The Year Abroad (sans sugarcoating)

I am publishing this piece after having just finished my year abroad myself with the fullest and heaviest heart and wanted to share this with you. To those reading who had anything to do with my time abroad, thank you, thank you, thank you.

For those about to embark on your YA – you’re in for one hell of a rollercoaster and a huge amount of self-discovery (deep but true). Although this article is specifically geared to those of you going on a languages year abroad like I did, hopefully, some of the guidance, advice and insight is useful to year abroad students as a whole.

I wanted to start with a little piece (by that I mean an unstructured spilling of the thoughts that were pervading my head) I wrote a week and a half into my year abroad. I was not comfortable sharing this at the time, but looking back on it I feel as though it is something that may help those of you jetting off for your YA or those keen beans already abroad.

14 months ago

After having known for years that a year abroad was something I was going to have to partake in, a necessary evil so to speak, part of me held out hope that it would never come to fruition, that I’d manage to worm my way out of it somehow. I even contemplated not pursuing what I loved to save myself the hardship. Funnily enough, the year abroad appears to be what entices and excites a lot of linguists, and we’re often rinsed by other degrees who claim we’re only in it for the St Tropez tan. But that’s certainly not the case. I’m sorry in advance for my lack of gratitude, I do fully appreciate the value of the year abroad and the things it can bring to you but I’m hoping to honestly voice my experience thus far and give you an unfiltered insight into a linguist’s psyche. Unlike many of the Instagram photos you’ll be seeing this year, my approach to the year abroad is an unfiltered and sugar-free spiel.

Now I know this is the kind of once in a lifetime opportunity that people would kill for; a year bronzing in the blazing sun of gorgeous beaches and gallivanting in the fashion capitals of the world. However, I personally have never wanted anything less. I know these words may sound crazy coming from the typing hands of a linguist, someone who is supposed to be passionate about travel, culture and language immersion; now that’s not to say that I’m not, but turning my life upside down for a year really doesn’t appeal to me. The past year or so thoughts and preoccupations about the so highly-esteemed year abroad have consumed my every thought and have been the cause of many sleepless nights. After incessantly being told it’s going to be the ‘best year of your life’ and ‘don’t worry it’ll be fine’, I can’t help but think I’m odd in some way for not wanting to dive right in, experience more and to grow as a linguist. This I do want and I know the year abroad is imperative in achieving this goal but it’s not all sunshine, rainbows and promenading down the Champs-Élysées. What I fear the most is the distance. The isolation. The loneliness. The lack of real face-to-face communication with those dearest to me.

Leaving behind friends at Durham after two years I felt as though I was losing a part of myself, that my life was being put on hold and I was sacrificing a year with great friends; some of whom I may never see again, in exchange for a year of independent living and country hopping. Only problem being that I am no big fan of my own company. I despise it actually. After being depicted by friends and family members alike as being too dependent on others, unable to fend for myself and even co-dependent, the thought of travelling and living alone really scared the living day lights out of me. After having only turned 20 last month I fear I’m not responsible or mature enough for this. Don’t get me wrong I’ve done my fair share of travelling but there’s something strange about not having a familiar face by your side to experience it all with you.

There’s no denying that I rely far too heavily on others to ‘fix’ me and be my very own personal problem solvers. But that’s not good for me and it’s not good for them. I realised that sometimes I have to be my own best friend and give people a break from my sh*t. They are not my councillors, I am not their commitment and they do not deserve to be burdened. After buckets of tears were shed at the hands of my year abroad I realised that I just have to bite the bullet and get on with it. After all its only 365 days; a mere 8760 hours. I mean if I watch the Desperate Housewives boxset 49 times then it’ll all be over. This is not me wishing this year away as I know many great memories will be made, I mean some already have been, and I know it will get better. A month or so prior to heading off on my year abroad I finally realised that no amount of tears or worrying was going to make this any easier for me or for my family and that wallowing in self-pity wasn’t the best way to go about things.

Having lived in Valencia for almost two weeks now I am grateful to be living in a beautiful city with three lovely flatmates from across the globe and I am lucky to have a boss that believes in me and wants the best for me. But I find myself searching for some real familiarity that isn’t quite here yet and someone to turn to when times get tough. It’s something that takes time to establish so I’m going to just have to wait to out. After having a close-knit group of friends from a very young age, all of us living within less than 5 minutes walking distance from each other, it’s hard to accept my place as a spectator in my own life; but fortunately I’ve only got one annual pass. Someone who I do know very well however, is yours truly and sooner or later I’m going to have to start figuring things out for myself and there’s no time like the present. The experience is beginning to feel less and less surreal now and far more like a reality, even though I’m not quite sure how this all came about so fast; having only secured my accommodation the week I was supposed to be arriving and confirming an internship a month or so before actually leaving sunny Sunderland it all seems like such a whirlwind experience. I’m still wondering whether I’ll ever truly feel at home. As I begin to find my feet and establish friendships I appear to find myself swept off them again as all my three flatmates leave next week and I’m faced once again with the challenge of adjusting and getting to know new people and leaving old friends behind.

