If you study Modern Languages at University, you will have to go on an obligatory Year Abroad. Even from open days, Year Abroads are continually sold as the pinnacle of your academic experience. “You’ll have the best year ever”, “it’ll be amazing, I promise you”, “you won’t want to come home”, they’ve all been said to me. But, are they true?
Don’t be silly, of course they are. Year Abroads are an amazing opportunity to move to a new country, meet new people, learn / work in another language and most importantly, make some amazing memories. But, it is this time of year that your news feeds are being plagued with pictures and blogs about how much of an amazing time everyone is having – I am certainly guilty of that. But, is it as easy as people make out? Do you just land in Paris, go to your centrally located apartment and begin life as a Parisian par excellence, drinking copious amounts of red wine and smoking thins from your balcony whilst talking about renaissance art? Definitely not. Year Abroads are incredibly demanding emotionally and the reality is, your mum isn’t there to sort everything out now. And, well, even if she wanted to, she couldn’t because she’s probably 100’s of miles away and unable to speak French/Spanish/Chinese etc.. But in a selfie-driven “let’s show everyone how much of a great time I’m having” world, it is easy to forget this when you see the relentless amount of Instagrams of beautiful European landmarks, Facebook photo albums of nights out with your friend’s new Erasmus friends and snapchats of amazing meals. I spoke to some fellow languages students about their experiences in the hope that next time you have a breakdown, you won’t feel so guilty for not having an amazing time. Turns out, it’s okay to feel incredibly alone, down and lost beyond belief. Have a read of what they have to say:
- It was just really hard to be thrown into an environment that was completely different. Being so far away, in China, I couldn’t just go home for a weekend when I felt down. It was so far and so expensive I was lucky enough to go home once, for six days, during the entire year abroad. So when things got rough all I had was crappy internet to try and cry down the phone to my family. And when that didn’t work and I didn’t want to burden anyone else, all I had was myself. It was a life changing experience but my heart ached for the whole year trying to maintain my new life and being in a long distance relationship. Sure, I got some insane Instagrams. I sold it so much online that my friend opted to go exactly where I went in China the following year. And only after she told me she had already applied did I have to explain to her the difficulties and massive culture differences she will have. If only she came to me before! I’d have probably advised her to go somewhere where they spoke English (as she wasn’t even a language student). It was amazing and life changing and I wouldn’t swap it as I learnt so much Chinese. But it was really damn hard and there were times I definitely struggled
I was petrified before going on my year abroad. Absolutely bricking it. Once I got here things were fine, I fell in love with my new city immediately and got to know the place as best as I could before university classes started. However, it’s really bloody hard. I’ve barely spoken to my Spanish roommates now they’ve both moved in, a) because I’m scared of getting things wrong which is so stupid yet hard to overcome and b) we have nothing in common (they left us passive aggressive notes about washing up before we even introduced ourselves). Even in classes I understand, I am still sat there feeling like a total outsider. The worst is when a tutor asks who in the class is an Erasmus student and you’re the only one that puts your hand up. It’s really scary. I just want my own bed, to be able to walk round the corner and order a Strongbow and give my mom a hug. It’s going to be a long semester and I’m really not ready for it.
- One morning I awoke in my shared Parisian apartment and decided to do a big food shop; I had been surviving on shit cereal bars and day-old croissants for a disgustingly long period of time, so I decided to navigate my local supermarket. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. I had already been halted by the country’s unnecessarily convoluted university system and achieved the impossible by finding a shared flat that wouldn’t immediately bankrupt me – I assumed the worst was over. I realised I was wrong when I tried to buy an apple and was met with an impatient, incomprehensible response; I was supposed to weigh it first. There I stood, humiliated and distinctly aware of my status as a foreigner, a non-Parisian. I’d like to say that I explained myself politely, but instead I abandoned a €50 food shop, left the supermarket close to tears and vowed to never buy fruit again. The weeks leading up to my year abroad had been spent obsessing over the ‘important things’; accommodation, transport, transfers. The sporadic breakdowns I encountered throughout my ten months were often, contextually, not that important at all. They were caused by a rude English response from the woman at the crêpe stall, or the ignorant chuckles of notoriously discerning Parisians that came when I didn’t understand one lone word in a 20-minute conversation. The lesson I learned was not to laugh at someone that doesn’t fluently speak a language yet is trying their hardest – that one moment of malice could ruin the day of a struggling stranger.
