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‘It fills you with a sense of awe’: the year abroad experience

Jam is studying abroad in GermanyJam Greenland with permission for Varsity

According to statistics from the UK government, there are currently around 3 million students in higher education institutions. Only a small percentage of these students study or work abroad as part of their degree, with the in 2020 being 7.4%. Jam Greenland and William Anderton-Pithers both form part of this small group, with Jam currently studying in Leipzig while Will is in Portugal.

“I think it’s nice that even for a moment, we all converged in this small part of the world”

Both Will and Jam keenly emphasise the main benefit of studying abroad for a year being how the new environment and change of scenery is refreshing. “The best part of my year abroad so far has been the landscape and of course the people,” Will tells me. “Portugal is filled with impressive landscapes of hills, forest, rivers, and villages dotted about. It fills you with a sense of awe.” Will has spent much of his time in Portugal in the northern half of the country, which he explains is less explored by visitors. “Coimbra is known for attracting international students” to Portugal, he says. “I live with people from eight different countries and who have all had very different life experiences. I think it’s nice that, even for a moment, we all converged in this small part of the world.”

Jam, who is studying in the north-east of Germany, echoes the sentiment that studying abroad has been enriching and refreshing due to the change in environment, academically as well as personally. He notes how studying abroad has enabled him “to expand” his “perspective on life and learning outside of Cambridge while still being able to benefit from its resources and support”. In comparison to Cambridge, Leipzig in Germany feels different, notably in pace. Jam tells me he loves being in Cambridge, but the terms are often “intense”, giving him very little time to think. Studying in Germany has been nice to “take learning at a slower pace and have time for more life things”.

“And brunches – God I miss hash browns”

While studying abroad has its perks, it also comes with some challenges. In Will’s experience, “it was very difficult” to organise, with the main concern being getting accommodation. “Not many people have gone to Portugal. There aren’t as many resources provided by the Faculty on places to stay, so I just had to take a dive and hope everything was legitimate – which thankfully worked out for me.”

When I ask what he wishes other people knew about studying abroad, Will replies: “The mental strain that goes into every aspect. Of course, it is natural to think it’s all fun and games when you only see their social media posts, but the planning that goes into it often leaves you feeling mentally drained.” Jam also notes the common misconception of years abroad as being similar to vacations: “You are basically having to rebuild your life from scratch in a different country where you don’t know anyone – it’s not just a holiday; it’s actually living there. There’s a lot you don’t think about if you’ve only lived in one country that you don’t realise until you’re in a supermarket panicking because: ‘Oh my God, what do I need to be able to live here and they don’t have all the staple things I’m used to? ’”

Both answered similarly when asked what the hardest thing about being away from Cambridge was. I had assumed the cultural differences may be a significant barrier. However, the hardest part of the year abroad experience lies not in cultural differences but in the emotional distance from familiar comforts. “Missing the day-to-day hangouts my friends have and the silly group conversations that only really happen in person and not having hugs” is difficult, Jam shares. “And brunches – God I miss hash browns,” he jokes. Will notes that knowing he “most likely won’t see friends and college peers graduate” has been tough. “I miss college life and seeing other people’s lives progress. I’m still holding out hope that I can see them in the summer before they graduate.” For both Jam and Will, their year abroad has been positive, despite these drawbacks, and they would strongly recommend the experience to others.