British Council English Language Assistant Placements

At the end of August, I left England for Chile to embark on a year-long placement as an English Language Assistant (ELA) with British Council. I’d loved au-pairing in Italy and teaching in China, and with no post-grad plans on the horizon, I applied on a whim. The programme was appealing: you can live and work abroad, improve your language skills, and experience a different culture. The applications for the 2019-20 academic year will open shortly, so I’ve compiled this mini-guide on what exactly the placement is and what to expect from the application process.

British Council is a UK governmental organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, founded in 1934. They actually offer a whole range of various programmes to study and work outside the UK, including internships in China and volunteering in Ukraine (a full list can be found here). One of their most popular programmes is their ELA placement which involves teaching English abroad. You can choose from 15 countries to apply for: Mexico, Spain, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, France, Senegal, Canada, Belgium, China, Austria, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.


To be eligible for most countries, you need to:
– own an EU passport
– be a native-English speaker
– have completed at least two years of university
– possess skills in the language spoken in your chosen country

Most countries ask for B1 level, although Spain only requires A2 and China doesn’t require any language skills. The level is assessed through the European language framework (you can assess yourself here). You don’t necessarily need a formal qualification, but it’s in your interest to meet the minimum requirements as you will need them on arrival. They may also test your language ability in the assessment stages.

For some countries there are also minimum and maximum age requirements. While most ELAs are students on their year abroad, graduates are welcome to apply and are not necessarily at a disadvantage. However, some countries do prioritize certain applicants. For example, Argentina is a 6-month post and therefore favours dual-language undergraduates who need two posts to make up their year abroad. Italy also prioritises undergrads studying Italian who need to undertake a year abroad. These aren’t exclusive requirements though, so if you feel like these countries are perfect for you, don’t be deterred!

THE role of an english language assistant

Your role will vary depending on where you are based. In general, ELAs can expect to introduce UK culture and support the teaching of English in their institution. You do not need to have a teaching qualification to apply, but some countries do want their ELAs to take on a more independent role than just assisting. Therefore, it’s important to do your research on the British Council website to ensure that the country you are applying for is a good fit for you. In these cases, you could have your own class of students, whose progress you’re responsible for monitoring.

ELAs work between 12-20 hours a week, and do get paid, although salaries vary. They are enough to cover basic living expenses, but not to live luxuriously. With the exception of China, you are responsible for covering the costs of flights, visas, and other pre-departure necessities. You also need to make sure you have enough money to support yourself on arrival for up to two months as salary payments can be delayed in the beginning.

Which type of educational institution you will be placed in varies from country to country. For example, you could be in a primary school, a language centre, or a university to name a few. I’m working at a university as are the majority of ELAs in Chile. Most posts run for an academic year, although some are only for six months. The amount of assistantships in each country also varies drastically (Ecuador only has two available!). Some countries are definitely more competitive than others, which is the case for Latin American counties.

The view over the Andes as I flew into Chile
The application

When applications open, you can apply online. You do not have to complete it in one sitting. It’s possible to come back to it, redraft it and then submit it in your own time. You will need to provide personal information, a supporting statement, and a reference. Then, you list your three top countries in order of priority, along with other preferences such as preferred regions and age-ranges. The supporting statement last year needed to be a minimum of 1,500 characters and a maximum of 6,000 characters. It asked the applicant to cover the following:

Outline your reasons for applying to the programme and explain your motivation to be an English Language Assistant. This could include any relevance to future career plans (if known) and what you would bring to the role. Describe relevant previous experience such as teaching or working with children/young people. This could include both formal and informal examples such as work experience, babysitting, mentoring, sports clubs, brownies/scouts etc. Demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of your first-choice country and its culture.

I would definitely recommend sending your draft to a personal tutor or a friend to receive objective feedback before submitting. This application is a job application and you should treat it as such. Posts in places like Latin America are extremely competitive and you need to ensure you’re answering the question in the best way you can. If you are successful at this stage, you might advance straight to the allocation process. Or, you will progress to a telephone or web-based video interview for further assessment, usually in February or March.

Further Assessment

As an applicant for a Latin American country, the latter was applicable for me. The interview took place through a program online which displayed the question, gave you time to prepare, then automatically started recording your answer for an allotted amount of time. You have the chance to practise this process, before beginning for real. In my opinion, the interview definitely required preparation. I trawled through GlassDoor looking at previous questions and researched the answers before I did the interview.

If I remember correctly, they asked me the expected questions regarding my previous experience/suitability followed by a couple of tougher ones. They were along the lines of: if you arrived at your host-university to encounter ongoing strikes during the first six weeks which showed no signs of stopping, what would you do? Bearing the culture and political context of your first-choice country in mind, which topics would you avoid teaching? Other tricky questions that the application could ask include:

  • You are in a remote village and have to teach a night class, how would you get to the school safely, what steps could you take?
  • What would you do if there were warnings of a tsunami? (Or other natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods)
  • If you were in a position in which you were not able to contact British Council staff during a state emergency, what would you do?

