Durham Year Abroaders on their experience during the pandemic so far

How are they getting on compared to locked-down Durham?

Improvise, adapt, overcome: The age old phrase which has become our new saying in this unpredictable era. However, it seems that those who are finally getting to do their year abroad are perhaps managing to prove this saying true the most.

We always hear from reminiscing alumni how the experience of a year abroad is unmatched on every level, and I’m currently on my own year abroad in Italy, which has been the ultimate detour to my Classics degree. Yet with the pandemic threatening the year abroad from being able to run smoothly, I checked in on a few other students to find out where they are now, and to see if their experiences match mine…

Charlotte, French and Spanish

“Earlier this term, I was studying literature and Law in Sorbonne Uni in Paris, which is the French equivalent of Oxbridge. I made loads of friends and technology really helped this. We made group chats with the people in my accommodation and the infamous Erasmus group chats enabled us to meet people online before in real life. We eventually met up in parks but weren’t allowed more than six of us which wasn’t ideal.

“We also had to wear masks everywhere we went, including outdoors, and failure to comply with the rules was punishable with a €130 fine!

“A highlight has to be living in Paris with barely any tourists, and visiting Versailles which was practically empty due to the pandemic’s impact on tourism. The hall of mirrors was absolutely beautiful.

“I’m now left facing this uncertainty over the second half of my year abroad, as students don’t normally organise that until October. Not only are companies not replying to our emails, but they’re also not taking anyone on due to Covid uncertainty, so I literally have zero plans.

“We all agreed that if ever a national lockdown occurred, we would go home because we lived in 20 square metre apartments. Therefore as soon as it was announced, we all booked flights. I still had so much fun in the short time I was there.”

George, History and Spanish

“I was due to fly out to Lima in September 2020 to coach cricket as an intern in the Peru Cricket Association, which I was very excited about. Unfortunately the university couldn’t approve my placement insurance, since Peru wasn’t on the Foreign Office’s safe travel list. As the summer progressed it became more obvious that it wouldn’t be possible.

“I settled for a hotel job in the north of Spain instead, which I managed to find easily in a couple of weeks. Oddly my experience of working in the hotel hasn’t been affected particularly by the pandemic so far. The hotel is situated in Sanxenxo, Galicia, one of the areas in Spain least affected by the virus. I could still work for 40 odd hours a week and the hotel has remained fairly busy. It is only now that client numbers have dropped dramatically, as the imminent closure of hospitality in the region feels inevitable.

“Working has really helped improve my spoken Spanish, which I am very happy with. Besides, the city itself and being in Spain is fantastic and my bedroom view of the sea is something that most people can only dream of.

“I haven’t been able to meet anyone my own age aside from my flat mates, thanks to an unfortunate combination of coronavirus and slightly unsociable hours, so I really hope that this will change.

“I’m still very much planning to go back to the UK for Christmas. Travel shouldn’t be that hard as Spain only requires a serological test on my return back, and I will be going back to work. I’m actually going back to England via Madrid for a few days to see some mates doing their years abroad there which I am excited about. I’ll actually be able to do a spot of travel around Spain.”

Tom, Italian and French

“I am currently studying in Modena – home to balsamic vinegar, Pavarotti, Ferrari, and now me! As for the French part of my year abroad, I will be living in Bordeaux. I secured a fun internship providing wine tasting experiences and masterclass sessions in Bordeaux wine.

“I’m currently studying modules to do with modern Italian history and art history- all in Italian- and like in Durham, everything is currently being taught online. This has been a positive thing for me because it’s meant that I’ve had plenty of time to be able to travel around the country.

“What I thought was going to be a hopeless search for good accommodation ended up being very simple, I signed the first apartment that I visited. I live with two Italian guys (which has really improved my spoken fluency) who are incredibly fun, and we share some of my key interests, including rugby.

“As for highlights, many involve travelling to different places in Italy. I flew to Sicily to meet some of my Durham friends who are studying in Catania and recently I went on a trip to Lucca with two friends who live in Bologna. We ate good food, drank wine, played cards and the whole thing felt so typically Italian. The pace here in Modena is very different to in Durham, and it is easier to just appreciate the little things in life.

“Now, however, things are a little different. I am currently in quarantine because my flatmate tested positive for the virus.”

Coco, Liberal Arts

“I’m spending my year studying philosophy, Korean language, and Korean culture at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. It’s been an incredible experience being exposed to a completely different culture and nothing could have prepared me for it. Although Seoul was not my first choice of destination, I couldn’t be happier with how it’s turned out!

“Travelling abroad at such an unprecedented time in the world has been both difficult and rewarding. Arriving in Korea, I was subject to a mandatory two week quarantine, which was unlike anything I’ve experienced before! It was a true test of the psyche. At first I was worried it would be hard to meet people as all of our classes were moved online at the last minute. However, since South Korea has handled the pandemic so well, all the bars and even some clubs have been open so its been easy to socialise and I’ve made some amazing friends. I’m also very lucky that two other Durham students are in Seoul with me, so I never feel too far from home!

“Due to the pandemic, I’m going to be spending Christmas in Korea with my friends. We plan to travel to the mountains to go skiing or snowboarding. This will be my first Christmas away from my family, which is daunting, but I am excited to spend the break with my friends here. I’m only halfway through my year abroad, but I cannot stress enough how valuable this experience is. I would highly recommend studying abroad to other students as it’s a true once in a lifetime experience. I’ve already learnt so much here and it’s been inspiring in terms of my future at Durham, giving me time to think about my dissertation and career prospects.”

Bob, French and Arabic

“I’m currently teaching English at a school in in a small skiing town called Bourg-Saint-Maurice in the French Alps. I think in a normal year I would have maybe preferred to have been in a larger place, but I have friends in Paris and Lyon who are kind of trapped and probably feel like they’re “missing out” more, whereas Bourg is not too different to how it always is. The thing I miss is travel, I wanted to go around France on weekends and during holidays. I still think I’ll be able to do this though, as I’m here till April.

“Highlights of the year abroad so far include driving through a field to cross the Swiss border, practicing my most formal and polite French when arguing with a policeman about a fine for breaking curfew, and surprising children talking behind my back. They’ll say things like “Why’s he so tall?” or “I’ve not seen a man that tall before” without realising I understand what they’re saying. French kids are definitely not shy.

“The pandemic changed everything about my original plans. Originally I was supposed to be in Jordan for Autumn 2020, and I was going to work in France in 2021, but I had to switch these around because Europe has opened up slightly whereas the Middle East is still complicated. It was a huge relief that we were able to get abroad, many of us imagined being stuck at home for the whole year, and with a bit of luck (and maybe a vaccine), I’m hoping to go to an Arabic-speaking country next summer.

“An Arabic year abroad is slightly different to European languages because our level isn’t high enough yet to work or study in a university. It would be a massive shame not to be able to go, but it wouldn’t drastically affect our development in the language for fourth year. I’d basically go and do a language course (now offered online instead) and, according to friends who’ve done it, they’re still very good and useful.”