Since arriving here, my confidence has taken a huge knock. I was temporarily banned from WordReference (for those of you unfamiliar it’s basically an online languages dictionary) for being too keen and I found myself reformulating sentences again and again in my head before I could even dream about saying them aloud. The first few days have been filled with a huge desire to speak Spanish whenever possible as I know that’s the only way I’ll improve, mixed with a huge fear of mistake making, incorrect conjugations and mispronounced words and, of course, excessively using my safety blanket of the English language to communicate. I yearn for a confidence that I’m yet to find within myself but I’m sure it’ll come eventually. Naturally, living among native speakers and those who have lived in Spain for years the confidence in my language skills was bound to dip enormously and it has. It’s proving a real struggle to tell anecdotes, communicate sarcasm and reveal my real feelings but I’ll get there. After trying to go into shops and speak Spanish to find myself being spoken back to in English I realise that this year is going to take a lot more graft than I initially thought. However, I know these setbacks and confidence knocks are blessings in disguise. Despite the pessimistic tone this piece has taken, as clichéd as it sounds, I know this experience is going to help me grow as a person and I truly believe this year will be the making of the person I strive to be.

After reluctantly showing my boss a piece of work the other day apologising for the poor quality before he even read a line, he told me that nobody is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. So that’s my aim for the next two weeks, try and believe in myself more, give myself a confidence boost and hopefully the pieces will all begin to fall neatly into place and my barriers both linguistically and personally will begin to come down.

I apologise for this glass half empty approach to the year abroad, but I thought it was important to shed light on the often side-lined part of the year abroad and let people know that the experience won’t be the same for everybody and that whatever you are feeling you are not alone.

14 months on

Hello, hello. I have not shared this with you to scare you or to worry you, in fact, I just wanted to reiterate that whatever you are feeling is okay. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise. It’s so easy for people to say ‘oh but your basically on holiday right’, well no actually not at all. The year abroad is without a shadow of a doubt the hardest thing I have ever, ever done in my entire life but I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. Please trust me when I say that the trials and tribulations are what make it oh so rewarding an experience.

I just wanted to leave a couple of pieces of things I wish I’d known here with you along with some untold home truths:

– I wish I’d know that it would all be okay and that’s things will work out for the better. Know that much like myself, the start of your experience in a city may be countless teary nights in the name of isolation, unfamiliarity and helplessness, but, by the end of it you will be happy crying for all of the love and support you have received, for the lifelong friends you have made and have to leave (temporarily!!) and for just how far you’ve come
– That your year abroad will not be nor is it meant to be perfect. You will encounter difficult situations, awkward bosses and just plain nasty people at people at times and these experiences may very well knock you like they did me. But you will get back up, you will let it go and you will learn a hell of a lot about the real world
– Please don’t expect to be fluent nor let anyone tell you you should be – with English being a universal language you will find that you may spend a lot of time speaking that but please, don’t beat yourself up about that
– The most important growth (in my experience) is not academic so please try not to worry too much. Regardless of how much your language comes on, the experience you have is something that will stay with you for life and your personal and emotional growth is honestly monumental
– Confidence takes time but you will get there – be it confidence speaking a language (I still shudder at the thought) or confidence meeting new people and being open experiencing new things, your confidence will flourish
– Your relationships back home aren’t going anywhere – if they really are true and strong friendships and relationships they will stand the test of distance and all other obstacles that may come in your way. I felt as though my whole life was being stolen from me but you will fit right back in when you get home. Please trust me on this one. Similarly, make sure not to neglect your relationships back home. It is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind that is the year abroad but try and keep those relationships alive and stay in contact; as often, it’s a huge struggle for them too
Do not be afraid to ask for help – we YA students all want the best for each other. There will be times when you need support with paperwork, accommodation, the job search or maybe just some company and emotional support. Please try and reach out because likelihood is they are feeling a similar way and they won’t want you feeling like that either
– Try not to be disheartened when something goes wrong, when a job falls through, when a boss threatens to fire you in your first fortnight on the job – this is just not a reflection of you and sometimes life just doesn’t work in your favour
– It can feel lonely at times – to combat this do the things you love, don’t coup yourself up in a St Denis basement with Angus the cat. Go and explore your city – it’s mad how much perspective and clarity a bit of fresh air can give you. Also a huge personal recommendation – writing down how you are feeling really helped me to manage my emotions and release them too. One final rec, I couldn’t sing the praises of Rupi Kaur’s two poetry books, ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ and ‘Milk and Honey’enough – they’re life-changing; trust me (wow I say that a lot)
You are so, so brave – I honestly think going on a YA is one of the most courageous things a person can do – know that people recognise this and that there is no shame in soliciting help from friends, family, your university. WE ALL WANT THE BEST FOR YOU
– Treat every mistake and blunder as a lesson – you will learn from these obstacles
– Appreciate the little things. The beauty of the year abroad is you are in wonderful new places with so much to offer, so, if you’re having a particularly down day allow yourself to go and enjoy your environment. Likelihood is there’s a lot to be seen and so much to be grateful for. Don’t let this opportunity for discovery pass you by
– This year will test you and seriously push you (but it’ll be a test you’ll eventually be grateful for)
– Complete immersion is unlikely to happen – what with English being so widely spoken and you needing a break from another language at times. You do not need to speak the language every minute of every day. Cut yourself some slack and only aim for what you can honestly manage. Your health and wellbeing trumps all
– Don’t write off British friends – I personally found that having English friends or friends from Durham helped remind me of home, helped me cope with the struggles a YA throws at you, kept me grounded and they were people who really looked out for me (love you all). Please remember that it is not just you feeling this way (even though people are often reluctant to admit it; they struggle too)
– The highs and lows are equally as important as one another – again we hear it all the time but you learn so, so much from every low point. Those feelings will pass and you will be good again in no time (I know it feels like the end of the world at the time, and I found myself questioning ‘what the point was’ as I couldn’t any how I was feeling subsiding any time soon, but, just know that the storm will pass)
– It may not all be sunshine, rainbows and promenading down the Champs-Élysées, but a lot of it actually is
Don’t be so hard on yourself and stop beating yourself up over silly little things that are out of your control. Pinch yourself and remind yourself that you are living miles away from home, communicating in another language and experiencing the real world of work for the first time (or perhaps a different university system). This reality is hard to face in your own country, surrounded by your usual support system, in your own language, in a place you are familiar with; so stop the self-loathing and give yourself a break. Celebrate every tiny success and remember we are all bursting with pride for you
– Don’t lose sleep over something that hasn’t happened yet – I’ve spent years fretting over the year abroad. Ever since I signed up for this degree I’ve cried pointless tears and wasted so much energy generating pointless scenarios in my head that never came to fruition. Don’t worry about something before it has happened, as likelihood is, it isn’t going to happen. If it does happen then just be grateful that you didn’t waste precious time and energy worrying about the possibility of it happening because honestly what is the point?
Don’t overdo it – it’s so, so easy to think you need to be doing everything all of the time. Remember that you can do anything but not everything. Prioritise what is important to you – be that rest, socialising, studying. Each to their own
No comparisons please and thank you – this is without a shadow of a doubt one of the easiest things to do. Don’t compare your jobs, don’t compare your language competencies, just don’t compare full stop. It is damaging for your self-esteem and you’ll find yourself feeling like you are not ‘good enough’. Let me tell you know that you are and that each year abroad is vastly different; incomparable at times, from the next. Remember that what you see or hear isn’t always the absolute truth and chances are other people’s year abroads just aren’t as picture perfect as their HUJI filter makes it seem
– No company is better than bad company – as somebody who used to struggle enormously with my own presence I am no stranger to this feeling – it’s easy to feel as though you desperately need people when you are alone. If they treat you badly, get you down and fill your life with negativity and toxicity they just aren’t worth it. Drop them out.. you do not deserve that treatment
– The independence you will gain is second to none
– Know that whatever life throws at you will be piece of cake in comparison to the YA (also you should treat yourself to cake – especially if you pass Chatelet’s M&S on your commute home)
– Embrace change (one I’m still coming to terms with myself) – I am very reluctant to accept that often things aren’t forever but that doesn’t have to be something negative. Remind yourself that some people are temporary fixtures in your life and that’s okay, cherish the time you have with one another and be grateful that your paths crossed
– No YA placement is perfect – they all have their advantages and setbacks, you just have to take the good with the bad and make sure you’re happy and comfortable where you are
– Make sure you don’t burn out – it is so, so easy to say I am going to work for the entire year and move countries after only a two day stop over at home. Travelling and moving and all the paperwork and boxes to tick are exhausting and heading back just before term starts is likely to tire, or at least stress you out. That’s not even taking the emotional drainage into account. This is my personal experience and I would have liked to have allowed myself to spend more time with family and friends before being swept up with uni life and work once more. I am grateful for having spent as much time as I did abroad, but in some ways, I could have really benefited from more downtime to organise myself and avoid panic and stress

Whatever this year brings to you – I hope you make yourself proud (signing yourself up to something this huge should make you proud in itself). Take every hurdle as it comes. Enjoy the wonderful things about your YA and be grateful for this opportunity. Know that if you’re unsatisfied, there’s always another flat, another job, another country and trust your intuition rather than forcing yourself to stick something out for the sake of it. Leaving a bad thing behind is brave too. I know that you will be leaving with a heavy heart and an international entourage, as well as a bucket load of confidence and a million doors wide open for you.

So so much luck to every single one of you. Know that I am always here and I’m rooting for you. Try and live by the words of wonderful friend of mine and believe them… ‘This will be the making of you’ because it truly will be. To those of you finishing, a massive congratulations to every single one of you (you deserve at least a decade off).

A reminder that although you may be away for a year (and will be greatly missed by all of us) Welfare, Cuth’s and Durham are always here for you too!!

Love Lauren xxx

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