If you are successful during the further assessment stage, then British Council will put you forward to their partner agencies. This occurs during their matching meetings which take place from March to May. It was at this point that they informed me my application for Argentina (my original first choice) had been unsuccessful. However, they said that they thought my application would be more appropriate for Chile, and transferred me.

A couple of months later they will inform you of the outcome of the matching meetings. An allocation, a place on the waiting-list, or a rejection. They usually manage to match everyone, so don’t fret too much about this stage. Then, you will be invited to a pre-departure briefing and begin undertaking preparations to move.

I will address the whirlwind of pre-departure prep in another blog post. For Chile, it involved racing the clock to obtain visas, health reports, ICPC certificates and vaccinations!

Until then, the British Council website is a good place to start your research.

Myself and two other ELAs in Valparaiso, Chile

Culture Shock and The Realities of Study Abroad

It’s been exactly four months since I flew home from Shanghai to London. At the time, I couldn’t wait to come home. Not that I didn’t love Shanghai, but I’d been living there for almost a year and felt like I’d done all that I wanted to do, and that it was time for the next adventure. Yet, now that enough time has passed for me to forget the day-to-day reality of my study abroad experience, and instead focus on the grander, more exciting moments – I’m pining terribly for Shanghai. I miss the steamed buns, the ridiculously cheap transport, the way you could go to one of the fanciest cocktail bars in town and still buy a drink for around £5. I miss the tree-lined boulevards of the French Concession, speeding in and out of traffic on a scooter, having hundreds of types of tea to peruse at Tea City. I miss the people that I met, especially Bianca who became one of my closest friends. She is still in Shanghai, having the time of her life without me. Quite selfish in my opinion.

When drinks are so cheap, it’s only right that you get the entire tasting platter
My partner in crime and I

I’ve always had a tendency to be extremely nostalgic. I find it a challenge to be present, and would rather romanticize the past or the future as a means to escape existing in the now. This can be a problem while traveling, as before I’ve finished enjoying the trip I’m on, I’m hyper-conscious of time running out, and already on to planning the next one. While I’m sat here wishing I was back in Shanghai, and looking through rose-tinted glasses, I have to remind myself that it wasn’t perfect. While the challenges definitely helped me grow, it was not smooth sailing, and I had periods where I felt very disheartened. Some of this I’ve already talked about on this blog – managing missed flights, losing bank cards, filing insurance claims, cracking my head open and ending up in hospital.

It would seem that perhaps I’m in the re-entry phase of culture shock whereupon you crave to return to the country you were placed in. I remember being in a pre-departure talk before studying abroad, and the speaker was trying to explain the phenomenon to us. One sure fire sign, is when the things that excited you in the beginning, what is termed ‘the honeymoon period’ start to really frustrate you. Things that seemed quirky, like the food, or the way that the traffic seems to have a logic of its own, becomes aggravating. Everyday tasks that should be easy like doing your laundry, buying food or hopping in a taxi now seem insurmountable, especially for students with no previous language experience of the host country they find themselves in. I was lucky enough to have Chinese friends who could help me use Chinese apps to order a taxi, accompany me to the phone shop to help me buy a sim card, and ring the bank to cancel my lost card and order in a new one. While I’m so grateful for their kindness, this dependency can make you feel quite powerless in a way.

Culture shock
Image source: Global Graduates

I was never overtly aware of culture shock, but could feel it subconsciously permeating through a lot of what I did. I knew it was there, for example, when I was dreaming about home every night. There are so many differences between Chinese and British culture that it would be difficult to cover them all, but one thing that really bothered me in particular was the total excess of bureaucracy in China. Everything seems to be done completely by the book, with no room for manoeuvrability, even if it’s something as simple as trying to substitute an ingredient in a meal at a restaurant – which made it even more difficult being a vegetarian in Shanghai. I’ll explore differences in censorship, and educational systems in more detailed posts as they require more in-depth explanation, but just in general, the West as a whole and Asia are so different. Graphic artist Yang Liu has produced posters, which now make up her book East meets West, which illustrate some of these polar differences. Some of the images might seem slightly reductive or an oversimplification but I personally found them to be pretty accurate at explaining the differences in a succinct, simple manner (West is blue, East is red).





For me, culture shock wasn’t anything debilitating, it was more the occasional onset of low moods, which could’ve been due to a multitude of things. I still don’t really know what culture shock is or how it can be measured, I suppose it’s different for every person. Even now, I find it hard to believe that I was in China for a good part of the year. Perhaps one of the reasons that culture shock was minimised in Shanghai as opposed to the rest of China is that it the most westernised city and a lot of the time you could be forgiven for thinking you were walking down a street in, say, New York. This definitely isn’t the case in other cities like Suzhou where traditional Chinese gardens and architecture mirror the idea of China that most people hold in their mind. Shanghai is the largest city in China (and the world, by population) but to tell the truth, I’ve felt more claustrophobic in Oxford Street, although perhaps my experience was different because our university and dormitory is in the French Concession, which is one of the quieter areas.

