The darker side of a Year Abroad

This January, I ended up in a Spanish hospital A&E, desperately trying to explain to the doctor what was wrong with me in broken Spanish when my Basilar Artery Migraines were jumbling my words and had made me barely able to control my arms or hands. Although I have become increasingly accustomed to “surviving” my migraine attacks, I experienced 8 attacks in the one week before my exams. I had spoken to my flatmates and friends from home but I had never felt so alone. After the nurses’ third attempt at drawing blood from my arm a combination of my fear of needles, stress and panic became too much. I sat in A&E and broke down in tears.

Year abroads are advertised as a year full of fun, “the best year of your life”, – an amazing opportunity to try new things, to meet new people and to “discover who you are”. On one hand, this has been so true and as my other blogs have shown, my general experience of a Year Abroad has been very positive. I have loved living abroad, making new friends and trying so many different things. My Year Abroad has pushed my limits and really made me into a much more independent person.

However, what is less spoken about are the worse times. There seems to be so much pressure for Year Abroad students to recite tales of their “best year ever” that the more difficult times are often hidden – but why should they be? When I catch up with my friends who are studying all across the world, the first question asked is often “how’s it going?” To this, most people (including myself) would reply with a gush about how amazing everything is. Half an hour later and the tune changes, small cracks begin to appear all sorts of stories are shared from pushy landlords and misunderstandings in culture to cravings for Cadbury’s chocolate and lack of academic support.

Living abroad is a big decision and whether you’ve popped over to Ireland or you’ve flown all the way to Australia, it is still a different environment than what you’re accustomed to. When we are fortunate enough to have friends and family asking us “how’s it going?”, we need to be honest with each other. I’m now nearly at the end of my Year Abroad which has been a truly exciting adventure but I will not lie, it has been a difficult challenge.

Here are just four of my confessions on how the year so far may not have been as ‘rosy’ and perfect as it may have appeared and how I have tried overcoming them. You may have experienced something similar, or something completely different (if so please share by commenting below!) but I hope that by sharing these, you may not feel as alone in the finding “the darker side of a Year Abroad”:

Language barriers – Even though I have a shiny B2 Spanish language level certificate stating my advanced proficiency in Spanish, sometimes I simply don’t know what they’re talking about. After my first semester exams, one of my teachers even confessed that he hadn’t really understood my strong British accent spoken Spanish all semester and had just been smiling politely when I chatted away… (awkward). It took me a long time to move between classroom Spanish and transferring the skill into real life to have full conversations. I spent a long time thinking that it was only me who hadn’t been able to make this progression instantly. However, after making friends with other Erasmus students, I soon discovered that my Spanish was no worse than the others and together we learnt local slang and tackled exam revision in Spanish. As my friends will quote, a key one of my sayings this year has been “team work makes the dream work” (as cheesy as that sounds).

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) – One of the most significant revelations for me this year has been that sometimes just chilling by myself or taking a weekend trip back home is OK. When I first arrived on my year abroad I was frantically signing up for pretty much EVERYTHING, from pub crawls and tapas’ nights to introductory volleyball sessions. I was so scared that if I missed one round of drinks or one weekend trip that I might be missing out on a lifelong friendship or once in a lifetime opportunity. In reality, I did make good friends from the activities but I feel they wouldn’t have cast me away for not attending one karaoke session or staying in one evening to binge on Netflix.

Academic pressures – for me, my grades for the year abroad would not be reflected on my final degree classification. What is important is to merely pass and to then be able to progress onto our fourth year. After years of academic pressure to do well at GCSE, A Level and Uni exams, this new concept of “just passing” in a system where we didn’t know how much we needed to work to do was difficult. The balance between enjoying my year abroad and making the most out of the opportunity in studying Law in Spanish was difficult. The completely different style of teaching was also a shock (e.g. no powerpoints, exam dates released 3 days before, professors turning up an hour late to the exams).

Homesickness/Loneliness – I ended up at a university in Spain by myself after deciding with my closest friends that we would go to separate universities to be independent and make our own Spanish lives (such a grownup decision, we know). At times, I regretted this so much when I saw photos on social media of groups of friends that had gone to the same uni and when I had a bad day at uni and had just wanted a familiar face to moan to at night. However, looking back at it now we’ve all felt that it was the best decision for us – we’ve all made our respective lives in our cities and also acted as personal tour guides when we visited each other. Thanks to technology, we were only a Skype call away from our friends and loved ones, and cheap flights meant that we were also able to fit in trips home. My 21st birthday was a difficult time when it struck me that I was so far away but thanks to my amazing newly made friends (and my 2 home friends that visited), they made my 21st birthday a truly wonderful day to remember. (If you’re feeling particularly homesick, I’ve also written this blog on my top tips on how to combat this! This can be read here.


