind from a career using my language into a more historical or heritage type of career.”

No description available.

For many students, this disparity between students who have been able to take their Years Abroad versus those who haven’t threatens the Year Abroad’s role as an equaliser.  A French and Spanish student told the Tab that this year has made things “incredibly complicated” since the Year Abroad can often serve as a leveller across year groups for language students who have had different backgrounds”, such as those who may not have been able to afford to travel extensively otherwise, those who didn’t take a gap year, or those who are learning a language ab initio.

This could have longer term effects on the current cohort of students as each student will have a different experience and so it may create a general sense of inequality across year groups.

‘Brexit has meant that I now need a visa to work in Spain’

Brexit has also had a big, and much more permanent, impact on MML Years Abroad for those studying the languages of EU countries. A Spanish student told The Tab, “As the UK is no longer an EU country, EU countries have easily been able to ban travel from the UK if they want to. This includes Spain, meaning that instead of going home for a week between placements I likely won’t be back in the UK until August at the earliest.”

One student described how the there is now a lot of uncertainty around the visa process as a result of Britain leaving the EU, while another said that the ending of the Erasmus scheme means that finding funding for Years Abroad is now a lot more difficult.

The visa situation was echoed by most students interviewed, especially those staying abroad, saying, “Brexit has meant that I now need a visa to work in Spain. There was no information available until the start of January so although I started sorting my visa as early as was possible, it has still been a nightmare.”

Others noted, “I won’t be able to return for more than 90 days due to needing a visa,” and, “Travel to a new placement is effectively impossible,” showing how confusing and genuinely frightening these changes can be for MML students.

“As I have not been able to travel, I have had to guess on the basis of what information I could find from the internet.”

Although 2nd years are not currently on their Year Abroad, the uncertainty caused by the pandemic has complicated the planning process, and they are the most likely to get hit by the UK leaving the EU. One student planning a Year Abroad in Moscow described having difficulties communicating with their chosen university as Russia appears to be in a “complete state” with the COVID situation.

Another student told the Tab that the pandemic has caused them to rethink where they plan to spend their year abroad, saying they are   “marginally more inclined to pick a small town because after so long in lockdown and inside, I feel less confident about big cities now.”

The pandemic has affected MML students’ quality of education and their mental health.

Plus, even though it is fairly likely that Years Abroad will go ahead in the autumn, there is uncertainty about what the experience will look like, as COVID restrictions could result in extended periods being stuck inside rather than being able to take advantage of the language-learning opportunity. The whole situation has resulted in instability and uncertainty, with one second year saying, “As I have not been able to travel, I have had to guess on the basis of what information I could find from the internet.”

So how do we alleviate the struggles of MML students during the lockdown?

The students themselves have ideas, with one suggesting that “qualified individuals” should speak to each student to better inform them about their decisions and another saying, “I think that it would be good for them to put together a basic visa guide for each country’s visa system, listing the documents needed for the main relevant types of visa for year abroad students.”

Other students have expressed support for the faculty allowing students to remain in Cambridge and partake in additional language courses.

The main take-away from these students’ testimonies is the sheer level of uncertainty that the pandemic and Brexit have caused. Living, studying, and working in a foreign country is scary enough without having to worry about visa trouble and COVID restrictions.

It’s no wonder that both the students and the faculty have been left feeling worried and confused.

Cover image credits: Genevieve Holl-Allen, Camfess

Photo credits: Sebastian Ballard via Creative Commons, Camfess

The MML Faculty was contacted for comment.

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