There is no cure for culture shock, although distracting yourself with a full schedule seems to help. Making friends with local people who can help to immerse you more into the culture so that it isn’t so alien to you is always helpful. Something I found to relieve the stress was to make a list of what I wanted to achieve from my year abroad, and all of the things that I loved about my host country to look back on when you’re missing home. It’s quite a good idea to keep a journal in general, to help put things into perspective during your time there and after you arrive home.



While now I could write extensively about the things I miss about Shanghai, I could probably write just as much about the things I don’t miss, and looking back on journal entries helps remind me of that. It might just turn out to be the best year of your life, but expecting that adds an immense amount of pressure, especially when you’re first settling in and struggling to adjust. A semester or a year is a long time, and you probably won’t love every minute of it. It made it a lot easier that another girl on the course was also British. When we were feeling homesick, Rachel and I used to have Brit days where we’d go to Mr Harry’s (a British restaurant) and watch something like the British Bake Off. There’s not much that a roast dinner and cup of English breakfast tea can’t fix!

Mr Harry’s

Is It Possible To Be A Vegetarian In Shanghai?

In a country where food is so ingrained into the culture, it’s no wonder that a common greeting in China is 吃饭了吗? (Chi fan le ma?) which literally translates to ‘have you eaten?’ but is used as more of a ‘what’s up?’. There is a huge social emphasis placed on food. People usually eat communally and when ordering food, it is commonplace to order various dishes which are set on the table and shared by everyone. I prefer this style of eating, rather than the usual western way of ordering just one dish for yourself as I am so indecisive, and there’s nothing worse than food envy when the orders arrive for you to discover you’ve made an awful mistake. One thing that does make this more difficult though, is being a vegetarian. Meat is a central part of the Chinese diet and it can feel awkward at times, restricting other people who may feel as if they need to take your dietary requirements into consideration and pick a certain restaurant or order based on this.

The kind of meat dishes they offer here could intimidate even the most adventurous carnivore. We’re talking frogs, eels, duck blood, cow tongue, chicken feet and sometimes they have live animals in a restaurant ready for your choosing. Side note: no, it’s not common for Chinese people to eat dogs. That is a myth. Yes, there is an annual festival in Yulin, but the other provinces criticise it, just like the international community does. The festival itself only actually began in 2009, and is not representative of Chinese culture at all. I also don’t really understand why people are so horrified at the prospect of people eating dogs, but not other animals? Just because we’ve decided to domesticate some, their lives are now worth more than other more commonly eaten animals like cows, pigs, etc? Excuse me while my eyes roll into the back of my head.

Communal style eating

I became a vegetarian – or technically, a pescetarian as I still ate fish – when I was about thirteen years old. It admittedly took me a long time to eventually transition to become a ‘full’ vegetarian, which I only really managed a year ago after doing so on and off. This is why coming to Shanghai about six months after that transition was so testing, and eventually (six weeks in) led me to decide to allow myself to eat fish if I felt I needed to for the duration of my stay. When I leave China this summer, it won’t be an issue to revert back, but it’s just been too much of a struggle while I’m here.

To get an idea of how ingrained meat is into Chinese culture, there goes a saying in China which roughly translates to: If it has four legs and it’s not a table, we eat it. If it has wings and is not an airplane, we eat it. My teacher demonstrated the extent of this when she relayed an incident when her friend had told her about a new animal, and her first response was: can we eat it? In some guidebooks, on the section in which they give advice for vegetarians, they (in jest) suggest to just give up. Of course, it’s not impossible to sustain a vegetarian diet here, especially in the larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing where there is a multitude of restaurants to choose from. However, it isn’t simply a lack of vegetarian dishes that are available, but the understanding of the lifestyle itself.

It’s not even a simple case of language barriers. Even whilst out for dinner with Chinese friends, there have been occasions where they have had to stress several times to the waiter that there can’t be any meat in a certain dish and are met with a confused look. My friend took me for soup dumplings and even when I could see there was pork in the broth, she insisted it was fine as it wasn’t inside the actual dumplings. I’ve found this quite common when I have told street food sellers that I’m a vegetarian and ask if their product has any meat. They try to reassure me with the reply, 一点 (yi dian) which means ‘only a little’ as if this would make it acceptable for a veggie to consume. Imagine my despair when my Chinese friend told me that most of the time dim sum contains meat, or when we were dividing up a moon-cake for the mid-Autumn festival and SURPRISE SURPRISE I can’t have any because it contains meat.

It’s okay guys, I won’t eat any. I’ll just take a photo of how pretty it looks so that I can try to extract some joy from this cultural experience that you’re all sharing without me.

This issue can sometimes make it an issue to order even the most basic vegetable dishes. This is because they are often cooked in the same animal stock or fat as other dishes. It’s also not uncommon to use meat to garnish dishes of vegetables. I have found that pork is the most common meat to randomly pop up in dishes that I have ordered. For this reason, I personally find it easier to stick to a vegetarian diet most of the time, but to consume fish if there are no other viable options in a restaurant. I feel horrifically guilty about it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that for now this is the best way for me. Don’t judge me, alas, I am weak.

