Almost 365 days ago, I flew out of the UK to begin my Year Abroad in France then Chile. I was terrified, had no permanent place to live, and had no idea that I was about to have one of the best years of my life, spanning visits to six countries, a handful of new international friends, and only a few minor breakdowns in the meantime.
Here is what I have learnt.
1. Talk to previous students!
I am so grateful to the multiple students in the year above who fielded a lot of questions about accommodation, visa applications, insurance and sight-seeing.
Even if you don’t know a past student very well, it’s worth sending them a quick message – they’ve been in your shoes and they’ll want to help! You could also go searching for travel forums and Facebook groups with other students or expats living, studying or working in your chosen destination.
2. Get organised before you go
It’s important to do a few key things before your Year Abroad begins: take photocopies of your important documents, get travel insurance (for the full period you’ll be away, and which specifically covers Year Abroad students in multiple countries), work out if you need a visa or residency permit, and get a rough idea of what your budget will be.
3. Do things that scare you…
Some of my best memories from the past year have come from doing something which scared me. Sometimes that was something as simple as getting over social anxiety to talk to new people, while at other times it was confronting a fear of heights to take a trip in a cable car. Another time, I decided to take an overnight bus across the Uruguayan border even though I almost never manage to sleep on buses. It wasn’t just good for my self-confidence, but also for my bank account: not facing that fear would have cost me an extra £100 in flights.
4. …But don’t be afraid to spend an evening watching Netflix
You might be on your Year Abroad, but that doesn’t mean you need to be having the time of your life at all times. It’s okay not to want to go out every night or to see every single tourist attraction in your nearest city. It’s okay to be tired or frustrated or homesick and miss out on an event because you decided to have a cosy night at home with your duvet and a Netflix binge. It’s all okay.
Remember that you’re on your Year Abroad to live – you’re not on a year-long holiday, and it’s perfectly normal to have up moments and down moments. You will have stressed days and days where you can’t believe you’re so lucky. You will make new friends, have arguments, get sick, forget things… but what matters is that you do you. The year Abroad is all about balance.
5. Don’t do things just because you feel you “should”
This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. I went abroad with a list of things I wanted to see and do, but I had to learn the hard way that sometimes maintaining a full-time job or studying a new subject isn’t compatible with the endless cycle of fun that I had imagined. Living abroad is hard – you miss your friends and family; you have to adapt to new customs, new foods, new workloads; and you might still be coping with pre-existing challenges like mental or chronic illness, or financial worries.
For similar reasons, don’t pay too much attention to what other people are doing on their Year Abroad. Instagram never tells the full story, and you can be sure that no-one is having exactly as much fun as their social media stories would have you believe. Don’t compare your experience to theirs, just focus on making the most of your own circumstances. It’s more important to do what feels right instead of simply ticking off things you feel you ought to accomplish.
6. Do things which keep you sane
For this final piece of advice, I have a confession: most of my new friends were not locals, but other (often British) Erasmus students… and that’s something I’ve come to accept. Going through similar experiences and having the freedom to speak my native language was really comforting, and it kept me sane when things were most difficult.
Similarly, make sure you’re looking after yourself just as you would at home. If that means taking a self-care bath once a week, do it. If you usually sing at your home university, try joining a choir abroad. Enjoy sports? Try out for some local sports teams. Not sure how to meet people in your new town? Join something like the Red Cross and get volunteering – which is also an extra-good way to practice your language skills!
7. Finally, keep track of everything you do
….and I really mean everything. If you’re doing an internship, for example, keep a word document in which you note down the tasks and projects you’re involved with, as well as the new skills you learn and your achievements. It’ll come in really handy for any end-of-year evaluations, as well as for your future CVs and job applications.
Keeping track of things can be fun, too! If you’re not the diary-keeping type, why not try an easy visual scrapbook (with receipts, train tickets, postcards, etc), a mini bullet journal, or just a couple of hastily-typed notes in your phone? Take lots of photos, too. You’re going to want to look back on this year when you’re in the library studying for finals next year.
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