A year abroad, perspectives from an Oxford modern languages student

Can you quickly introduce yourself?

I am a French citizen of Bulgarian origin and I am *usually* a student at Lincoln College, Oxford, reading Spanish and Russian ab initio, but I am currently on my year abroad in Yaroslavl, Russia, as part of the second year of my course.

Why did you choose to apply to Oxford over any universities at home? And why for your course?
Oxford offered teaching from the most brilliant professors in the field, the modules that were of greatest interest to me, and the richest resources, which easily put the university as my top choice for this degree. The teaching system in Oxford, renowned for its tutorial scheme, was what most appealed to me in comparison to other universities. Furthermore, this specific course was offered neither in France, nor in Bulgaria, which made my application a very straight-forward path.

Was it difficult applying as an overseas student? 
Undoubtedly, the application process is more difficult for a foreigner than it is for a British student – but definitely not impossible.

The obvious drawbacks are having less guidance, advice and preparation than the home students in relation to the application process itself, whether it was for the Personal Statement, the interview or the resources in preparation for the course.

Nevertheless, these hindrances are of less significance if you are passionate about your course, which is all that the tutors are looking for in an ideal candidate. Whatever your background, if you can prove your interest in the subject, you have an equal chance of getting a place as any other student.

Could you run through some of your application process?
Apart from the Personal Statement, which everyone has to write, I had to submit an essay in English in order to show my level of literary analysis and one piece of work in Spanish. Both needed to be drawn from my ongoing course and needed to be graded.

I also had three interviews. One for Spanish, which consisted of an analysis in English of a Spanish poem that I had been given 15 minutes prior to the interview, a short conversation in Spanish and questions about books and experiences I had mentioned in my Personal Statement. The format for the interview related to the Russian part of the course was of very similar format, only the poem I was given to analyse was in English because this course is ab initio. Due to that fact, and the general recognition that it is a more complex course than ab initio courses of Latin languages, we also had an extra compulsory interview of a different nature. It was less academic and more psychological in a way, as the questions revolved around the reasons behind choosing this course in particular, our work ethic, our commitment to it and to the year abroad program, (which, unlike other Modern Languages courses is chosen by the university, not the student). We were also given linguistics exercises in English which we had to work through on the spot. Re-reading this, I realise it sounds very daunting, but that comes primarily from the fact that you only know that there will be ‘a poem’ to analyse, without actually seeing the paper in front of you – and trust me, once you do, you realise that it is the same thing you have done a hundred times over in class; it is perfectly doable and not an inhumanly difficult task. The interview process is in fact a highly enjoyable intellectual challenge in itself, so make the most of it.

I know you currently on your year abroad, before we get to that I’d like to ask you about your experiences in the UK. What was the biggest culture shock when you first moved to the UK?
Bake Off – to this day, I struggle to comprehend how people can reach such levels of excitement over cake on TV. Apart from that, I was prepared for being confronted with cultural clashes prior to moving in Oxford, because I had already moved to a different country once before in my life. I think the most important thing is not to get too upset upon realising those differences and to keep in mind that it is circumstantial, rather than it being a problem in you. Every international student will get these nostalgic moments once in a while, when they will reminisce over how easy and effortless it was to live in an environment where people had the same behavioural standards, social dynamics, language, mentality and morals as you. But as chlichéd as it sounds, stepping out of that familiar space is highly enriching and eye-opening and it is definitely worth all the struggles. Learn how to treasure what makes you different, all while adopting the new and you will get double the benefits.

Did you have any ideas about life in the UK or Oxford before you came here?
It is hard not to have any expectations, so inevitably I had a very vivid idea of what life in the UK and in Oxford would be like. And as always, it was completely wrong, apart from the anticipation of incessant rainy days and an abnormal obsession with tea – if anything, I was surprised how true those were.

I thought Oxford was going to be a daunting place of genius minds that would undermine me for days on end, that I would be swamped in work, would forget the concept of sleep, would live in a library for six days of the week, would be an antisocial and friendless nerd and that everyone was going to mock me for not being posh and pretentious enough. As you can tell, I was a very pessimistic person and I could not have been further from the truth.

How has the actual things compared to your expectations?
I now treat Oxford as my third home and I had one of the best weeks of my life when I returned there recently on holiday from my year abroad. Ironic, is it not? To go on holiday *from* a year abroad *to* Oxford – it sounds absolutely insane, but it was one of the best decisions I have made as an adult in the making.

The phrase ‘studying in Oxford is a unique and enriching opportunity’ could not sound more generic and fake to you, but I cannot stress how true it is. One of the features of the university I was particularly impressed by was its diversity of students, societies, clubs, talks and campaigns. There are opportunities for everyone to pursue any interest they might have, accompanied by equally enthusiastic like-minded people. The support system is phenomenal – there are people constantly pioneering for the best interests of others and the chances of anyone feeling discriminated, left out or mistreated are minimal. There are also extremely elaborate systems in college and across the university that make sure students get the most sophisticated and tailored help if it is ever needed, so as to ensure that everyone is having the best time they can in the universally-recognised ‘best years of our lives’.