If you are new to Shanghai or China, then navigating as a veggie can be tough. Memorise or write down this phrase so that you can show waiters or food sellers when you are ordering:

‘I don’t eat meat’
‘I am a vegetarian’

To get 100% vegetarian food, your best bet is to go to an eatery in a Buddhist temple. Some of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai include:
Godly (which has been around since 1922)
Pure and Whole
Vegetarian Lifestyle (the Luwan branch)

Of course, there aren’t even a fraction of the amount of vegetarian restaurants that exist in London. I really took it for granted just how easy it is back home to sustain this kind of lifestyle and is one of the things that I’m actually looking forward to going back home to. For now though, the answer is tofu (who knew it could come in so many different forms?!) and too many steamed buns.


Campus Life at Shanghai Theatre Academy

Following on from my post about ICS at Shanghai Theatre Academy which primarily addressed course-content concerns, I thought I’d share more about campus life and life as a study-abroad student in Shanghai in general. Although most of these sections will be expanded on in full-length articles of their own, for now it should serve as a useful tool to run through the basics of accommodation, social life, and food…



I live in the Shanghai Theatre Academy student dormitory, which is conveniently located on campus. The school has two campus’ and my course is based at the Huashan Road campus, which is the smaller of the two. The Chinese Opera course is based at Lianhua Road campus (which is about an hour away from Huashan Rd) so if you opt to take that selective, you will have the opportunity to have classes at both campus’. The two minutes walk to class really does soften the blow of 8.30am starts. All foreign students are based on the 17th and 18th floor. I share my room with one other girl, and we have an en-suite bathroom. A single room isn’t a thing in Chinese universities, so wave goodbye to privacy. Compared to the domestic students though, we’re lucky – they share a room with up to five others and have to use communal toilets and showers (the latter which isn’t even located in the dormitory building).


STA is in a great location, very central and based in Jing’an, the closest metro station is Jing’an Temple. We are on the edge of the French Concession, which is a particularly beautiful part of Shanghai, and usually quite expensive to live in. The area is instantly recognizable by its streets, which are lined with trees forming beautiful arches. As a 1-year exchange student, I pay ¥440 a month for my room, which is roughly the equivalent to around £51. However, if you are accepted on to the full 2-year M.A. programme as a scholarship student, your living expenses are covered by the university (as well as your course fees, and a monthly stipend).

Inspired by the City Garden art installation to make my room more floral


Shanghai has an excellent nightlife scene. From upscale clubs, to student pubs, to dingy dive bars, it really does have it all. It also has an amazing museum and art scene which I’m currently trying to work my way through. Unfortunately, the university doesn’t really have societies or sports teams which are a huge part of uni life in Exeter/the UK. However, our campus is still vibrant. There is always something going on. When I first arrived, there was an experimental Shakespeare festival, and since then there has been a RAW festival, an international arts festival and countless other productions. There is a gym on campus that is free for everyone to use, but it is very basic so many students opt for a paid membership to gyms nearby.

Production of MacBain (a cross between Macbeth and the story of Kurt Cobain) during the Experimental Shakespeare Festival
Schedule for the RAW festival


The course that I’m on is actually the only one in STA that is taught in English and is only made up of around 10 people (the year before us there were only six students on the course), so there’s not really a huge international students’ scene. It is great having such artistic peers, for example, we gathered a cast and crew together and entered into a 48-hour film festival back in Autumn. There are an abundance of opportunities to get involved in the arts, with many of my friends regularly participating in full-scale shows, to improvisation nights and comedy gigs.

The participants in the 48-hour film festival from Intercultural Communication Studies

I wanted to branch out of the university bubble and did this via the app MeetUp which informs you about a range of things occurring in the city. Through this, I was able to find free yoga classes, meditation, and a creative writing group. Something that I’m also involved in is the Shanghai branch of LadyFest (a community based organization created to open up dialogue about gender equality). Although well-known for their annual arts and music festival in celebration of International Women’s Day, they also run a plethora of other events. For example, I took part in the Dating Monologues event, in which people could submit anonymous stories of their experiences of dating in Shanghai which would be read by other speakers/actors.


Shanghai, and China for that matter, is famous for its food. It’s undeniably a heaven for foodies, with the streets filled with delicious, fresh (and cheap) food made right in front of you, which is especially amazing for coming home from a night out. However, it is slightly more tricky for vegetarians, and I don’t know how vegans cope. I will be expanding on this in another article, but let’s just say it’s a tricky terrain to navigate. We do have a kitchen in the dorms, but it’s tiny and not very well equipped. When I first arrived, I probably ate out almost every night for the first week or two. I was just so shocked by how cheap the food is. In a noodle restaurant opposite us, you can buy a large bowl of noodles with soup, veggies and tofu (think Wagamama, but better) all for less than £1.


