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.