The year abroad taboo – it’s not actually as great as people say it is

Edinburgh doesn’t help you out nearly as much as you’d think


Everyone says that the best part about doing a languages degree is the year abroad. Let’s face it, we’re going to be unemployed anyway, but at least we’ll have an Instagram full of various European landmarks and be able to tell you a bit about Latin-American poetry from the 20th century.

The year abroad is glorified by every languages student and friend of languages students alike. I’ve never met anyone who enthuses over Cervantes and Flaubert, or who just can’t get enough of medieval Spanish ballads, but surprisingly enough people can’t wait to spend a year studying near the Eiffel Tower instead of Appleton Tower.

This is all well and good, but what no one ever mentions that the year abroad is fucking hard. I’m sorry to be breaking the mystical glorious year abroad spell, but someone has to say it.

When we finally found British food

When we finally found British food

I’m currently on my year abroad in Madrid and as my degree at Edinburgh is Spanish and Politics, this year was always compulsory for me. I never really gave it too much thought throughout first year, because thinking about the future is terrifying, but when it came round to second year I found that I’d really settled into my life in Edinburgh. I knew what I wanted to do, I knew I was surrounding myself by a lovely group of people, and I knew that I was scared about taking a year out of my life in Edinburgh to move to a completely different country.

I felt like I would be missing out on everything going on back at uni. I felt like everyone would move on without me. I felt like I would be stalling my life for a year. I know this might sound negative, but I feel like it’s important for people to know that it’s normal (I hope) to not be absolutely over the moon, creating a countdown on your phone, about the prospect of going off on your year abroad.

Something else no one ever takes into the account is the stress of both organising and being on your year abroad. In July this summer, I got an email from my university in Madrid telling me they “regret to inform me” that they’d rejected my application to study there. There was me thinking that once we’d been offered a place at a university abroad, everything was all sorted – apparently not.

You will want to punch something or have a stress cry or four when trying to deal with various foreign applications and the International Office, and you will message every single person you know doing a year abroad asking them if they’ve done their learning agreement yet because you haven’t and you need to submit it one month before you leave otherwise Edinburgh won’t let you go (don’t tell the International Office I told you this, but it’s not true).

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Then, actually doing that small thing of moving to another country. When you start your year abroad, you will have no idea of what you are doing, what you’re meant to be doing, or what is going on. In my case, I found my Spanish university to be the most unorganised thing I’ve ever come across. Everyone in the UK is jealous of the Spaniards for having a siesta in the middle of the day, but when you have a list the length of your arm of tasks to complete and every university office closes before lunch, it’s not really ideal.

Finally, and most importantly, being on your year abroad can really affect your mental wellbeing.

This is the biggest problem about going on a year abroad. No one ever tells you how it might make you feel – how you might feel isolated, alone and down. How every little thing seems so much worse and so much more stressful because you’re in a foreign country having to make new friends and essentially be a fresher again whilst doing third year courses. Not to mention the fact that uni gave us no guidance or preparation for the potential effect moving and studying abroad might have on our mental health. It makes it all the more hard that everyone places so much pressure on the year abroad experience – everyone says it will be amazing so I feel like I have to enjoy it, have so much fun and lie about how I actually feel a bit overwhelmed.

A year abroad is different for everyone. If I had to give any advice, it’s to be honest about how you feel. That might sound stupid, but it made me feel so much worse thinking that I had to pretend to not be feeling sad and that everyone else was having a much better time than me. Ask for support, talk to friends, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.