12 thoughts on “The darker side of a Year Abroad

  1. Thank you for this article! I 100% agree that there is an expectation to recount all the good stuff on exchange and ignore the bad. I personally feel that if I recount the bad stuff I will be considered ungrateful. Many of my friends and family at home have never recieved this great opportunity and it just seems like I’m complaining whenever I’m having a bad time.

    Anyway haha Thank you so much for writing about your bad experiences xxx It’s definitely needed 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for leaving your comment, Faith! I completely emphasise with the idea of being considered ungrateful- after all, it is such an amazing opportunity. However, at the end of the day, we’re all human and we’re still adjusting to so many new things abroad so it should be okay to feel bad sometimes and not feel guilty to admit it! 🙂 Hope you enjoyed your exchange generally! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for writing this article Stef.. you were definitely not alone! I too enjoyed my year abroad because I got to do a lot of travelling, made new friendships and the content of my French law modules were rather interesting (once I’d understood the content that is lol.) However I too experienced difficulties and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was living with a fellow Sheffield uni goer from my course and had supportive flat mates I would have actually considered just going home.

    The French education system in bordeaux is very much behind in my opinion. I turned up to lectures to sit there for 1hr 45 and try to keep up with everything the lecturer said and write it down it was very much as if they were reading out their published book. Luckily the French students are very good at sharing their notes with you!

    Also all my exams were oral which is one of my worst skills so it was very stressful. Additionally the exam is all about regurgitation which is contary to many British exams and I hope that changing to this style of learning will not have a great impact on my style of learning when I commence my studies again in September.

    While my level of French law has improved my level of speaking French on an every day basis has not because it appeared that I just looked too British and shop owners etc just spoke English to me straight away!

    Please please please anyone reading Stef’s blog and other comments don’t let the negatives make you not want to go on a year abroad but just be aware of them because it will be more helpful. You will have a great time overall and more importantly you will learn a lot about yourself!

    Anyone going to France you must visit:

    Le mont st michel
    Arcachon and the dune de pilat (largest sand dune in Europe)
    San Sebastián (Spain)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment, Chloe. It sounds like you had a similarly challenging experience in France and I’m really glad that you had the great support from your flatmates and fellow “Sheffield uni go-er” on your year abroad! It’s also a great point to reiterate that year abroads are in general brilliant but it’s so helpful and important for students to know both sides of the story! (and thanks for the must – visits in France!!)


  3. I relate so much to this, as fun as it is to spend the year studying abroad in a different country, I’ve struggled immensely with the exams, like you said on ‘just passing’. Even I’m not sure how much work to put in to just pass, as I’ve always tried to get the best mark possible in my academic career. Hopefully both of us can get through this year!

    I reckon when we get back to Sheffield, we’ll become more mature and motivated to do well, and we can both smash final year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment, Dean! 🙂 Looking forward to enjoying the rest of our time abroad but also to getting back to Sheffield with a regular system and routine! 🙂 Hope all the rest of your exams go well!


  4. I completely agree with you Stef! I think it is really healthy that so many people are starting to actually discuss the harder sides of the year abroad! I had a lot of struggles too and, whilst I didn’t have the sense to seek help for them at the time myself, I know of other people who actually did seek help and were turned away, so I sometimes wonder if it would have made much of a difference anyway!

    I wrote a blog about it myself actually a few months ago (just here: and I think a lot of people have experienced the same stresses and pressures – not necessarily coming from the inherent “badness” of the year abroad but perhaps more stemming from the pressure to make it “the best year of your life” and then being sort of shut down by other people when you argued perhaps it wasn’t! I would definitely like to see more openness about stuff like this, plus on the side of the Uni itself, the department to work with the Uni Health Service to develop some form of distance counselling service, I think that’d be a super help to a lot of people!

    Thanks for the great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment, Oli, and for leaving a link to your blog. I’ve just read it and I love how honest and relatable it is. E.g. with researching before going to talk to a shopkeeper, I used to dread interactions in shops and would rehearse full conversations for all eventualities in Spanish before I would dare go out and buy something – from “no, I don’t need a bag thanks, I have one”, to “could you pass me that jar/bag of pasta/pineapple from the top shelf please?”

