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Going Global: Should I go on International Exchange?

Paddington Bear

My study exchange adventure took me to University of Lapland, Finland in 2011. When I got home I signed up to tell other students at my university about this amazing opportunity. Law students seemed more unsure about exchange than any other academic species, and I started to realise why.

Despite waking up every morning and putting on our competitive and confident exteriors, we are an insecure bunch. Here are some of the worries I’ve encountered, and the reasons why you should put them behind you and go travel the big bad world beyond legal study.

What if I miss out on clerkships and law jobs while I’m away?

It’s probably not going to be a disaster. In an employment world where differentiation equals success, a stint in a foreign country is always going to jump out on your CV. Filling out job applications, you know you’re going to run into questions like “Discuss a time you had to adapt to a challenging situation.” Studying in a foreign country, living with other international students and possibly learning a new language are going to help you stand out from the crowd.

I don’t have enough money to buy fancy highlighters, how can I afford to live overseas?

You’d be surprised. It was a revelation to me upon arriving at my exchange university that no-one was expected to buy textbooks. Think about the savings you’d make from this alone, and then factor in insanely cheap student accommodation. It’s not news to any campus dwelling student in Australia that we are ripped off, but by how much might boggle your mind. In Finland I paid $60AUD a week to share a furnished two bedroom apartment with one other person.

Even in typically expensive European countries, life as a student can be cheap. The lack of available jobs means it’s normal for law students to have no employment for the duration of their studies. They are insanely good at bargain hunting and frugality, and can teach you their ways. A strong exchange rate, the availability of Centrelink, and exchange based scholarships means you have little to worry about.

Won’t I be behind the other students when I return?

No. Keep some electives free, because it’s impossible to study compulsory Australian law subjects overseas. Therefore, you won’t miss out on anything that will mean you one day find yourself in court not understanding the legislation the judge is using to make a personal costs order against you.

If you do study compulsory subjects a semester or two after your law buddies, think of the potential benefits: a plethora of study notes, insider information into which tutor gives better participation marks, and someone who already knows the concepts to help you through pre-exam breakdowns.

What if studying abroad is difficult and I ruin my GPA?

It’s important to know the study requirements of your university. In my case, as long as I achieved a passing grade overseas, each subject I studied appeared on transcript as an Ungraded Pass. That’s right, you could have a whole semester where you don’t have to worry about grades. When you get home, your GPA will be right where you left it. Party time!

But do your research as there can be sneaky exceptions: e.g. if you’re applying for Honours or a Masters you may need to provide a transcript with the grades you attained overseas.

Will studying international law really help me succeed at Australian law?

After a few years of legal study, you’ve had it programmed into your brain that the common law system is THE ONLY WAY to get things done. Think again, law student. I was hit with a new perspective when a European law student asked me, “What exactly is the point of trying to follow all those conflicting case precedents?

Couldn’t you just write better laws?” Of course you don’t have to agree with these crazy people and their Civil Codes, but it’s important to recognise that your way of doing things is only normal to you.

Looking outside of academia (what?) the experiences you’ll gain travelling and living in another country may even help you succeed in that big old 1,000,000 credit point subject called life.

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