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Female and male student studying abroad

Rebecca Williams (BA Sociology and Social Policy) and George Berry (BA Policy, Politics and Economics) chat to Social Policy Matters about studying in the USA and Australia. 

For many students, the question isn’t whether they’d like to study abroad, but where they will eventually go. “When I started looking, it was quite overwhelming,” says George. “The University has agreements with hundreds of other universities all over the world and I knew almost nothing about any of them. The first thing was to narrow options down: we had to list 7 preferences, which took a lot of research. The next thing was language – I don’t speak any other languages and I wasn’t as adventurous as others who chose somewhere that taught in English but spoke a different language otherwise. I decided on the University of Melbourne as one of my top choices because it offered a great selection of modules with leading academics, but also because it meant living in a major city and the opportunity to travel in Australia.”

For Rebecca, the decision to study abroad came a little later into her degree. “In my second year, I decided to take the plunge and asked to be transferred to a year abroad option for my course. The first round of pooling for individuals to choose universities had already passed, so I had a choice of I think 30 universities in total. I had my heart set on America. With the options I had, I decided on Wilkes University as they offered classes that were interesting to me, and were in a part of America that I had spent time in previously, so I knew I would feel at home.”

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Both Rebecca and George stayed in student accommodation and found lots of support on-site. “Most of the student dorms culture was very similar to UK, with friendly individuals who were very welcoming to international students,” says Rebecca. “The biggest difference was the fact that each floor has a Resident Assistant which meant that we were able to go to them for both emotional support and issues within our room or with our roommates.”

George stayed at one of the halls of residence recommended by his host university. “There were lots of exchange students there alongside locals, and the main difference was the number of activities put on for us to be able to explore the city. In our first week they did a walking tour so we could get our bearings, and the week after they organised for us to go to an Aussie Rules football game. The other thing was the accommodation had an outdoor pool, which the locals were not impressed by, but the Brits who were there made the most of it!”

Sociological and political subjects can often be taught differently in other countries, so when it comes to classes, there may be some adjusting to do. “Australian politics is incredibly complex given Australia’s settler-colonial history. I was surprised by how much this was acknowledged in the classroom, especially given how little time we spend reflecting on Empire in the UK,” George notes. “At the beginning of each lecture and seminar there would be an Acknowledgement of Country, recognising the traditional Indigenous custodians of the land the class was being taught on, and that sovereignty was never ceded. Many discussions related class content to this context in interesting ways. I took a module in Australian Indigenous Politics in my second semester to educate myself on the history and present-day issues, and learned an enormous amount that I think was massively enhanced by being there in the place being discussed, rather than reading it in a book from afar. This experience adjusted my perspective on the year abroad, and adjusted my academic writing in all my other subjects, which began to better reflect the context I was writing in.”

Rebecca found that studying social policy in the USA was similar to the UK, but policy differences had an impact on classroom perspectives. “The main difference between the two was related to government policy, as there is both the state and federal legislation that can apply to the region. The main sociological differences related to the ideologies of rehabilitation and punishment within the criminal justice system.”

Rebecca feels that studying abroad gave her a renewed sense of achievement, as well as the opportunity to build enduring friendships. “One of my most positive academic experiences was that I made the Universities Deans List during my first semester – meaning that the semester GPA had been higher than a 3.5. In another aspect, my best experience was making friends within the societies that were run within the university, friends that I still talk too are today from those societies.”
For George, studying on the opposite side of the world was an exercise in self-reflection. “Moving almost as far away as you can get from home for nine months out of the year really gave me confidence. It was very daunting before I went, but nothing went wrong (COVID aside), and I was able to make amazing friends and I had an incredible year. It’s shown me that I’m capable of taking on big challenges.” The opportunity to travel was also important to George. “After I finished my first semester exams, another UoB exchange student and I celebrated with a two-week road trip all the way down New Zealand through both the islands. We visited the set of the Lord of the Rings, climbed an inactive volcano, and sailed through a waterfall in Milford Sound. Travelling like that was an amazing opportunity, and something that doing a year abroad enabled for me, since I’d never have had so much time on the other side of the world otherwise.”

Rebecca has some important advice for anyone considering a year in America. “I would recommend having a look into whether the universities are considered as a Private or State University. There are distinct differences between the two, mainly in terms of how many individuals are there. State universities will typically have a larger student population than a private institution so it would depend on what you are looking for.”

George notes that it is crucial to make sure your university of choice can offer enough qualifying modules, as 50% need to be related to your home course. “Most universities have a module index or something similar on their website which shows you everything available to exchange students. Northern and southern hemisphere term structures are important considerations too.” George thinks that although there are sometimes social concerns, an extra year abroad is worth it. “One of the things people worry about is what happens when you get home and your friends have graduated. I made friends from Birmingham that I didn’t know before my year abroad, and lots more of my friends were still here for a fourth year doing Masters or working in Birmingham than I had expected. Don’t miss out on a great year for that reason!”

George Berry graduates this month with a BA in Policy, Politics and Economics. He studied at the University of Melbourne in Australia from July 2019-June 2020. Due to the pandemic, he came home in late March 2020 and completed the year from home. At the University of Melbourne, George took the following modules: Australian Indigenous Politics, Environmental Politics, Ethics of Capitalism, Law in Society, Economics of the Law, Australian Politics and Politics and the Media.

Rebecca Williams graduates this month with a BA in Sociology and Social Policy. She studied at Wilkes University, Pennsylvania, for the 2019-2020 school year. At Wilkes University, Rebecca took the following modules: Introduction to American Government, Public Policy Analysis, Criminal Law, Introduction to Sociology, Sex Roles, Introduction to International Relations, Media and Politics, Introduction to Criminal Justice, The Family, and Criminology.