There is a canteen on campus, for which you’ll need to buy a meal card, and a western-style cafe. It’s actually very common for students to order in food nightly as it is so cheap. 24/7 Delivery service is readily available. McDonalds even deliver straight to your door at all hours through their app. If you want to order western-style food with apps like Sherpas, then you’ll have to pay more, but if you’re happy to eat like a local then living expenses are very low. Being located in the French Concession means you’re extremely close by to amazing bakeries, cafes and restaurants.

Sweet treats at Sunflour Café

For more information, go to Shanghai Theatre Academy’s website.

Study Abroad in Shanghai: Intercultural Communications at STA

So, much to my disbelief, I’ve been in Shanghai for almost three months now. I was planning to do a series on my experiences studying at Shanghai Theatre Academy sooner, but for the past month I have been left laptop-less after a liquid damage mishap (shout out to Exeter Uni’s insurance policy Aviva for granting me a replacement). When I was preparing for my year abroad, there was a shocking lack of information provided concerning details such as course content, the academic calendar, accommodation, etc which was very frustrating. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was the first student from Exeter to undertake a year abroad at STA and therefore had no-one to share their experiences with me. So, this series will aim to cover these aspects along with other things that you’ll want to take into account when deciding on taking a year abroad such as culture shock and the social life in the city. This first post is dedicated to the details of the course itself.

I am on the Intercultural Communications MA programme. It is usually a two-year programme, with the first year consisting of classes and the second year dedicated to writing the thesis. There are 12 people on my course, but it seems to be expanding yearly as it’s relatively new (last year’s intake was six students). We’re made up of eight different nationalities, but the language of instruction for the course is English. As it is the only course at STA that is taught in English, there’s not really a range of modules to choose from. I remember browsing the modules on STA’s website and thinking I’d be able to take classes in subjects such as TV-hosting and directing. Nope. They’re all taught in Chinese. So unless you’re bilingual, you’ll be restricted to the modules specific to the ICS course. As a student on a year abroad, I am only here for one year before returning to Exeter to complete my fourth year. There is one other undergraduate (who is a student on a year abroad from the University of Leeds) and the rest of the participants are graduate students. If you are also an undergraduate, don’t be intimidated by the fact that it is an MA, the classes aren’t too challenging. They are pretty relaxed, and aside from weekly reading there isn’t much of a workload.

This term my schedule has consisted of the following modules:
Chinese Language: Three compulsory (and two optional) classes a week 8:30am-11:40am. Assessment is through a mid-term exam and a final exam. I sat the mid-term exam last week and we went through it in class beforehand, and then spent about thirty minutes working on it. It was all directly from what we’d been learning, so nothing to stress about.
Modern Chinese Performing Arts in Global Perspectives: We have eight classes in total, held weekly on Thursdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of three thought-pieces reflecting on readings that have been set, a group oral presentation and a final paper of around 2500 words (or creative project) with a presentation to discuss your findings.
Intercultural Theatre: Eight classes held fortnightly on Tuesdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of one final paper around 2500 words in length (or a creative project) and an informal presentation/discussion about your research.
Chinese History and Culture: Eight classes held fortnightly Tuesdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of a museum report, a critical commentary on one piece of reading and a final paper to be a minimum of 800 words.
Optional Chinese Opera Acting: Three classes held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 1:30pm-3pm.

Here, we have two academic terms as opposed to the usual three that we have back in the UK. This semester started in the first week of September and will finish in the week before Christmas. Usually, semesters in China run into mid-January, but they make an exception for our course as all participants are foreign students, and many will want to spend Christmas with their families. The second semester begins in the last week of February and runs until the first week of July. We are yet to be informed of our classes next term, but last year’s students took the mandatory Chinese language classes, Cultural Creative IndustriesFilms and Contemporary Chinese Society and Politics, and had the option to take traditional Chinese Culture & Taiqiquan, Chinese Opera Acting and Chinese Culture.

The teaching style is different. Three hour classes were definitely something I needed to adjust to. We do have a 5-10 minute break halfway through, but as someone with a short attention span, it took a while to get used to concentrating for longer than an hour at a time. All of my classes are essentially in a seminar format which I prefer infinitely to lecture-style teaching. The only issue with this format is that the quality of the class discussion is dependent on how many students do the reading, and as some of the teachers are so relaxed, it’s easy to become complacent. The flexibility of the course can be a merit though, as you can mould the course to your needs. The final paper (or creative project in some classes) has very large parameters and you’re given freedom and encouragement to seek out a topic that interests you, as long as it’s somewhat related to the class.

There is also the opportunity to gain academic credits in other projects. For example, I was among a group of STA students that decided to creatively collaborate and submit a film to the 48 hour film festival which was held in Shanghai a few weeks ago. Provided we contributed equally to the project and wrote a short reflective report on the experience, we were awarded academic credit. To complete the year, you need to have a certain amount of credits. However, the study abroad team advised me that I needed to take a minimum of seven modules, and not to worry about credits. So, perhaps the film project won’t contribute to my overall mark, but it was still an exciting experience to have.

