There are generally three options when it comes to deciding what to do for your year abroad. These options are: studying at a partner university, finding a work placement or working as an English language teaching assistant in your chosen country. I chose to do the latter in Germany and certainly did not regret it. But, everybody’s different and it pays to be aware of the pros and cons of each option.
One big plus point for studying abroad is that you can continue along much the same path that you have been in previous years. For many students this involves lie-ins, parties and cramming when necessary. Furthermore, many British universities are partnered with top universities in other countries. This means that you can add the name of a very prestigious overseas university to your CV, such as the Heidelberg university in Munich. If you would like to pursue a career in academia this is particularly useful. You may even have enough solid work experience under your belt to not need to gain more during your year abroad. Plus, you don’t have to miss out on this aspect anyway, as you could always do an internship during the holidays.
However, I learnt from university peers who studied abroad that the system in Germany is very different to the British university system. This meant overcrowded lectures, poor communications and ultimately not as much care and supervision as they would’ve liked. Many were placed at the Humboldt university in Berlin, and didn’t travel very much since they were placed in such a great city. Being only around students in a capital city means that you don’t really get a good perspective of the country as a whole or an idea of what everyday life is like. There’s also the downfall that you’ll just stick with your British friends and miss out on experience in this way, as well as an opportunity to improve your language skills.
My time working as a language assistant in a German grammar school was a fantastic experience. The job was very lucrative considering the minimal number of hours you had to work. This also gave me the chance to explore local surroundings and travel further afield. The work was very rewarding. It’s a great feeling knowing that you’ve taught a child something new or given an awkward teenager some confidence in their skills. It also allowed for a lot of creativity and personal progression. For example, the ever-changing classroom situation means that you learn to think on your feet very quickly and take initiative. That’s just the teaching assistantship. To state the obvious, any form of work placement is great experience to put on your CV.
On the other hand, I was very lucky to have been placed in a large city, close to other cities and working with well-behaved children. It’s like a game of pot luck. I know of other assistants who had a terrible time stuck in a small village with nothing to do, or another type of school with naughty or just plain apathetic children. There’s also the risk at any work placement, as was my experience, that a temporary, junior member of staff isn’t given that much consideration by some. It’s easy to fade into the background at times and you also may encounter the brunt of worn senior staff members who just consider you an inexperienced foreigner that doesn’t quite know how things work in the country.
As a final note, it’s really important to look into the year abroad policies at your institution as it may affect your overall decision. My university for example required you to pay home university fees if you found your own work placement rather than studied or became a language assistant. All of this aside, the most important thing to do on your year abroad though is to enjoy it, you are unlikely to have an experience like it again.