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Pathway to university: seven essential things to know

Looking back on her first term at the Durham University International Study Centre, Gwen Sim reveals the seven things that all prospective students should know

Student life
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Gwen Sim

February 16 2018
Seven essential things to know about international student centres


I began my first term at the Durham University International Study Centre (DUISC) in September 2017 as part of its first intake of students. I tried to research the DUISC before arriving, however, because it is a new institution, it was difficult to find information beyond their website. Although going blind into a new experience may make it more exciting, many prospective students might prefer to be more informed about an institution before attending.

Therefore, I’ve written this post to help students who are looking to start a foundation year at an international study centre, with a focus on my experiences at DUISC. While my experiences revolve around the law foundation course, I have also provided general tips on student life at the centre.

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1. What are the classes and workload like?

I am currently in the second of three terms of my foundation year. I currently have about 20 hours of classes every week. For my law foundation course, I completed history and sociology modules last term and now I am studying law and literature modules. The workload starts piling up from the middle to the end of the term when assessments start coming in, but proper time management helps with this. High-quality work is required of students in order to progress to Durham University

We are strongly encouraged to participate in seminars, which consist of about 15 to 20 students. I feel that this has created an effective and engaging learning environment, where I can discuss and listen to the ideas of my peers. The classes are well-structured and the tutors are enthusiastic about teaching and guiding us in our learning.

2. How does progression work?

To progress to Durham University’s LLB programme, I will have to achieve an overall average score of 80 per cent, which will be determined by end-of-term exams and summative assessments. We also have formative assessments that measure our progress in each class. In addition to taking the Law National Admissions Test as part of my progression requirements, I will also have to write a 3,500 word extended research essay on a topic of my choice. 

My assessments so far have been in the form of essays or presentations. I find the style and difficulty of the exams and assessments similar to the International Baccalaureate and A-level courses. Resits and resubmissions of exams and assessments are available, however they do cost a fee. My advice would be to start studying for exams throughout the term to avoid being too overwhelmed during the last few weeks, trying to complete assessments and study for exams at the same time.

3. What do academic English skills classes cover?

On top of modules related to my degree, I have to take three terms of academic English skills (AES) classes. These classes focus on improving students’ use of English in an academic setting and are tailored to your English skill level. This is determined by your IELTS score and mock AES exams. As a native English speaker, my AES class focuses more on academic skills, such as improving academic writing and structuring essays. These classes also expand our experiences with different types of reading; this term my AES class is conducting a close study of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

I think that my essay-writing skills have improved since taking these courses. I’ve also become familiar with the standard and style needed at a UK university, which is different from that required back home in Singapore and in Japan, where I also went to school. 

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4. What is the accommodation and neighbourhood like?

I live with other DUISC students in student accommodation in Stockton, where I share a kitchen with my housemates and have an en suite bedroom. I’m comfortable with this set-up because I can easily see my friends whenever I want to but I also have alone and study time when I need it. Most of the student accommodation in Stockton is only a 15-minute walk to campus.

I do most of my shopping in Stockton’s town centre, and every weekend there is also a small market, where I buy most of my fruits and vegetables for the week. There is a retail park nearby with a movie theatre and bowling alley. If I’m feeling more adventurous, I hop on the X12 bus, which DUISC students can ride for free, and head to Durham City or Middlesbrough. There is also a train station near the Queen’s Campus so I can take trips to nearby cities such as Newcastle or York.

However, students can also live in Durham, which is about an hour away from campus, and there are buses that run to and from campus to the student accommodation located there. Students can also choose to find their own accommodation rather than living in student halls. 

5. Are there opportunities to get involved in DUISC/Durham University?

As someone who loves to get involved, I jumped at the chance to become the student rep for the humanities, law and social sciences course. I enjoy participating in student-staff meetings, where I represent the interests of the students on my course and discuss and act on ways to improve student life at DUISC. I would highly recommend taking up these opportunities if you are interested in leadership roles.

Students are also able to organise their own activities and create their own opportunities to get involved – for example, I have a classmate who is in the process of forming a football club at the DUISC. I also know of students who tried out for Durham University’s sports teams and now play competitively for the water polo and basketball teams. 

6. What kinds of resources are available for DUISC students to use?  

Students are able to use the gym facilities for a fee, and participate in fitness classes, such as boxing. I am a frequent visitor to the Queen’s Campus library, where students can borrow books, and use computers and printers. We also have access to Durham’s online academic database. These resources not only help us with our foundation year work, but will also help us to integrate faster when we start our first year at Durham University, because we will already know how to use the resources.

7. What kinds of student welfare services are available?

The centre ensures that our emotional well-being is taken care of through counselling services. I have visited the counselling office on a couple of occasions and I felt that the counsellors helped me with homesickness and other personal problems that affected my ability to settle in or study. I’m appreciative that such a service is offered here and I would encourage more students to seek out this service if they feel overwhelmed.

Gwen Sim is foundation year law student at the Durham University International Study Centre. She will be blogging her experiences once a month for Times Higher Education Student.

Read more: Pathway to university: moving from Singapore to Stockton

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