ICS students who took part in the 48 Hour Film Festival

Preparing to study abroad: 0-3 months before departure


You will probably need vaccines, especially if you’re planning to travel outside China (and since you’re in Asia, you should definitely take advantage of your location if you can). You should have the combined Hep A + Typhoid and the diphtheria, polio and tetanus booster. These are free on the NHS and you just need one course of them. Depending on when you last had it, chances are you’ll also need a booster of MMR. There is a range of others that you can pay for, so it’s best to discuss with your GP/a travel consultant about which ones are necessary for your trip. Considering that I’m planning to travel SE Asia during my year abroad, I opted for the Hep B and Rabies vaccines. Both of these need to be done over the course of three weeks so make sure you are in one place long enough to attend the appointments. Don’t believe the hype, they really aren’t that painful. I was terrified and on the verge of tears at my appointment and I barely felt a thing. Again, if you plan to travel, it’s wise to purchase malaria medication. I wasn’t given any back home as the consultant said they might expire by the time I want to use them, and was instead recommended to buy them in China.

Consider how you want to be use money while you’re away. Do you want to just take cash, purchase travelers cheques, or use your bank card? If it’s the latter, then you need to inform your bank account of your intentions before your departure or else when they detect spending overseas they could assume it’s suspicious activity and suspend your card. You’ll be able to withdraw from ATMs, but probably at a cost, and at a hefty exchange rate. For example, Natwest informed me that they will take 2.75% of each transaction that I make and that the exchange rate varies, depending on the day. I brought enough cash with me to get me through the first month without having to worry and am going to sign up for a Chinese bank account while I’m here. That way, I can transfer my student loan into it, and withdraw as and when I need it to incur as little cost as possible.

Think about how you plan to use your phone while you’re abroad. I decided to cancel my contract and purchase a pay as you go SIM card in China. I paid 25RMB (around £3) which gives me 1GB of data, and unlimited text messages for a month. Calls aren’t included, but are ridiculously cheap, like 0.01p per minute. If you do decide to do this make sure your phone is unlocked beforehand. Another option is to hunt around to find a good deal with an international phone company.

Make sure you have all of the documents that you need filed away. Acceptance letters, timetables for study, term dates, important addresses/phone numbers, flight itineraries, etc. A copy of your birth certificate is handy, although some countries will stipulate the use of the original. If you’re going to China then you’ll be sent a JW202 form from your university. When you get off of your flight you’re going to be exhausted so it’s good to have them to hand, as they may ask to see them (they asked for my acceptance letter at immigration). Take a few passport sized photos as well as these are handy for student IDs, visas and other official cards that you’ll apply for. The physical check that is compulsory for foreigners staying longer than three months requires five passport photos alone.

I am aware of how awkward this sounds, but it is one of the most important parts of your pre-departure preparation. I’ve found this especially difficult. I am the type of person who doesn’t process things until they are happening. It still hasn’t actually sunk in and rather, I feel as if I’m on holiday. Make sure you spend enough time with your family and friends before you leave. Although maybe don’t take this as far as I did, where my friends could persuade me to do pretty much anything with the excuse that I’m moving to China. Have a plan for how you’re going to stay in contact with your loved ones. Whether that’s Skype once a week, or Facebook every other night, know where you stand (although you’ll need to download a VPN before you go to be able to access most social media in China). Perhaps keep social media to a minimum at first to allow yourself to settle in properly. Be prepared for culture shock. It’s supposed to go in waves along the lines of honeymoon – anxiety/frustration – adjustment – acceptance (although it differs for everyone).

Download apps to make your life easier upon arrival. Pretty much everyone in China has WeChat, which is basically their version of Facebook and Twitter combined. Moji Weather lets you keep track of the weather along with levels of air pollution. Pleco is an ideal Chinese-English dictionary, and MemriseChineseSkill will help you practice your language skills in between classes!

Preparing To Study Abroad: 3-6 Months Before Departure

I can’t believe that I’ve finally begun my study abroad placement, for which I’ll be at Shanghai Theatre Academy for one academic year. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was trying to get myself organized. My university was extremely supportive, and I’m sure the staff in the humanities study abroad office were sick of me by the end of the year, but the list of things to do seemed exhaustive, especially when it came to dealing with student finance. I have to admit that if I didn’t have a dad who was so organized, I would’ve inevitably left my preparations to the last minute. The following advice is assuming that you’ve already undertaken the necessary research into the culture of the locations that you want to go to and have narrowed down your options (if you haven’t done this, then Pinterest and are your new best friends). Although this is concerning my preparations for China, many of them can be applicable to most destinations..


