Study Abroad versus the virus

By BAS editor Nathanial Gardner

“Is study abroad a part of the Spanish degree?”


Having worked at the University of Glasgow for several years now, I can testify that this is one of the most frequent questions that prospective students ask on Open Days.

It is quickly followed up by two more questions: “Where are your exchange programmes?” and “How long can I stay abroad?”

I worked overseas before my degree, so the time I spent abroad during it was an additional plus, an added perk. As a teacher I came to understand just how much students actually longed to undertake residence abroad as an integral part of their degree. Most will agree that it is one of the most treasured parts of their experience as students of modern languages.

When I was asked to oversee the year abroad for Glasgow students, I became acutely aware of just how much time and energy they invest in the experience, choosing the programme (work or study) and its location (of the many we can choose from as Spanish speakers and learners). It brought home to me how spoilt we are for choice when it comes to destinations.   Some languages only have one or two countries where they can undertake study abroad.  Spanish truly is a world language.

The knowledge acquired during a study abroad stay is irreplaceable and irreplicable. Just as no amount of book study will replace the knowledge the medical student learns in his or her time in residency in a medical centre, no amount of internet study will replace life lived abroad.

What is it that we learn there? What is that impossible to bring into the classroom?

I think it has to do with the way that study abroad turns the world into our classroom. When we arrive in the new country, we become citizens born again. Linguistic skills are not the only ones we acquire. For example, our empathy is honed during this time away.

What student is not able to show more patience for the foreigner who is struggling to make him or herself understood after they have lived though that same experience? Who has not learned to simplify what they write so it can be read with greater ease or clarity after struggling to comprehend some byzantine instructions written in another language?

During the year abroad we give some part (maybe even a large part) of our heart to the country where we have resided. This is precisely because we have lived for a season on the other side of the fence. We have become the other. Living abroad expands our horizons, teaches us how large and small the world is at once and just how much we know and don’t know. We become more effective communicators in our own language and in the one we are learning, and we learn to see our own country better. Our sense of global responsibility is enhanced.

All of these are essential lessons taken away from residence abroad. This is not hidden knowledge, but it is only truly accessible by experience. 

When the Foreign and Commonwealth Office began to restrict travel to foreign countries due to Covid-19, it was no surprise that many students were concerned that the pandemic would prevent them from completing their year abroad. Emails flooded my inbox with despair and worry. At the University of Glasgow we kept a close eye on the situation and drew up contingency plans. When in mid-summer many of the travel restrictions were lifted in the EU we sighed in relief (as did most of our students). The relief was short-lived: less than a month later Spain and several other countries were back on the ‘essential travel only’ list.

It was at this point that the benefits of the year abroad became even more relevant. What happens to a modern languages degree when you take study abroad out of it? What is the essence that is extracted from the experience?

That is when we reached the conclusion that residence abroad as part of a modern languages degree is essential, just as laboratory work is essential to the chemist, or hospital residency to the medic. What our students learn from it is essential. We made our case and, thankfully, others agreed.

This of course is a simplified version of the events.  A lot of groundwork had to be done to gain support for the ruling.  However, building the case was beneficial for ourselves and for many students. We weren’t the only university to do so either.

Thanks to this welcome decision a new generation of students can enjoy the lessons that can only be learnt far away.