Year abroad, a time in your life that everyone says will be the greatest experience of your life. Well I can say from a firsthand point of view that the first few weeks are some of the hardest of my life. I thought that climbing to Machu Picchu last summer was going to be my toughest achievement yet it was nothing compared to moving to a new country alone. I missed my home, my parents, friends and just the comfort of my life and it was especially hard seeing all my friends go back to university without me and know that they won’t be there when I get back. However, I have survived two weeks of Spanish university and have made great friends with other Erasmus students and I feel like everything will be eventually be okay and be the experience that everyone says it will be.
- On my second week of my year abroad, the wifi broke in my flat and it felt like the end of the world. I was living alone because my local flatmates hadn’t moved in yet, I didn’t have a Spanish SIM yet and I am not ashamed to admit that I am totally addicted to my phone. It all got sorted, actually phoning Orange and getting them to bring us a new one was ok, but that first evening without internet, I cried and cried and cried. It was the first time I had felt truly alone in Spain (which in fairness is what I was) because I couldn’t even communicate with my friends and family at home. I didn’t even have the company of the Gilmores or the girls from Pretty Little Liars, as Netflix is a lot like me and needs internet access to work. But it got fixed, and I have flatmates now, and I realised that although I love my friends and family a lot, if I just keep wishing I was with them, I won’t meet any new people here.
- While going on a year abroad has many positive aspects, there are many hidden and unexpected things that people don’t tell you. One of these is just how lonely it can be at times. Of course, doing things like the Erasmus programme means that you get to meet people from all over the world, but it can be hard when they all live on another side of the city to you. Being a student abroad is a lot different to studying in the UK: it lacks a sense of community. The halls where I’m living is a world away from being a fresher; everybody tends to keep themselves to themselves and when you try to make conversation, at times it’s as if they don’t want to know. The same applies to lectures, it’s like the native students can tell you’re a foreign student, and alongside the language barrier, it’s difficult to integrate. What makes this worse is social media – as people only ever post happy updates from a recent trip with their new friends, which doesn’t help as you’re scrolling through your Instagram while eating a miserable pasta dish for the third day in a row. But don’t fall into the trap thinking that you are the only one, as it’s impossible to have “The Best Year of Your Life” 100% of the time.
- Contrary to what many of my non year abroad friends assumed, I didn’t really look forward to my year spent living in a different country. Everyone was saying how it was going to be the time of your life, with independence, travelling, and no uni stress, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was going to be a year spent thousands of miles away from my friends and family in a place where I was unable to communicate with anyone beyond the level of an 8-year-old. So I didn’t have high expectations. And some things were hard when I got there. After all, you’re just trying to live your normal life except you have to ask everyone to repeat themselves three times and you’re sweltering and melting in the heat while everyone else around you are wearing jackets and scarves. But you have really good moments too, and not just the typical “year abroad” moments you see on Instagram or Facebook but when someone mistakes you for a local in the street and asks for directions and you can actually help them, or you make a (terrible) pun in conversation with your co-worker. It’s easy to overlook these moments because they tend not to get boasted about on social media but they show you are getting better at your language and assimilating into the culture you’re studying. Even if you’re not having the time of your life, it’s still worth it as a time in your life that is difficult but rewarding.
I think one of the hardest things about moving abroad has been learning to do things by myself. Back home the University is such a bubble and friends are never more than a ten-minute walk away. So, if you’re feeling down or lonely or just bored, it’s so easy to find someone to chill with. Here the isolation can be daunting especially as living in student residences doesn’t have the same connotations as uni halls in the UK. Turning up to events for international students on my own was daunting and often resulted in a lot of anxiety and negative thoughts sometimes spiralling into me not going out at all. I think it’s also very easy to put pressure on yourself to have found your best friend or group of friends within the first week. This is obviously ridiculous but social media doesn’t help. Seeing countless photos of everyone on nights out with their new ‘best friends’ within the first week only made me feel more lost. There were times when I felt like I had no one. But I’m slowly working out how to go out and do stuff alone, the importance of rest and looking after myself and that trying new things (even if it makes you anxious!) really is the best way to meet new people and makes the experience so much better!