      I also agree, more openness and departments to work with the University Health Service would be so helpful! I really hope that you enjoy the rest of your year abroad! 🙂


  5. Thank you so much for sharing this!
    I spent a semester in Spain few years ago and I could not agree more! I experienced exactly the same difficulties with Spanish language, their working habits and the whole Spanish system in general. I remember myself during my first months of Erasmus, I was not able to understand a word. Of course, it´s funny now, but it can be so frustrating and tiring, especially if you need to get some help or if you are experiencing some problems.
    And I´m so happy you´re talking about the “darker” side of the year abroad. Of course, it was a great experience, I made many friends and I can definitely say that it was one of the best years of my life, I got this wonderful opportunity to improve my Spanish, learn about Spanish culture, travel, party and just do so many things. Generally, I fell in love with Spain and my Erasmus there will always be such a lovely memory. However, I was experiencing so much pressure to have a good time that I ended up completely exhausted, I was having migraines once a week due to lack of sleep, too much alcohol and study stress.This fear of missing out made me keep on going, so I just continued partying, traveling almost every weekend, spending time with my friends, basically never saying no to anything. However, just before my exams I got very sick, I had to miss some of the exams and I ended up going back to my home university with 12 missing credits. Of course, there is this stereotype that Erasmus students don´t study too much anyways, however, in my case, it was a combination of the pressure to have a great time, learn Spanish and keep up with good grades.
    So I know, that if I got to go for erasmus now, I would take it way more chill and probably miss half of these activities that I had been doing while in Spain.
    Thanks for sharing, Stef! I really hope that you enjoy the rest of your exchange! x


  6. This article is so true – whilst a year abroad is completely fantastic in so many ways, and so enjoyable that you can block out the bad bits, it doesn’t mean that they’re not there.
    I arrived to Spain thinking probably the same as all Erasmus students do: that there’s going to be a bit of studying, a lot of relaxing and quite a few parties, but it’s surprising how different the reality is. I spent the first couple of months kind of just floating by in uni and trying to get involved in everything I could to to get to know Spanish people so I could get a proper Spanish experience and practice the language, and to get to know other Erasmus students as we’re all in the same boat, however, it does all catch up with you. I found it really hard to make any Spanish friends, having blonde hair and blue eyes in the south of Spain means I stand out instantly as a foreigner, and none of the locals really seemed to have the time of day for that, and I have to stay their unfriendliness wasn’t something I was particularly prepared for. I did make lots of Erasmus friends though, so don’t get too worried if you’re going on a year abroad and are worried about being lonely!!
    I had tons of problems with my accommodation, with the agency trying to rip me off, charging me for bills that were from 6 months before I even lived in Spain, and for bills that weren’t even for my address.. even though I’ve left the flat now and am living in a new one, where so far I haven’t had any of these problems (and fingers crossed I won’t!!), the problems from my old flat are still ongoing and I am having to go to court to recover my deposit. I found this really difficult to deal with because renting abroad isn’t Sheffield’s domain, however, I do think they should try and put something in place, whether it be an agreement with hosting universities, to aid students in dealing with these issues.
    I also think the uni system is something I didn’t really consider when thinking about going abroad, and I genuinely can’t believe how backwards the system is here in comparison to the UK – teachers not turning up to teach scheduled classes, changing exam dates (one of my exams got brought forward by 3 weeks!!), not even knowing what type of exam they’re going to set even though it’s 2 days before we actually sit the exam, and there being no checks of exams, if the teacher dislikes you they can reflect that in your grade without problems… – I don’t think this is something that should ever put someone off going on a year abroad but just be aware and less naive than I was than to think all universities across the world run similarly.
    Language is a massive barrier when you first arrive because no matter how much you study when someone speaks to you in a heavy accent at motor speed you’re always going to look at them and just reply “¿Que?” and think why the hell did I think I could do this – but it does get soooo much better and you’ll find yourself speaking it without really thinking about it, it just takes a bit of time and practice.
    It’s so important to enjoy yourself on your year abroad (it really is a one off opportunity) but living abroad is hard and anyone that says it isn’t is lying, everyone gets homesick at one time or another (usually around Christmas when work is building up and the Christmas decorations just don’t look the same) so it’s even more important that when you feel down that you ring up your family/best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/whoever and let them know, you’d be surprised how much one little phone call can calm that homesick feeling.

    Thanks for writing this Stef and saying what everyone else was thinking but maybe a bit too scared to say – I think it will definitely help those going on a year abroad who feel like they’re the only ones feeling this way!!


  7. Thanks for writing this article Stef, it’s good to read a very honest and open account of your year abroad. It is comforting to know that I am not the only one that has faced difficulties on a year abroad and it seems that this is perfectly normal. It’s important that people are aware that not every single second of a year abroad will be perfect and that there will be challenges to face when moving to a different country. Your article will allow people to prepare themselves for such challenges and it is inspiring to know that you have still had such an exciting adventure!


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