Make sure you budget before you go and consider all of the different costs that you’ll incur over the course of the year. In terms of support, you should still receive your usual maintenance loans/grants/bursaries. If you’re going to Europe, Erasmus practically pays you to study abroad, although due to Brexit this probably won’t be on offer for much longer! Although it’s not highly publicized, Student Finance England does offer travel grants. They’re a bit of a mystery and have various stipulations, but if you meet the criteria, then you could be eligible to have the following reimbursed: vaccines, visas, the medical aspect of your insurance (usually 40%), up to three return flights from your university and hometown, and the transport between your campus and university.

They’ve also brought out the mysterious concept of qualifying quarters which, depending on which member of their staff you speak to, shape-shifts. To my understanding, it basically states that you have to be in attendance for at least half of the qualifying quarter that you are applying for remuneration for. You would think they would separate the year into four equal quarters, but the ‘quarters’ seem somewhat random, so make sure you double-check before you book flights etc on certain dates or you could risk not being reimbursed.  SFE should automatically assess your eligibility for a travel grant and then send you a course abroad form to complete, but don’t expect them to do that and ask them if you think it’s taking too long. You need to get this course abroad form signed by your university so don’t leave to go home at the end of term without doing this! As soon as you have informed them of your year abroad and your loans have been approved, make sure you are regularly chasing them up about the status of your grant. Or else like me, you could end up booking your flights only for them to say that they haven’t actually assessed you yet so they’re unsure of your eligibility. Reimbursements usually take a couple of weeks to process, and their status can be checked on your student portal.

Luckily enough, I was able to stay in the student dormitory which is a few minutes away from my classes. However, I know other students at various universities in China (and elsewhere) that automatically assumed the university would take care of the accommodation only to realize last minute that it was actually up to them. Some try to find a place before they arrive, but more commonly students stay in hostels when they arrive while they look for somewhere to live. The most important thing is to know what your options are, and to have a plan for when you arrive.

You’ll have to complete the application form, along with other documents, and drop these with off along with your passport. Make sure the expiry date of your passport is at least six months after your departure date from your study abroad placement. They usually keep your documents for around one week before returning them. Once you arrive in China you’ll then need to take this TEMPORARY visa to the embassy within 30 days to retrieve an official resident permit.
A Link to the Chinese Embassy website can be found here.
(Other useful links for different countries: USA, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand)

Get your travel insurance sorted in good time. Luckily for me, my university offers an insurance package which averages about 67p per day for China. If you’re also at Exeter, then the link for that can be found here. Remember that most travel insurance policies only provide access to emergency medical care and do not include regular check ups or prescription access. You can pay around £90 once you arrive in China for a local insurance policy that allows you to access these facilities, but it’s better to sort any medication out before you go to be on the safe side. The NHS provides up to a three month supply of prescriptions and then you can access the rest privately at various pharmacies (I found ASDA to be the cheapest).

Happy planning!

Kuala Lumpur: Common Purpose Global Leadership Experience

Amid austerity and hiking tuition fees, believe it or not, there are funding and travel opportunities which exist in universities. Admittedly, they are few and far between and you need to snap them up quickly, but if it is something you’re interested in, then it is a good idea to routinely check your university’s website and ask the study abroad team. In June, I was lucky enough to attend a global leadership experience programme led by Common Purpose. Common Purpose is an organization which aims to create and sustain leaders in society at various stages of experience. The opportunity was offered to us mere weeks before the course was due to start. Flights, accommodation (in the University of Nottingham’s Mayalsian campus), and two meals a day were covered by my university (Exeter). It was rather surreal as I hadn’t planned any of the trip and therefore had no idea what to expect.

This was my first trip to Asia, and having done it, I feel so much more confident with traveling there for my year abroad in Shanghai. Malaysia is often dubbed as ‘truly Asia’ by tourist companies, and it really is. It’s so dynamic and ethnically diverse, the population is split between Malay, Chinese and Indian. It was such an educational experience. I applied on a whim and was a little hesitant when I was accepted as it was so last minute and I only knew one other girl who was also attending. I’m so glad I went though, as I met the greatest group of people who I fully intend to stay in touch with. In case anyone is thinking of possibly doing a Common Purpose study abroad trip, I’m going to break down what we actually did..

Petronas Twin Towers

DAYS -1 TO 0

We left on Saturday morning from Gatwick and arrived in KL (which is seven hours ahead of GMT) on Sunday morning, utterly exhausted. I find it so difficult to sleep on planes. We had most of Sunday free, so it was very tempting to just go to bed, but I knew if I did that, I would confuse my body clock even more. Instead, we stuck it out and went to a nearby mall, before heading back for the opening ceremony and dinner. I was borderline delusional by this point, so once it had finished, I went straight to sleep. This helped a lot with the 8:30am start the next day.

View from Campus


What makes a city smart? This was the question and challenge that was posed to us as attendees of the Global Leader Experience. Smart cities are those which use technology to respond to issues, increase the quality of life of residents and manage different sectors. You can see examples in Barcelona, Stockholm and Amsterdam. Our task was to take this question but to relate it to Kuala Lumpur and what we learnt about it over the few days we spent there. The first day consisted mainly of getting to know each other, and getting to know more about ourselves and how we navigate group situations. There was a lot of self analysis, questioning our own traits and then challenging them. There was also a key question which kept coming up throughout the day: what makes a leader? Some people thought that they hadn’t earned the right to identify themselves as a leader. That it’s a position only granted to those of a certain stature. I personally came to the conclusion that anyone can be a leader, it just requires the confidence to take charge and push a situation forward. We also focused on cultural intelligence, which is the ability to think globally about situations rather than being confined by your own cultural values and beliefs.


