Like many students before her, studying abroad had a profound affect on Sarah Morrison

As I sat staring out at California’s Big Sur, I felt fortunate to have a sister who persuaded me to spend a year of my degree abroad. While almost 11,000 students signed up to the British Council’s Erasmus Scheme last year – choosing to spend part of their degree in another country in Europe – it seems that there are not enough older siblings explaining just how easy it is to take part in an international exchange.

While most universities in the UK offer worldwide exchanges, where students swap places with others from all over the world for a semester or a year during their degree, the number and quality on offer, together with the cost and time spent abroad, vary dramatically.

A deciding factor for me in choosing to study at the University of Edinburgh was the fact it offered more than 230 exchange places at overseas universities in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and South America.

Despite all this choice, I still found that deciding to spend a year abroad was something of a novelty, with most of my friends giving more thought to embracing Edinburgh than packing their bags to leave a city that had only just become their home. Yet, fortified by my sister’s advice and a Californian friend who told me I would love the coast, I applied to spend my third year at the University of California, Berkeley – never guessing that this would affect almost every future decision I would make.

From the start of your exchange, you are aware that the time you have in your new country is limited. Your experience is shaped by a predetermined start and end, which immediately increases the significance of the time in between.

From the first week I arrived, I started to work at The Daily Californian, Berkeley’s student newspaper. I moved from an international house with more than 600 students from all over the world into a co-operative house where 60 Americans shared responsibility for management. I met people from Calcutta, Cairo and Chile and learnt that holding on to any stereotypes I might have about Americans would be about as useful as assuming that all British people lived on farms.

The grades I earned at Berkeley didn’t count towards my degree classification at Edinburgh. I studied under a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, signed up for student-led seminars and took an African American literature class that shaped my dissertation in Edinburgh. Whether I was learning about Beat poets on a tour of San Francisco or reporting on President Barack Obama’s primary speech in San Francisco for the next day’s newspaper, I returned to Edinburgh with an increased sense of awareness about what I wanted to gain from my English literature degree.

While the cost might seem like an initial barrier to an international exchange, in reality they can actually save a student money. Visas, health insurance and flights to the chosen country will have to be bought, but a student will usually only be charged 25 to 50 per cent of their home university’s annual fees. A student travelling abroad is entitled to a larger student loan, and bursaries are available at many institutions for students going on an exchange.

While Berkeley students paid tens of thousands of dollars to study each year, I was paying half of my Edinburgh fees and significantly less in living costs. The money I was able to save enabled me to travel extensively around California, from camping on the coast of San Diego to setting up sticks at a music festival in the Nevada desert.

Taking part in an exchange won’t be a rite of passage for all students. You have to research the options independently, apply almost a year before you go away and be aware of the grades required in the first year to qualify for a place. Edinburgh’s international exchange officer, Helen Leitch, says: “If I had a pound for every time that students told me it was the best experience of their life, I would be a very wealthy woman indeed.”

Steven Jefferies, 21, graduated from the University of Manchester with a Bachelors degree in history. After spending five months last year at the University of Toronto in Canada, he is hoping to gain work in the international sector.

“Sometimes I just shut my eyes and wish that I could click my fingers and go back. I know that I will definitely return at some point, but now I have a string of job interviews.

The teaching style in Toronto is more school-like with increased interaction among the professors and students. In the UK, people don’t have to turn up to lectures, and then they can ace exams and be fine – not in Canada, though.

I found out about the exchange programme during freshers’ week and fell in love with the idea. Going to Canada made me realise you can travel the world. Before that, I just imagined myself in London working in the city, but there are so many alternatives.”

University of Leeds student Howard Curtis, 21, returned recently from spending a year studying civil engineering at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He decided on taking the exchange just days before the application deadline.

“I didn’t know anything about Hong Kong before I went, but I would advise anybody to go, without hesitation. When you compare it to spending a year in England, its a pretty simple choice.

I paid Leeds only a quarter of my annual fees and used the money I saved to travel around South-east Asia for two months. This travelling was an eye-opener. The first time I saw the Hong Kong skyline and moved into my room on the 17th floor of a building, I was blown away.

I was surprised that more people did not apply. They all seemed too comfortable at home – but I think more people need to step outside the box and realise what is |out there.”