The Return of the Fourth Years: What It's Really Like to do a Year Abroad

Every year, hundreds of Exeter third-year students ditch the rolling hills of Devon and embark on a year of study or work in Europe or beyond as part of their degree. Her Campus spoke to five returning fourth years to find out where they went, what they learnt, and their top tips for anyone thinking about going on a year abroad in the future.


WHO? Ellie Collett

SUBJECT? History and International Relations

WHERE? Uppsala, Sweden

FAVOURITE ASPECTS? Definitely the travelling. Living in the centre of Northern Europe meant that I had the opportunity to go to all of the Nordics, St. Petersburg in Russia, Poland and the Baltics. The highlight was a week-long road trip around the whole of Iceland! I loved getting to know an incredible new group of friends and meeting some Swedes. Embracing the culture of ‘fika’ (coffee and cake with friends) also meant that I got to consume a ridiculous amount of Swedish cinnamon buns and kladkakka.

BIGGEST STRUGGLES? I really struggled at first with the constant weight of expectation to have ‘the time of my life’ and ‘make the most of it’, as the small workload and abundant free time meant that I often found myself at a loose end with nothing to do. My biggest achievement was to overcome the pressure to be doing something incredible all the time, embrace the experience of the everyday and find the fun in the smallest of things.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN? I learnt a lot about Swedish history and politics and even more about myself. The person I am now is a much more confident, independent and happy person, who is much surer of herself and what she wants to do in life, than the one who left for Sweden last year.

TOP TIPS? Just do a year abroad, they’re so great. Be as keen as humanly possible, speak to everyone, travel a lot, and don’t be afraid to admit when you’re struggling.

You can read more about my experiences here:

WHO? Elle Hepburn

SUBJECT? Flexible Combined Honours – History, French and Chinese

WHERE? Nantes, France

FAVOURITE ASPECTS? The relaxed culture of France and the amount of events going on throughout the year, being immersed in a new language and watching myself become more confident and fluid each day, making friends from all over the globe and having a new city that you are able to call home.

BIGGEST STRUGGLES It has to be the uni getting shut down because of student protests and basically not having classes throughout the second semester. Although this sounds like the dream situation on a year abroad, it was an academic pain in the arse.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN? Don’t compare your year abroad to other people’s. You don’t have to feel like you’re having the best day of your life every second; it’s ok to have mundane days, lonely days, or days where you want to stay inside and talk to no one. I learnt not to let the expectations of others influence the way that you dictate your year abroad.

TOP TIPS? Just say yes to things, even if it’s out of your comfort zone. As someone who finds it really hard to do this, it’s daunting, but my biggest piece of advice is to just throw yourself into things and say yes when people spontaneously ask you to go out. Immerse yourself in the local city and culture. Focus on how you feel in the moment rather than what is going to happen in the future. If you have the opportunity to travel, go for it and make the most it!

WHO? Nat James                                         

SUBJECT? Economics and Politics

WHERE? Shanghai, China

FAVOURITE ASPECTS? I loved all the amazing Chinese food! Quick and tasty, it was always available, with food deliveries operating to your door 24/7 even if you lived on the top floor of a sky riser. I also loved learning Mandarin and then being able to use it within everyday life, conversing with taxi drivers and restaurant owners alike. Additionally, and most surprisingly, the travel in China was amazing. Before my year abroad I had no idea about all the amazing places to explore in China, such as the Avatar Mountains, Yangzi river and the rice terraces.

BIGGEST STRUGGLE? Although I had prepared myself for the cultural adjustment associated with Chinese customs, I had not anticipated the cultural struggles I would face trying to fit in with a predominantly French and German peer set at my university; both socially and academically I was the only person who conversed in English. Nevertheless, I now have a new-found appreciation and empathy for individuals from different countries as I began to foster relationships with those I wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards. The people I met and the experiences we had together is definitely what made my year abroad so incredible. 

WHAT DID YOU LEARN? In order to make the most of your experience, you have to fully immerse yourself in it, such as finding new interests and hobbies or even adapting your diet or conversing more with the locals. I learnt that the more you can be flexible and 'go with the flow', the more your location will surprise you for the better. You'll find new opportunities and hidden gems and ultimately benefit much more from your year. 

TOP TIPS? Don't let the fear of the unknown hold you back. Chances are if you approach it with the right attitude you'll absolutely love wherever you go, so don't be worried to try new things. Research your host country well, financially plan in advance and, most importantly, be willing to put yourself out of your comfort zone. Take photos of everywhere and everyone you meet. When you look back in years to come it'll help remind you of all the amazing things you did and accomplished and the people you crossed paths with. 

Also, don't pack too heavy! You'll have far too much stuff by the end. 

WHO? Beth Smith

SUBJECT? History and International Relations

WHERE? Baltimore, USA

FAVOURITE ASPECTS? I loved being able to travel as much as money would allow because the workload was much less stressful. Having complete independence, as you don’t have family there immediately, meant that I grew so much from having more responsibility. Experiencing American politics first-hand, especially in such a time of change, was really exciting and particularly relevant for my course.

BIGGEST STRUGGLES? Always feeling like I had to be doing something and making the most of the experience. Adjusting to it not being ‘the best time of my life’ all the time and being ok with that was a massive achievement!

WHAT DID YOU LEARN? Although it’s extremely cliché, I learnt that everything will work itself out. If you can figure things out in somewhere like America and whilst travelling in somewhere like Central America, then you can deal with anything back in the UK! Also, although America and American views on a number of issues such as guns and gender are very different to ours at home, I found that Americans are some of the kindest people ever and will always offer to buy things, drive you to places and do a lot to help you out!

TOP TIPS? DO IT! Be prepared for it to be tough, for you to miss home and not have the best time at every second. Despite this, you’ll come out of it much more mature and with some incredible experiences.

WHO? Sarah Witty

SUBJECT? History and Politics

WHERE? Copenhagen, Denmark

FAVOURITE ASPECTS? I fall full-heartedly into the cliché that my year abroad was the best year of my life (so far), although it’s difficult to explain why. Even though I made a couple of trips elsewhere in Denmark and Europe, I didn’t take the opportunity to travel as much as some of my friends studying elsewhere. Instead, I really settled into city life and embraced hygge with new life-long friends; I was amazed at how quickly I could get to know a new city and for it to feel like home.

BIGGEST STRUGGLES? Cycling to 8am lectures in the dark, with the wind blowing against me and horizontal rain trying to push me off, all while a five-year-old with training wheels overtakes me. Then, once inside the boiling hot lecture theatre, trying to regulate my body temperature with my bottom half-soaked with rain and the top half soaked with sweat. Also, street name pronunciation – I still don’t know how to accurately say the name of the street I lived on for a year.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN? How to genuinely enjoy and appreciate beer (as the only cheap drinks option) and, unfortunately, not much Danish. I am, however, much more confident on my own. Straight after my year abroad finished, I moved to Singapore for a summer internship and did several solo trips around South East Asia while I was there, which I would never have been able to do so confidently and independently without the skills I gained on my year abroad.

TOP TIPS? Take as many pictures as you can and keep a detailed diary or blog - I massively regret not keeping on top of mine! Remember that the unusual quickly becomes the norm. The year is such a whirlwind of adventures, so even the unforgettable can become a blur (especially if you adopt the Danish drinking culture). Document everything!