As for the academic side of it, the workload is more than manageable. At the end of the day, everyone has a different work ethic and approach to tasks, but the structure of each course is free enough for everyone to be able to adapt to it in their own way. The first term is a process of trial and error to find out what works best for you, so it is essential to regard it as an adaptational period, and not get too flustered over obstacles along the way. The tutorial system is fantastic – rather than being terrified of sharing a tight space with a professor a million times more experienced than you, see it as a golden opportunity to discuss what you are passionate about with a world expert and genius in that field.

Describe Lincoln College in 3 words
Family, excitement, passion.

Could you tell us more about your course, the content and the structure?
Every Modern Languages course last for four years – the standard three in Oxford and one year abroad, usually in the third year of studies. In very few cases, such as for courses of Japanese and Russian ab initio, students do their year abroad in the second, rather than their third year, and their destination and occupation are decided by the university, rather than being left to the choice of the student themselves.

The Spanish side of the first year of my course was dedicated to the study of different genres across a range of periods and movements in preparation for the Preliminary examinations at the end of that year. Most importantly, this vast array of study was meant to give us an idea of the period we would be most interested in specialising in as part of the Finalist course (the options being Medieval, Golden Age and Modern). The teaching for this is based on four lectures on the set texts and one tutorial (with a correspondent essay) per week, which seems negligible, but the secondary reading one is expected to do in order to produce a decent essay is highly time-consuming. We spend just two to three weeks on each text, i.e. just 2-3h discussing it with the tutors, so it is essential to make the most out of them and do sufficient work by yourself. The language side of the course involves one hour of grammar in classes of 6-8 people every week and one tutorial dedicated to a translation of an extract per week, as well as just one hour of speaking in groups of 6-8 once every two weeks.

As for the other half of the course, the Latin ab initio languages would be learning the language at the same time as they would be studying the literature, so it would be structured like my Spanish course, only with more language classes of course. Nevertheless, for more ‘obscure’ languages like Russian or Japanese, the first year does not involve any literature classes, apart from an introductory class for one hour a week during the second term, with no relation to the Preliminary examinations at the end of that year and no tests. Thus, the entirety of the course revolves around 8 hours of grammar, one dictation, one vocabulary test and one grammar test every week.

The second year is thus a year abroad in Yaroslavl, Russia, which is compulsory for everyone. In the third and fourth years of the course, each student needs to choose which period they will specialise in for both languages, as well as modules, topics and authors they would like to study in depth.

What is your favourite thing about studying in the UK?
How diverse it is, compared to the universities in my home country and my country of residence. This applies to the number of internationals from every corner of the world, the variety of races, religions and sexualities. There is, without exaggeration, something for everyone here and I am very pleased with how accepting the locals are towards this diversity. The effects of globalisation and open-mindedness are most striking in such a brilliant place as Oxford and it is a real blessing to be able to live in the heart of that.

Least favourite thing?
The weather. It can be challenging to sustain an upbeat attitude when it is too gloomy outside, but as mentioned above, there are millions of reasons why not to succumb to that. Jokes aside, I am genuinely very impressed and pleased with my experience in a British university, so I am happy to say that there is nothing that has significantly deteriorated my opinion of it.

So now let’s move on to your year abroad, could you tell us a little bit about how it is structured. Where are you, do places differ between courses (ab initio etc.) and how much flexibility do you have to choose where to go?
My year abroad in Yaroslavl lasts from mid-September to mid-April, with a three-week vacation in the middle for the Christmas break. We also have one week off in the middle of each of the two terms, but people usually spend those ‘exploring’ the rest of Russia. As mentioned before, we were given no choice for the destination, nor for our occupation there.

Students are obliged to go to classes at the local university every day from 9h30 until 13h15. These are tailored specifically for Oxford students, according to a program set by the tutors. Thus, they are not mixed with the Russians attending classes and lectures at the university, nor with the other British students from UCL, St Andrew’s, Queen’s, Durham, etc, equally on their year abroad in Yaroslavl. The structure of the teaching is nothing like that in Oxford and it is about as relaxed as kindergarten, but it is useful for polishing up your language skills. The classes are on grammar, literature, translation, speaking and social media studies.
None of this applies to Oxford students studying Russian post-A-level, who get to pick from a selection of places and are free to organise their year as they wish, as long as they are engaged with activities that are beneficial for their language skills.

If you could give any advice to international students thinking of applying, what would it be?
Do not feel intimidated by all those British students who have lived and breathed that educational system, culture, language, mannerisms and morals all their lives – you already have your life back home and that will never change, so why not give it a go at something new, something more challenging that will make you grow more than any one of those home students? Because at the end of the day, you are juggling emigrational adaptation with a degree in one of the most prestigious universities, which will undoubtedly be highly regarded and admired. You are obviously not doing it for the reputation, but it is a favourable added bonus to the fact that you would be a more well-rounded person, with an exceptional flexibility and acute social understanding and adaptational skills.

Things may get tough, you may occasionally feel like an outsider when a conversation about an essential element of British pop culture you are entirely oblivious about takes place for too long, but that is too superficial to be of any major importance. If anything, you will be more interesting to people because you bring in something new and exciting that they are not used to, and that brings in a lot more points than being excited with them about ‘The Great British bake-off’. At the end of your experience, you would have enjoyed the benefits of two separate ways of life, which can only ever be an asset to your personal, social and professional growth.

Ana Yovtcheva, a Russian and Spanish student on her year abroad in Russia.

Tony Liu, 21 Feb 2017