Where on Earth should you go?

Obviously, a huge part of deciding to study abroad is choosing where exactly you’d like to go. The partnerships your university already has in place will limit you somewhat, but it remains a bloody huge decision. In this post I’ll be talking through how I decided where to go, and what you should bear in mind when making the decision yourself.

At Exeter, each college is linked to a number of universities around the world. These are generally the same across subjects but there can be some variation; University of Toronto was right up on my wish list until I realised it was only available for English students (boooo). For History there was a decent spread, covering everywhere from China to Sweden, but as I’ve already said, with my not-so-great grasp of languages, I’d already set my sights on somewhere English speaking, and preferably outside Europe. When I submitted my study abroad application, I had 8 slots to put down my options. In the end I only went for 5, deciding not  to use up my slots with places I wasn’t super keen on just for the sake of it. In order of preference these were:

  1. The University of Ottawa, Canada
  2. The University of Sydney, Aus.
  3. The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Aus.
  4. The University of Adelaide, Aus.
  5. The University of Perth, Aus.

(I know, pretty Australia weighted wasn’t I?)

Knowing how competitive study abroad is these days, submitting my application I was acutely aware that there was the possibilityy 5 different places I could potentially be spending a year of my life, living, studying, making friends and travelling. I spent a pretty long time choosing my options, and even longer ranking them. There’s no doubt it’s a big decision, and one I definitely recommend not taking lightly.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most important things I think you should to consider when you’re short-listing where you’d like to be spending your year abroad:

  • Distance – An obvious one, but also one to think about honestly with regards to your limits and coping mechanisms when it comes to being far from home. Are you likely to want to come home, and if so, how often? The idea of studying abroad may be a one dominated by images of sipping coffee in cafes in Italy or road-tripping to the Grand Canyon in spring break, but there’s also going to be plenty of times when you’re bored, lonely or cooped up with work and most likely missing home like hell. Think about how long you’re going to cope without seeing family, and perhaps compare it to your track record at your current university. Also, long-haul flights are not cheap, and outside of potentially coming back for Christmas or Easter, it’s worth thinking about what you’d do if there was a family emergency and you had to get back home quickly.
  • The location – Focusing in on your chosen country it’s important to consider where are you actually going to be living. Is the university in a thriving, cultural hub with plenty to do, or the middle of nowhere? There’s no point putting down Florida for the beaches if you’re actually going to be miles in from the coast. Countries like Australia are known for their stereotypes, of sandy beaches, constant sunshine and a laidback attitude, but they’re also bloody big countries, with plenty of variation depending on where you’re going. You can’t rely just on Tripadvisor and Google images to gauge a feel for the place either; go on the hunt for lifestyle blogs and Instagram accounts that document life behind the scenes if you really want to get a flavour for where you’re going.
  • Language abilityMore focusing in on the non-language students considering European universities, but it’s essential to consider if the course is taught in English, and, if that’s not the case, that you speak the language pretty darn well. I’m at about A level French standard, but the thought of writing a History essay on Napoleon’s political allegiances in French fills me with dread. Some Scandinavian universities teach courses in English which is great, but don’t be the idiot in my year who put down the University of Madrid despite not speaking a word of Spanish. Seriously. I wish I was kidding.
    img_0741
    10/10 would recommend exploring British Columbia (Ruby Lake, 2014)
  • Travelling beyond The most fun aspect to research, at least for me. What would you like to do in your holidays while abroad, and how accessible is your university to the places you’d like to visit? It’s worth looking at what’s nearby for just weekend trips out of town too, as you’re probably going to really be wanting to make the most of every spare day not studying.
  • Cost– Ah cost. We all like to forget how expensive these things turn out to be, caught up in the whole romance idea of study abroad. While study in Europe is free, and for the ROTW tuition fees are a paltry £1,350, even with maintenance loans and grants living expenses will add up fast. If you’ve decided to take the plunge with the additional cost of a year’s study, do consider how to make things less costly. Is Europe worth considering with the help of Erasmus grants? How much is accommodation going to be in a capital city versus a smaller town? Also bear in mind the exchange rate- Australia is shockingly expensive at the moment, and without a job (which a student visa might not cover) it’s going to be pricey. In comparison, the Canadian dollar is currently very weak to the pound, even if SIM card deals are extortionate, so it makes a relatively viable option.
  • The university itself Again, research beyond Google images (Sydney is so so gorgeous but it’s also worth having a look at their actual website). Look at the courses on offer for your degree and at other courses too if, like at Exeter, you can take 25% of your modules in other subjects. As much as travel and living up life abroad is going to be a big part of your year, there is that little thing called ‘working towards your degree’, and university work is still going to be a hugely significant part of your life. A friend who went to a university near Melbourne had a fabulous time, but as it doesn’t have the best academic record she felt the facilities and academic assistance was a massive step down from Exeter. Don’t make the mistake of going for style over substance, and neglecting to check if you’ll enjoy the course content of the uni itself.
  • Extra curricular It might seem weird, but I was kinda bummed to learn that outside of the UK most universities don’t really operate the huge student-led clubs and societies’ culture that we have here. Have a look at how their student guild operates, and if there are any student groups you might be interested in joining. Is there a student band that would have you? Do they play your sport out there, and at what level? Is your faith represented in a student group that you could be a part of?
  • Support– This one is related to looking realistically at the whole distance question, but it’s worth researching support available through the university if you need to. Is the disability access alright, and if you struggle with depression or anxiety, is there a decent welfare system in place that you could go to? It’s really worth checking these less-fun things out at the initial research stage.
  • Reviews from other students- This one I cannot stress enough. The Exeter International and uOttawa Inbound Offices have been well-meaningly helpful, but if I’m honest they’ve been nothing on the invaluable advice and tips I’ve received from students either at Ottawa now, or those who have been. Your university might be able to put you in touch with these students, but if not, just Google blogs like this one (thirdyearabroad.com is a good place to start). If you can get in touch with someone who has actually done a year where you’re interested in going, ask all the questions. You’re not being nosy or annoying, you’re being well-prepared, and for a decision as big as choosing where you’re going to live and study for an entire year, you can never be prepared enough!

I did most of my research over the Christmas holidays; made up pros and cons lists based roughly on this list (shoot me, I’m a nerd), and talked about it with my parents until I’m sure they were sick to death of me. From the basic criteria of somewhere in the world English-speaking, I cut down all my options to the 5 I’ve already listed.

In terms of ranking, Australia was pushed from the top spot when my parents told me in no easy-terms that they’d in no way ever be able to take the holiday to come and visit. That, and the idea of a January to December term system that I’d be arriving slap in middle of didn’t massively appeal. In the end it was Ottawa that ticked all the important boxes, as a compact, cultural city, with a high-ranking academic university, in a part of the world I’ve never been but would love to explore. And, only a quick 6 hour flight, so family would be able to come visit without having to remortgage the house.

ottawa

Parliament Hill over the Rideau Canal, Ottawa.

It’s going to massively end up being a case of each to their own whatever decision you make, but make sure it’s your decision, and that you’ve taken into account every little thing.

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