In the first month of my gap year, while I was still at home wondering what to do with myself (my gap year was unplanned, forced upon me after the whole A-level exams cock-up in 2003 – a story for another time), I got sick of hearing everyone talking about Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and all the other places gappers seems to go to ‘get away’ from home – the best way of doing so, it seems, is meeting other westerners in these places and recreating their home thousands of miles away. So, in a fit of pique, I decided I wanted to go to Russia, where, I was assured, nobody would tolerate attempts to make the country more like Britain. I would just have to blend in.
So in order to do so, I needed to learn the language. Very few agencies in the UK offer language courses to Russia, for obvious reasons. Not only is it far less popular than the warmer and more welcoming Mediterranean (by the way, CESA also offer language courses in Spain, France and Italy), but documentation is a bugger to come by. Fortunately, when I contacted CESA they knew the drill. I would have to fill out all sorts of papers to apply for my visa, but once that was done I could sit back and let the agency do all the leg-work. Anyone who has been to a Russian embassy will understand what I mean – you stand in a queue for hours only to be told when you get to the front that you don’t have the right papers, or that you should have come on Wednesday, or that the desk is now closed. CESA will organise all that for you.
Throughout my application process they remained in touch pretty much constantly. They sorted out insurance for the period I would be away, they also assured me that I would have an airport pickup on arrival and that any problems I might have could be dealt with by them. It’s important to remember that CESA are merely an agency. They liaise with schools in foreign countries, who, once you arrive, take over looking after you. But it’s still useful to know there’s someone on the end of the phone in Britain who might be able to pull a few strings.
The other comforting aspect of CESA is that they really research the destinations they send students to. Firstly, this meant the cities or countries themselves. About two months before I was due to leave they sent a very handy ‘dos and don’ts’ about Russia through the post, which made for compulsive (if slightly disturbing) reading. I thought that was very thoughtful. Secondly, in this respect, they research the schools in the countries in which students enroll. The people at CESA assured me that all schools registered as partners with the agency are accredited and inspected every year, to ensure the highest standards of teaching (and also, I suspect, that they don’t rip off students). In this respect I was well looked after – Moscow can be quite a forboding place, but the school I was sent to had really excellent staff, both in their role as teachers and as friendly faces in a new country. So whatever inspections CESA carried out, they did a good job.
As far as the cost of all this is concerned, it’s important to bear in mind that Moscow is not a cheap city, especially when westerners are involved. Additionally, as I said above, I felt well looked after and the whole trip was extremely well organised. And finally, I was in Moscow for about 4 months. With this in mind, the fact that I paid around £2,000 for my tuition, accommodation and documentation/insurance should be in context. Yes, it sounds expensive, but I came back having had a great time, speaking pretty good Russian and never having had any problems (and that’s a miracle, having heard other people’s stories about Russia).
The truth of the matter is, if you want to do it cheaper than this, you can very easily contact a school abroad directly without going through an agency, and sort out your own visas and accommodation. Fair enough, but as someone who was going to a place where information was relatively scarce, it was great to be able to talk to people who knew what they were doing, even if they charged a premium for the privilege. Plus, as I said above, no waiting in queues.
The gap year experience is one I’ll never forget, Russian language sadly is something that I have, but organising one can be fraught with problems. CESA seems to me to be an organisation you can trust, and that’s what matters most – more than the cost of using their agency’s connections.