Montserrat, Spain; photo by iam_os at Unsplash
Nikol Nikolova describes the benefits of a year studying abroad and the difficulties faced by students during Covid-19
It feels like a lifetime ago that I was living freely in Spain. Strolling down the stunning beaches of Barcelona, lapping up the incredible scenery and mesmerising Montserrat mountains, then flying off to the islands of the Azores and hopping on a speedboat to go whale watching.
Only a year and a half later, Covid-19 struck hard and fast, forcing thousands of students to end the best year of their life on a very gloomy note.
In 2018/19, I spent a year working and studying in Barcelona and Lisbon, as part of my degree in Spanish and Portuguese. Looking back, from these difficult, restricted, and very different times, I can appreciate the profound effect my experiences had on my understanding of the world and my personal growth.
On returning to London, I found myself more confident not only when speaking to others, giving presentations or starting my career, but also more deeply within myself. I was better at taking initiative and less afraid to take risks.
Moving away from home and having to adapt to a new country was something I was already familiar with. I grew up in Bulgaria and had to move to England at age 12. Having this similar experience in Spain and Portugal only solidified my ability to be more resilient to challenges and change. I had to start at a university where I didn’t know anyone, as well as adapting to brand new places.
I ended up falling in love with the lifestyle and within a couple of months my language skills improved dramatically
It’s famously said that great things never come from our comfort zones. That proved to be true. A few weeks into my stay in Spain I discovered how much closer culturally the mindset there is to my home country of Bulgaria. I ended up falling in love with the lifestyle and within a couple of months my language skills improved dramatically.
My travel experiences created a space that hadn’t existed in my life before. My solo trips around the Bay of Biscay allowed me to reflect on my life. I thought a lot about my childhood, my heritage, and what gave me a sense of purpose.
I began to feel more at ease, grateful and optimistic. I started approaching challenging situations without worrying so much about the outcome.
On top of that, some of my best memories include going on a group trip on my own, only to end up making friends that I still keep in touch with to this day.
Unfortunately, for students whose year abroad runs during the 2020/21 academic year, this has been difficult, to say the least. Due to travel restrictions and safety measures, put in place by the government, many were forced to put their plans on hold.
For my friend Emily, a third-year Spanish and French student from London, the experience has been very frustrating and disappointing. During this pandemic, she has remained home whilst doing online lessons for two terms.
Donostia-San Sebastián, Bay of Biscay, 2019; photo by Nikol Nikolova
For her and others in the department, the university has handled these unexpected circumstances appallingly. Whilst she fully acknowledges that no one is ever truly prepared for such a global disaster, the absence of clear communication made it all the more disheartening.
“It was like the department was running away from the problem and refused to acknowledge the needs of the students, given we’d missed out on so much. The plan to examine us at the same level as students who have gone on their year abroad was just not right or fair. I feel that my confidence in French has fallen dramatically,” Emily states.
Perhaps this lack of pastoral care is due to the government not establishing explicit guidelines from the start, for schools and higher education institutions. However, the lack of clear communication from universities has made young people feel even more isolated with no clear way forward.
Currently, my friend plans to travel alone to France and Spain for a couple of months if travel regulations allow it.
This raises another key issue, which is how unethical and unjust it is to expect these students to have the same level of language fluency as those who have had the chance to spend a year abroad.
View of the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, Barcelona 2018; photo by Nikol Nikolova
It means many are forced to invest resources hiring private language tutors and it leaves those unable to do so at a disadvantage. Emily has had to seek support from a tutor because of her concerns about her dwindling French-speaking skills.
“How you learn a language at home and through books is very different from immersing yourself in a country’s culture. It helps you appreciate and use the language as though it was your native tongue,” Emily explains.
Though the situation seems dire and desperate, global efforts to provide vaccination are on-going, providing hope that travel, studies and work can soon return to some semblance of normality.
The UK government recently announced that it will take crucial steps to grow global opportunities, including financial support for the Turing Scheme, supporting UK organisations to offer students work and study opportunities abroad.
All we can do is hope that these students can regain their lost experience. Emily encourages other students to speak up and even start petitions to raise awareness.
On a final note, she reminds all students: “Do the very best you can to not let the university’s actions affect your grades and try to form a community where you can practice the language and receive help.”