Eight things I learnt on my year abroad

year abroad statue Castellon

During my third year at university, I went on the standard year abroad that was required for all language students. Setting off to teach in a small city in Valencia, I did what any student would’ve done: I arrived at my destination, set down my bags…and started crying.

I cried whilst climbing up the stairs, I showered crying and I even sobbed down the phone whilst my mum calmly told me turn the TV on (the commercials were meant to be soothing).

Was I alone? Apparently not. One of my best friends arrived at her own town and, as soon as her parents left the hotel room, she started bursting into tears. When I asked her about it, she couldn’t completely explain why she was so anxious.

For every happy and optimistic person you encounter on a year abroad, there are a similar amount that are finding it hard to cope. I wish I could travel back and relate to my past self all the amazing experiences I’d have but, ideally, I would’ve also tried to pass on a few (sometimes hard to deal with) truths.

Year abroad anxiety is completely justified

mediterranean in march year abroad

You may have moved away for university, but the separation you’re feeling right now is on a different level. When we move around the same country, there is a common language, culture and feel to our new surroundings. Friends are not far away and retracing your steps is easy.

Moving abroad, on the other hand, can be an alienating experience. A different language that may not be your first (or that may not even be fluent in) diminishes your ability to express yourself as freely as you do in your mother tongue. This can leave you feeling vulnerable and slightly defenceless. Foreign surroundings add fuel to that loneliness: you can’t recognise the stores, restaurants or signs. Everyone else seems to know where they’re going, yet you just feel lost.

Your anxiety stems from a child-like reaction, as, just like children, we are more vulnerable than we have been in years, and that notion can terrify people. Others may seem to thrive straight away, but they may very well be putting on a brave face. Don’t worry, the initial fear will eventually subside.

You’ll encounter cliques

You might be slightly disheartened by the fact that not all year abroaders are so forthcoming with friendship. Small groups may start to form based on nationalities and show little interest in interacting with others. Going back to the first point, this could be their own way on holding on to something familiar and provide them with some familiar comfort. Whilst some will cling on to that notion, don’t give up on them just yet. Most will eventually relax and be more open to new friendships.

Everything won’t fall into place

Toledo view 2 year abroad

Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations of how great life can be abroad. Sun, sea and new beginning: an escapist’s dream.

But nothing in life is a given, and you can’t have an ideal life laid out for you without any effort. The difficulties could come from different places: taking time to integrate into the culture, slow accepting locals or a sense of displacement can all be contributing factors. Getting used to new surroundings takes time – don’t expect it to all work out at once.

You’ll rediscover yourself

Barvel Salamanca year abroad

There’s a reason why year abroads are a great way to discover who you are. While at home, we sometimes doubt whether we only act a certain way due to our surroundings and the people around us. Being extracted from that bubble can get you on the way to realising what makes you an individual without the external influence.

When I was away, I started to realise that, no matter where I was on the world, I would always need time alone – turns out that I’m quite the introvert. During my childhood it was pegged as shyness. However, once I started moving around and finding people I enjoyed spending time with, I realised that I still needed time apart in order to recharge and gather my thoughts.

Though, looking back, it didn’t make me any less louder. Or excited (like when I found the Marvel-themed bar featured above).

Don’t idealise your relationships back home

When abroad, I met a girl who missed her boyfriend. A lot.

She said so every day, calling him, barely leaving her room and flying back to see him more regularly than not. She started missing work and not coming out in the evening, all in order to talk to him. When he finally came out to visit her (and he only came the once), it was clear that this guy was no fairytale: abrupt, short-tempered and incredibly lazy, all he did was complain the whole time he was there. In the end, they stayed together and, who knows, they may still be happy now. What the girl did do was miss out on a unique experience, craving her home life when she could have made an effort to enjoy the moment she was currently living.

I myself became guilty of this in my first few months, missing my boyfriend at the time who was also on his year abroad. However, seeing how gloomy this girl was opened my eyes to how pessimistic I’d become. A few months later, I knew to make the most of my time left.

Through life I’ve learnt the tough way, whether from the death of a close family member or simply scrolling through photos of my friends’ nights out: life doesn’t stop because you’re not there, and not should you want it to. It isn’t healthy.

Your language skills may not be as good as you think they were

Madrid year abroad

Six years of study, numerous vocabulary tests and more subjunctive practice that you ever thought possible…and you’ve just completely blanked out as soon as cashier asks you for change. Let’s face it: three to four hours of lessons a week can’t compare to being around a language 24/7.

In addition, with language constantly evolving, you’ll quickly realise that the slang acquired through textbooks quickly becomes outdated. Set aside some time to meet locals and get good grasp on how they’re expressing themselves: the more you hear, the easier it will be to take it in and use it yourself.

Day-to-day life isn’t an extended holiday

Whilst you may be on your year abroad, don’t forget that many other locals are getting on with their 9-5 lives. Your holiday persona may be in full swing, but you shouldn’t judge them for ruining your so-called fun.

Also, don’t forget that long-term stays mean sticking to certain rules. Making it to work without being hungover and getting to university on time are a necessity – not something heroic and unusual.

You won’t regret taking risks

Gandia nightclub year abroad

New faces, food and sporadic trips: no one lives as vicariously as they do like when they are abroad. In a spur of the moment decision, I decided to catch a bus that left at midnight in order to travel to the other side of the country. I waited at bus stations in the middle of nowhere and, at certain points, had no idea where I was. It was one of the most exciting times of my life.

Even when there are a few things I regret, the decision to take action (whether taking last minute trains or jumping into public fountains) made me fully embrace my year abroad and never left me wondering about what could’ve happened. That would’ve been the biggest disappointment of them all.

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