Making the most of placement years and years abroad

Gareth Hughes

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

Placement years and years abroad offer exciting opportunities to broaden your learning, apply your knowledge and gain new experiences. But like any new change, there will be challenges along the way and being prepared for them can help you to make the most of your year.

Just like starting university, a placement year or year abroad can seem both exciting and scary. You are stepping into new opportunities, but this means leaving your familiar life behind for a while.

Even if you haven’t been enjoying student life, change can still be unsettling why uncertainty can be stressful. This is ok. Whatever you are feeling, it is helping to focus your attention, so you can make plans to get the most out of your year. The following tips may help you use that attention to plan well.

Start with Healthy Habits

When we change environments, we have a chance to reset our behaviours in ways that benefit us. Your year on placement of abroad will be more enjoyable if you take simple steps to look after your wellbeing healthy habits.

Beginning your new year with healthy eating, exercise, sleep, sunlight and a balanced lifestyle will help you feel better and more able to enjoy your time and learn more. Try to establish a structured routine that lets you work, rest and have fun.

Focus on Learning

When you are away from your university, it can be easy to forget that you are here to improve your learning and that this year is still part of your course. Particularly on work placements, it can be easy to get caught up in day to day tasks and performance and to forget that you are still on your degree. But if you can remember that you are still a student, on the same course, this can free you up and help you get more from your experience. For instance

  • Let go of the idea that you should know as much as everyone around you - They know this place and these tasks better than you. You’re a student, it’s okay that you don’t know as much as them or that you can’t do as much as them

  • Ask questions - When you don’t know something, this gives you a great opportunity to learn more. Asking questions can help broaden your knowledge and understanding.

  • Learn from your mistakes - When we are learning something new, it’s inevitable that we get things wrong sometimes. Again, this gives us an opportunity to learn more. Try to learn from your mistakes.

  • Try things out - Whatever you’ve learned on your course so far, you can try to apply this knowledge – whether in the workplace or in a different culture. See where it works and where it doesn’t. Question why and you will be a better and more critical student when you return to your university.

Draw on your experience

You’ve already managed the transition into university, so you know you have the skills to do this. Reflect on what you did to make your start at university work – what went well? What would you like to do better this time?

You might want to think about how you can take a structured approach to making friends, become familiar with the physical environment, stay in touch with friends and family and use your own skills and resources to help you settle in quickly.

Embrace the opportunities but stay in balance

Your year on placement or abroad will come with many unexpected opportunities – these may include chances to increase your experience, socialise, travel or try new things. Embracing these opportunities in a balanced way, will help you get more from your time and deepen your learning.

Don’t feel you have to say yes to everything, choose the opportunities that are right for you – but equally don’t allow anxiety or nerves to talk you out of opportunities you would enjoy.

Reflect regularly

Taking some time out to reflect on what you have learnt and what you would like to do next, can increase your sense of control and deepen and broaden your learning. It can also help you relate your new learning to the learning you’ve already gained on your degree. This will help to prepare you for the next year of your degree.

Remember, just because you are on a year away, it doesn’t mean your university has disappeared. Most universities offer support online or by phone, you can find links to the support offered by your university here university directory. You may also have support available at your host university or in your workplace.