‘I could be dead and UCL wouldn’t know’: The realities of a year abroad in the pandemic

“I was basically being rendered homeless”


Year abroad students are few and far between this year. The pandemic led to many host universities cancelling placements and many other students pulling out because travel was too uncertain. However, we all see the odd Instagram story from one of those students who did actually make it- and it’s left us all wondering “What actually happened to those students who went abroad?”.

Coronavirus, Brexit, Travel Corridors: the number of hurdles for year abroad students this year are countless. This doesn’t even take account of the issues that students have faced with both host universities and their home university’s communications.

The Tab spoke to four UCL students who are currently on their year abroad: Alex*, Kush, Maddie, and Georgina.

Alex is an international French and Spanish student, who didn’t actually go abroad for her first term. Her Spanish internship was completed from her home, behind a computer screen. Whilst this may have come as a disappointment to most, Alex was relieved: “Both my parents are high risk so I actually didn’t want to go abroad in case I came back and infected them.”

However, for the second term, Alex was not given the choice to complete her tuition online. Unlike most institutions, her partner university in France was only offering face-to-face teaching. Complications arose in preparation to go abroad when Alex, who was lead to believe that the French university would provide her with accommodation, found out that this was no longer the case shortly before she was due to relocate. This left her with no time to find a new residence and, as a result, Alex was unable to provide the proof of accommodation which was necessary for her visa. Alex told the Tab:

“Long story short, there was no support, I was basically being rendered homeless.”

Shockingly, when Alex emailed to ask why the university backtracked on their decision, she was made to apologise by UCL. The way she saw it, “UCL chose to prioritise their income stream over student well-being.”

Maddie, who studies Comparative Literature, echoed Alex’s deep dissatisfaction with the lack of support offered by UCL: “I could be dead and UCL wouldn’t know.”

She decided to complete her year abroad as a teacher assistant at the British Council. With fairly lax restrictions in Madrid, she was able to still have novel experiences and make new friends. However, she found that, in addition to the limitations imposed by coronavirus, there was also the added stress of Brexit. As the list of documents Maddie needed to obtain grew, she increasingly felt as though “UCL wasn’t really there for us. They just needed to tick their boxes.”

Maddie also had difficulty receiving her Erasmus grant, which students typically depend on to pay rent. However, what frustrated Maddie the most was the lack of guidance she received throughout various administrative processes: “With Brexit, it’s been about 10 times worse. Obviously, I speak Spanish but trying to go to official appointments and declare your status as a worker or a citizen in another language is on a whole different level.”

Maddie on her Year Abroad

Meanwhile, Kush, an Economics student, has had it considerably easier. Looking at his Instagram stories, it’s hard to tell that the world has been plagued by a pandemic. “It’s definitely been a positive experience so far, I’ve really enjoyed myself,” he said. With his university course and exams completely online but bars and restaurants still open, Kush has been surprisingly unimpeded from enjoying his time abroad. However, when asked about UCL’s input Kush said “there’s really not been much guidance there.”

Georgina is currently doing her work placement in France. She too has expressed disillusionment with the university: “They were very slow in replying and did not offer any sort of lectures on how to budget or where to find accommodation as we had previously been told there would be.”

Cooped up alone in a flat in Paris, her experiences have not exactly lived up to her expectations. To make up for that, Georgina plans to do another internship abroad this summer, although she was keen to stress that it would not be “a UCL-led programme this time.”

For all four students, the shock of suddenly becoming a finalist was a determining factor when it came to deciding whether or not to go abroad during a pandemic. Maddie and Georgina both felt uneasy at the thought of graduating with no understanding of the career path they would likely pursue thereafter. Alex needed a year to increase her employability out of fear of what the pandemic currently has in store for graduate students. Kush, too, felt in desperate need of a break before facing the year which so much depends on.

And yet, despite the long list of challenges these students have had to face, no one expressed regret about their decision. “The year abroad has definitely been affected by the pandemic but less so than if I was studying back at UCL,” explained Maddie. “I know that I’ve made the best decision because, when I go back, I’ll be able to, hopefully, have a normal final year.”

For some, like Kush, the year abroad has been everything one could hope for. For others, like Alex, there is only hope that things will start to look up when they “literally can’t get any worse.” But all four students were able to agree that they have received valuable and enjoyable experiences in one form or another. The virus itself is not the issue.  The issue is the shocking lack of support that students continue to receive from UCL during a pandemic.

Making friends on your Year Abroad is still possible

A spokesperson from UCL said:

“In 2020/21, the Study Abroad team is supporting over 200 students who have had the opportunity to proceed with their study abroad placements during this very unusual year.

“A dedicated FAQ page for the current cohort provided updates over the summer on partner university arrangements, cancellations and changes to mode of study. We worked with students individually to inform them of changes and to identify alternative opportunities where this was necessary. We offered drop-in sessions before the start of the academic year to allow students to discuss their personal circumstances with us and to ask questions.

“In the context of the pandemic, the Study Abroad Preparation Programme, which is normally delivered face to face, was made available via a Moodle course. All students participating in the programme are automatically enrolled on the Moodle course, which includes a series of units on insurance coverage, safety and wellbeing, and finances, as well as a comprehensive pre-departure checklist.

“The Study Abroad team sends regular check-in emails to students. Since June 2020, 11 check-in emails have been sent to students so far this academic year. The check-in emails include important updates, such as changes to overseas travel and insurance. As part of the ‘Brexit: Check, Act, Ready’ campaign, we have been sending regular communication to students abroad specifically on Brexit and the implications of the end of transition period throughout this academic year. We have sent 8 Brexit-related updates this academic year to students for whom this information is relevant.

“Most recently, a wellbeing survey has been circulated to students abroad, inviting them to provide feedback on their experiences and how we can continue to best support them.

“In addition to central support through the Study Abroad team, Study Abroad Tutors provide additional support directly to students in their individual departments throughout their students’ placements.”

*Name has been changed to protect this student’s anonymity