Alicia wrote this blog post in 2020, and we have been waiting for our opportunity to share her experience with you- luckily we’ve been able to create this space for students to share their stories! Alicia speaks honestly about her decision to apply for a semester abroad as a mature student, how the pandemic affected her plans, and what she did to adjust to these changes. We are always so proud to present our student’s stories, so please enjoy Alicia’s blog post below!
By Alicia Hallatt, Environment and Sustainability
Applying for a Semester Abroad
I am a second-year undergraduate at Keele studying Environment and Sustainability. I am also the other side of 30 to a “normal” student. I didn’t have the chance to go to university at the usual age and, instead, got a job. I did have some amazing experiences but one experience I always wanted and never had was to live abroad – in fact, one of the reasons I chose my first (grown-up) employer was that it had offices overseas and I hoped I might be able to wangle a secondment to one of them. However, being a very risk adverse person, the idea of going by myself or working out how to arrange it was just too overwhelming, so my dream remained just that, a dream.
Then, three years ago, the proverbial hit the fan for me. I looked around and realised I was seemingly entrenched in a job I didn’t particularly relish to pay the mortgage and bills. So, I re-evaluated where I did want my life to go. I realised I needed a degree if I wanted to do any of the jobs that interested me and, much to the horror of everyone who knew me, aged 32, quit my job, sold my house and came to university.
One of the reasons for choosing Keele was that my course has flexibility to choose modules and partially design my studies. Looking for a career change, new outlooks and a fresh start, variety and the chance to try things I didn’t yet know existed were important. But I discovered at the Offer Holder day in April 2019 that there were other advantages to Keele that not all universities were offering. First discovery was the possibility to study a language alongside my degree – maybe that could help me get a placement at an overseas company during my year in industry? Still seemed a bit scary to move abroad but it seemed like a good investment of time (it was free!) so I made a note to sign up to that. Then I discovered that it was possible to study abroad, either for a semester in year 2 or as an additional year between my second and final year. I have to caveat here that it is not possible for all courses but Lady Luck was on my side and my course was included!
I won’t lie, there is a lot involved in the application process: working out and evidencing your budget, including which financing options are available (and there is help out there depending on where you want to go so finance needed necessarily be a barrier for you); getting a reference; writing a personal statement; finding a host university (Keele has a network of partner universities that it has mutual exchange agreements with so that helped narrow down the options to something more manageable but without feeling restrictive given as they are in all corners of the world); and choosing modules that either match the modules you would have studied at Keele if you doing just a semester abroad or, if you are doing an international year, have 40% that are related to your course with the freedom to choose the remaining 60%. There is also the little matter of needing to meet Keele’s academic requirements to ensure you are going to be a good ambassador for Keele and, more importantly, that you will be able to cope academically with a new way of learning.
But please don’t let it put you off – it really is not as bad as it sounds!
To help with the application process and finding information, the Global Opportunities team hosted numerous events the autumn. (I honestly didn’t think I could eat that much pizza!) There is also a team of Peer Advisors; students who have been through the process and can talk to you honestly about their experiences and offer tips. I emailed them. A lot!
I had a wobble around November when I realised I had settled at Keele far better than I had expected: I was part of Clubs and Committees, volunteering and attending regular extra-curricular lectures, all of which I loved and didn’t want to leave. I spoke to the Global Opportunities team who were brilliant at listening to me and talking through my options: they were not pushy or judgemental and seemed to completely understand my quandary. After that, I decided that all those things I loved about Keele would still be when I got back but I would probably never again get such an amazing chance to live out my dream of spending a meaningful amount of time abroad, with a support team behind me if I needed help, so I pushed through.
I opted for a semester rather than a full year because I want to do a year in industry between my second and final year: the semester option meant I could still go abroad while also doing that placement year. I also have half an eye on the fact that, if all goes well, I can use what I learn through the study abroad process (getting visas, arranging accommodation, packing up that many suitcases, etc) to pluck up the courage for a work placement abroad – and maybe to move abroad… Who knows what the future holds but it may open doors and that is an exciting prospect…!
So, back to the application… I chose modules that covered things I really wanted to know more about but that are not covered in the UK curriculum. You can imagine how pleased I was when my Semester 1 results came through and I was told I had my first choice – a semester in Australia!
Then COVID-19 hit. The host university made the decision in September 2020 that it couldn’t take any exchange students this academic year. It was not unexpected but I was absolutely gutted. However, affirming that this exchange programme is a brilliant way to go abroad with support, the Global Opportunities team stepped right in to help me find an alternative. I have since applied to universities in Sweden and Norway. Both look amazing and I certainly don’t feel that they are “sloppy seconds” – if I get either of them I will be every bit as excited as I was about Australia, maybe more so for having had this extra little hurdle to overcome.
So that is where I am now; waiting to hear if either application will be accepted and praying that this pesky virus doesn’t stop play! If it comes off, it will help me realise such a long-held dream and could help me find the courage to take even larger adventures later, whether that is for work or pleasure. At the very least, it will be memories and an experience that I will have forever, which was part of what I was looking for when I set out on my university adventure 18 months ago.