an interview with virginia stuart-taylor
By Katherine Hellier and Eleanor Hepburn
On the 9th November, we had the very exciting opportunity to interview Virginia, who studied Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Exeter. Having graduated with a first class degree in 2014, Virginia joined the Telefonica graduate scheme, travelled and volunteered all over the world, has completed a 2 year masters degree and is now on the Civil Service Fast Stream. We hope her advice and experiences provides some inspiration for our readers and what you could go on to do after university!
1. What is the aspect you love most about being multilingual?
It may sound cliché but I love speaking multiple languages as it gives you the opportunity to understand the culture to a much greater extent. Language opens up so many doors; you can understand the world and its people better, and makes travelling much more enriching as you can interact and communicate with locals which otherwise wouldn’t be possible. It’s so frustrating when you arrive in a country and can’t speak the language!
2. What tips would you give to a languages student at Exeter University to get a first class degree?
I have written a full blog post about tips to get a first class language degree specifically for Exeter students. My main advice would be to keep track of your marks religiously, so you know exactly what grade you need in which exam to get a first, and which areas you need to focus on. Concentrate and work really hard on all assignments, even if they are worth a tiny percentage, as it all adds up! Additionally, it’s really important to get to know your lecturers and tutors; use their office hours and take on board their advice. They can help you go over details you may not go over in class, and with language learning it’s these minor details which will get you the top grade. It’s also great to have good relationships with your tutors as they can help you out in the future, but only if they remember you! For my master’s degree application I went back to my university tutors for a reference, which wouldn’t have been possible had they not remembered me. I would also advise reading a lot in the foreign language, or watching films and TV shows if you’re an audio learner. Take every opportunity you can to enhance your language skills, for example during my year abroad in Modena I volunteered to translate a website for a local company, from Italian into English. I translated 17,000 words in total so was excellent for my language acquisition and great work experience! Lastly, when choosing where to go on your year abroad I would recommend picking a smaller, less touristy area as you are bound to speak more of the target language as there will be fewer English speakers, and definitely live with natives!
3. What was the most enjoyable aspect of you degree?
For me, as with most people, it was my year abroad. I learnt so much about life and how to adapt and live in a foreign context. It gave me the skills necessary to cope well under pressure and excel in interviews, as I had many experiences to draw upon which simply aren’t there if you haven’t lived abroad. I also loved the flexibility of the modern languages degree at Exeter as I was able branch out of my original Italian and Spanish degree to take up Portuguese in my final year along with a couple of International Relations modules. This flexibility really allowed me to pursue my changing interests and make the most of my university experience.
4. Where has your career taken you and how have you used your languages in the workplace? Do you use them on a daily basis?
After I graduated from Exeter I started a graduate scheme working for O2 which is owned by the Spanish brand Telefonica. I was hired as they needed a student who spoke Spanish, German or Portuguese so there was a direct link to my degree, and if it wasn’t for my knowledge of languages I would not have been offered the job. This graduate scheme allowed me to transfer to Madrid, where I lived for 6 months and had a fantastic time, using my Spanish all the time. Whilst working in the UK, I had the opportunity to use my Spanish at least once a week, through email or phone calls with the offices based in Spain, which was certainly enough to maintain it. Unless you live abroad or are going into translation or interpretation, it’s difficult to find a job where you would use your language skills on a daily basis. Being able to speak another language and having international experiences definitely makes you stand out as not many graduates have this experience. After my sabbatical and master’s degree (which I am still completing alongside work), I got a place on the very competitive Civil Service Fast Stream in the European Department. For this job it was a requirement to speak one of the European Languages, so evidently wouldn’t have been possible without my languages degree! Speaking another language has given me access to so many more opportunities of travel and even visiting embassies. Because I have these skills, as well as experience living and working abroad it means people are far more likely to offer me work abroad in the future as you become the ‘go-to’ candidate, so it’s an invaluable skill to have.
5. What has been your favourite aspect of your career so far?
Definitely the travel – it’s my greatest passion! I have been lucky enough to travel with work on many occasions, and was even allowed to take a sabbatical for 6 months to volunteer in Nepal as a project leader for International Citizens Service. Furthermore I set up my travel blog, ‘The well-travelled port card’ just after I graduated from Exeter which has given me numerous travel opportunities. It was originally just to blog about my year abroad and time at Exeter but has continued to grow since I left! My travel blog has been helped enormously by being able to speak languages as it’s so much easier to liaise and arrange travel opportunities and reviews with the tourist boards in their mother tongue. If you contact someone and you speak their language, they instantly become much warmer and open to working with you, so it breaks down many barriers! Often I approach people to do reviews in exchange for a blog post, and sometimes vice-versa which brings great diversity to my experiences and website content.
6. What advice would you give to students looking for a graduate role using their languages?
First, use the Careers Service at Exeter! It’s incredibly useful as you can contact alumni who have gone into the field of work you are looking into, so I spoke to many alumni working as diplomats and in multinational companies– they will give great advice on what route to take and how to get started. Additionally a vital piece of advice is that if you want to use your languages in the workplace or work abroad, often it is much better to apply to multinational organisations with offices in London, and then use that experience to move abroad with that company. For example, I joined the graduate scheme in London for Telefonica, a Spanish company, and then was able to move to Madrid for 6 months, in a job which I never would have got had I applied to the Spanish branches directly. (In Europe your degree tends to lead to a direct job market, rather than in the UK where a degree allows you to go into pretty much anything). It’s something not many people think about doing but is a great way to get into the international job market using your languages, without being a teacher or translator!
7. Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
I would certainly like to continue working on EU and Foreign policy, probably for the government. Ideally I would like to move abroad again, potentially to Brussels, where my languages would be very useful! I would like to learn another language, as I think it becomes much easier to pick up another language when you already know one (for example during my masters I started learning Dutch and Swedish as I spent a few months in each country), so I would like to continue with my language acquisition. But new opportunities come along all the time, so we shall see!
8. Do you have any tips for anyone applying to the Civil Service Fast Stream?
My main advice is to be persistent - I was only successful on my 5th attempt! The process can take a very long time and even if you start the fast stream years after university it doesn’t make much difference. If you have your heart set on the civil service and don’t get in the first time I would recommend to use your time wisely. For example, I got 2 years of great work experience, took time out to volunteer, did a masters and lived abroad – all of which has helped me get there eventually! Unfortunately they have stopped the EU graduate scheme which I am currently on, but there is still the diplomatic stream if you want to use your languages. I would recommend doing as many of the skills and assessment centre practices as possible (the university organise lots) as most of them are similar and its great interview practice. I would also say to look at roles outside of the fast stream - there are many advertised on the civil service website and it’s easy to move between departments once you have some experience – the fast stream is only one route in!
If you would like to read more about Virginia’s experiences, please visit her website: