Poppy Mason-Taylor graduated in French and Arabic in 2013. She currently works as Partners Acquisition Coordinator at Meero in France and volunteers her time for the University of Exeter as a Country Contact ambassador for Paris.
While studying, Poppy spent a year abroad at Damascus University in Syria.
“I chose to study BA CH French and Arabic. I had studied French to A-Level standard and began learning Arabic ab-initio at Exeter so a Year Abroad 100% Arabic-based was obligatory in order to get us up to (ideally) the same level of proficiency in Arabic as French by the end of our four year degree - a challenge I worked very hard to meet! Amongst our year group, Syria seemed to be the most popular Year Abroad destination, and I thought it would perhaps be easier to immerse myself in Arabic and enjoy a more authentic experience in Syria than the other countries on offer. I'm so pleased I chose to go to Damascus as I couldn’t imagine a more enriching Year Abroad experience.
“The Year Abroad was an unforgettable experience from start to finish. Language proficiency-wise, we went from being able to hold a basic conversation when we arrived in Damascus, to being able to speak with confidence on a range of topics, as well as being able to write a 1500 word Arabic essay as part of our end of year assessment (granted with a lot of help from the lovely tutor I saw in addition to our university classes!). All this in only the second year of our four year course! The experience as a whole enabled me to grow in confidence, become more adaptable and resilient and, of course, create everlasting memories.
“There were so many memorable moments throughout my Year Abroad! However, my 20th birthday morning riding camels through the ruins in Palmyra at sunrise is a memory that stands out as being a ‘pinch-yourself' moment. I must say that every day in Damascus felt like an adventure, we were met with such kindness from the locals, and we learnt a lot. To have shared the year abroad experience with my fellow Exeter classmates was very special and we bonded over the highs and lows of the experience - a group of us are best friends to this day, 10 years on, and we often talk about our time in Syria with fondness and gratitude.
“We were actually still in Damascus when the conflict began in the surrounding countries and in other parts of Syria but we were thankfully still able to complete our studies before returning to the UK. Of course, following our return it was so upsetting to see the beautiful country ravaged and its people who are so kind and warm, suffering. The fact that they have now lived through 10 years of conflict and upheaval is heart-breaking.
“Due the delicate situation it has been more difficult to stay in touch with the Syrian family I stayed with during my Year Abroad, I would have loved to have been able to stay in better touch with them- I think of them often. I’m still in contact with some friends made in Syria (who now live elsewhere) via social media, as well as with fellow international students who were also studying in Damascus at the same time. We are all now based around the world and technology allows us to keep in touch, even if we're not easily able to see one another in person at the moment.”
Do you think studying abroad has helped you in your career and would you encourage other young people to take up these opportunities?
“Absolutely! My unique experience of studying abroad in Syria definitely sparked interest amongst my employers and colleagues, and the benefits of studying abroad are endless, all of which continue to help me in my career today. These benefits include increased empathy and cultural awareness, being able to build bridges of understanding, overcoming any language barriers and establishing multinational relationships with more ease thanks to my international experience...to name but a few! Studying abroad is character building and I feel very privileged to have been able to study and live in Damascus in 2010/2011.
“I would recommend it without a doubt! Being out of your comfort zone teaches you so much. Full immersion abroad allows your language proficiency to progress so much more quickly than from a classroom, however wonderful and patient our professors were with us! There is no doubt in my mind that a Year Abroad not only builds self-confidence and resilience but it allows you to experience a kind of independence even greater than the independence experienced during your years at home university. Even for those students who are not studying a languages-specific degree, I know that several courses offer an experience abroad and I would urge anyone with the opportunity to take a semester or a year abroad to go for it as it may end up being the most memorable and valuable part of your degree. As with everything in life, the more you put in, the more you'll get out of the experience, so I would encourage anyone to make the very most of their time abroad and you will be sure to reap the benefits!”