A group of us decided to venture into the city (which was about a 30-40 minute taxi ride from the campus or around an hour on public transport). We indulged in dinner and drinks at AQUA restaurant & bar (which can be found in the Mandarin Oriental). For such a remarkable location, with a beautiful view of the KL skyline and overlooking KLCC park, the prices were surprisingly reasonable! We then went on to the SkyBar for a stunning view of the Twin Towers, before heading on to Changkat Bukit Bintang (effectively the ‘strip’, a street full of bars and clubs).





On the second day, we were put into our groups ahead of Thursday’s presentation. As a group bonding session, we were set the task of building a tower with set materials. Then, we went separate ways to go to different organizations for immersion visits to consider the challenge that we’d been set. During these visits, various businesses/leaders/organizations would provide their insight into what they thought makes a city smart so that we could shape our own ideas. I chose to go to an environmental NGO, and they emphasized the importance of educating society to encourage them to work together and realize our collective moral responsibility to help save the planet. After the talks had concluded, we went into the city where we were based with our groups to provide feedback from our experiences and discuss the various viewpoints we’d heard from. I personally took a bit of an issue with the emphasis that other companies had put on data collection and mass surveillance in aiding smart cities. Where do you draw the line between safety and personal privacy? Sometimes it seems that we’re moving ever closer to the omniscient Big Brother state painted in Orwell’s 1984.


We finished in the afternoon, and as we were already in the city, we decided to take advantage of this. We went to the Batu Caves which are a short distance from the city and is a sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus. After this, we went to China Town to peruse the stalls and eat, before retiring for a much needed early night.

Batu Caves


On day three I chose the immersion visit to the Women’s Aid Organization and this was undoubtedly the highlight of the experience for me. They have done so much work to combat misogyny and bring about reforms in the law. They act not only as a refuge for victims of domestic and sexual violence, but also as a body trying to effect change. After relaying what we had learned to our groups, we had to start narrowing down our answer to the challenge to one idea for a project. As outsiders, (for most of us this was our first trip to KL) it was difficult to identify what KL really needed to be a smart city without being slightly ignorant. How could we march in to a city and get to the heart of their issues in a few days? Eventually we came to the conclusion that from our point of view (mostly as western tourists) something that we had identified as needing renovation could be the transportation system. Consequently, we decided to propose an app which would work to provide a more reliable system with clearer maps, contactless tickets, GPS and real time tracking on the transport, etc.

The visit to the WAO


We went to Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) and saw the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. We then rushed to get to the Menara Kuala Lumpur tower before the Sky Deck closed (last entrance is 9:30pm). As we arrived close to the closing time, we were lucky enough to have the SkyBox to ourselves.The Sky Box was opened this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the KL tower, and is a transparent glass box extending out of the side of the tower with a panoramic and Birdseye view of the city. There is usually a queue as only a few people are allowed to be in the box at one time so this was perfect, especially for conducting the photoshoot necessary for typical tourists like us. Afterwards, a few of us went on to Zouk, a super-club which encompasses around eight clubs and bars.

Sultan Abdul Samad Building



On our final day, we spent the morning preparing for our final presentation. We had to make a poster which illustrated our ideas, film a short clip, and ensure everyone was adequately briefed on what we were delivering. The last couple of days I felt it was appropriate to take more of a back seat as I have a tendency to monopolize discussions (understatement), but my group actively encouraged me to be one of the speakers so I agreed. We spoke in front of a panel of experts and the rest of the participants, before receiving feedback and a certification of completion.



We went to the HeliPad bar, and as the name suggests, it’s a bar located on an abandoned helipad with views of both the Petronas Twin Towers and the KL tower. This was probably my favourite bar, and we were lucky enough to snag one of the few tables on the rooftop. Their cocktails were a dream. Afterwards, we headed to the strip. We left campus at 5:30am to catch an early flight. Staying out all night actually worked out for the best because I managed to sleep for the majority of the plane journey. Also, as it was around 2am in London as we departed KL, I managed to regulate my body clock and avoid jet-lag when we landed.


Overall, I’d definitely recommend a Common Purpose Study Abroad Global Leader Experience to anyone. It’s such a good opportunity to see a city from a different perspective. You get to network with other like-minded individuals and join an online community after the course to stay in touch. It would be different for other countries (for example, I know Exeter just ran a GLE to Chicago) but Kuala Lumpur was such a cheap city that it genuinely was an affordable destination for those who might be concerned about the financial implications. It’s not all work either, you have enough free time to indulge in the sightseeing, culture and nightlife in the city.