Spending a year abroad as a student is becoming increasingly common, with courses incorporating compulsory years abroad or the development of the Erasmus program. Going overseas is always an exciting prospect, but it can be daunting at times and homesickness is always lurking. So here are 5 tips for your year abroad.
Take a little something from home
You will probably have to sit on your suitcase to get it closed on the big day (because yes, you really do need those 10 pairs of shoes, shampoo to last you a year and a whole box of your favourite tea). Even so, you should always keep enough space to fit that Christmas present from your mum, that photo album your best friend made for you or even your favourite teddy bear. After the excitement of the first month living abroad and meeting new people dies down, you might find yourself a little blue, and you’ll be glad to have a small piece of home to look to.
Say « yes » to adventure
Spending a year abroad isn’t jut about academia; it’s a chance to immerse yourself in a new culture and to try things that would never even have occurred to you back home. An Australian friend of mine who spent a semester at my home university in Paris told me that his last month there had been the best, because he decided to say « yes » to every invitation he received, be it for a night out, a day at the museum or a hitch-hiking trip around France. There will be so many new things for you to try, so don’t be shy or think « I’m not used to this, this isn’t for me ». Explore, meet, engage and the memories you will bring back home will be all the more colourful for it.
Beware of clichés
You will have plenty of representations of wherever it is you are heading to, and the people there will have plenty of representations about where you come from. It might be reassuring at first to have these representations, they will act as landmarks for you when you feel lost, but be careful not to get trapped into them. Clichés are at best a small part of a more complex reality, and if you don’t try to look beyond them, you risk missing out on so much and going back home having learnt very little. An evening at Paris’s most popular student (and tourist adverse) bar rue de Clignancourt can be as exciting as a day at the Louvre or a walk along the Seine. Besides, you will probably come across as an ignorant tourist if you start stating in front of your local friends that all French people smoke and that they can’t live without their croissant. Similarly, try not to get trapped into the clichés locals might have about you. As a Franco-British citizen, I have found that most people have difficulty grasping the concept of a double nationality. They often feel more comfortable once they have categorised me as one or the other. In France, I usually end up being the Scottish girl, and in the UK, the French girl. In some ways, this is a convenient ice breaker: people will love hearing your stories about how good and cheap the wine is in France, and they’ll always have something to tell you about what they thought of their visit to Paris last summer. But discussing French food and « le chic à la française» will only get a relationship so far. Try to remember you are an individual, not a nationality.
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Get the local experience
The best way to learn and grow from your year abroad is to immerse yourself as much as possible in your new environment. It isn’t always a simple task, but here are some good ways to mingle: join student societies, find local flat mates and get yourself a part time job. Joining societies should enable you to meet people with similar interests as you, and local flat mates or a part time job will mean that you will spend time with locals, and get a taste of their daily lives. If you are staying in a country whose language you do not speak fluently, don’t be scared. Click here if you would like to learn a language fluently. It can be tempting to stick to English, especially in a university environment where most people master Shakespeare’s language, but speaking the local language is the only way you will get better at it. Besides, even if you may be teased about your accent or mistakes, people will generally appreciate your efforts and find you friendlier for them. On your quest for the « authentic » French life, German life, Swedish or Thai life however, don’t try too hard to avoid fellow exchange students from your home country. They will most likely be going through similar experiences as you, and will be great people to support you, or share your joys with. And after weeks of listening to and speaking a foreign language, it will feel liberating to hear a good old East-End accent again.
It’s okay not to be okay
Your year abroad is meant to be the best, most exciting time of your life, and chances are, it will be. However, this doesn’t mean that all difficulties will magically disappear. Moving to a foreign country can be a complicated process and things like opening a bank account, finding a new flat and applying for financial support can get stressful. Some things might fall short of your expectation. You will almost certainly miss the comfort and familiarity of home at times, and of course you’ll miss your family and friends. While you will undoubtedly make new friends, some of which you will keep for a lifetime, distance and new experiences might make you grow apart from old friends. Don’t feel guilty because you’re feeling down, don’t try to hide it because you are expected to be having a good time. Share your feelings and worries with family and friends, old and new. They will support you through the tough times and opening up to them will likely reinforce the bond you share with them.
Hopefully you now know all you need to know to make the most of your year abroad! My last piece of advice is to those who are considering a year abroad, but are still unsure. Don’t worry too much about the difficulties that might arise if you make that choice, they are nothing compared to how much you will gain from living abroad and to how much you will enjoy yourself! « Les voyages forment la jeunesse », as the saying goes.
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