10 things I wish I’d known before going on a year abroad

World War III might be pending but have no fear, SWAY is here

Thanks to Covid, no one in the world is experiencing life in the way we normally would. Over in Edinburgh, you can snog everyone in Gari’s but you can’t sit with 20 people in a tutorial. Where I am, as a foreigner, you can’t legally enter a restaurant without a PCR test because they only accept the Sputnik vaccine. Go figure.

Whilst all this weirdness has made going on a year abroad even more difficult this year, thankfully, they are still possible. The start of Semester Two is also the time of year when people find out if they’re going away, as well as where they’ll be heading off to. As someone who has spent this year in Russia, I have a lot to say on the topic.

So, here is everything I wish I’d know before I went on a year abroad in the middle of a pandemic:

All friendly faces in Mother Russia.

The most important thing to brace yourself for is the admin

Admin is pretty draining and complicated at the best of times, but going on a year abroad takes it to a whole new level. The planning, booking, organising, deciding, worrying and just overall applying for a year abroad is one of the longest and most stressful processes a young person can do.

There’s an awful lot to wade through and you have to plan it all on your own. Add Covid to the mix and the amount of admin doubles. It’s also really rewarding, so just remember that when you’re filling in your SWAY form with tears in your eyes and your 10th visa application is crumpled up in the bin.

Focus more on your year abroad and less on wanting everyone to know about your year abroad

It’s really tempting to document and post everything that you’re doing while you’re abroad because everything is so exciting. But sometimes posting does more harm than good.

I know that other people’s social media looks incredible, and sometimes even I catch myself thinking: “Well my year abroad looks nothing like that. I’m freezing my tits off in Russia trying to avoid being killed by the 10-inch thick ice blocks falling from the roofs, my hair goes white when I go outside and WWIII is in the making. But she’s in Spain in a bikini living it up on a beach. Maybe I chose the wrong degree”.

Just try and block all of that out. Everyone is thinking everyone else is having a better time than them, when in reality everyone is struggling with adjusting just as much as you are. If you do find yourself posting a lot, just make sure you’re doing it for yourself and not because you want other people to know because this just means you’re living for other people and not yourself. No one wants that.

Look forward to Freshers’ Week 2.0

The vibes of a bald 30-year-old Russian man telling me that he’s gay but really wants to go to a museum with me because it would be a fun thing to do were just like the vibes I experienced during Freshers’ Week. Like is it flattering that we clearly have nothing in common but you still want to hang out with me? Or is it deeply concerning? Or is this a test and I’m going to wake up in a gulag in Siberia tomorrow? It’s difficult to know.

Regardless, you’ll meet a lot of new people. Some you’ll like and some you won’t. That’s completely normal.

Things you don’t even consider to be things will become things (just stay with me)

When you’re at home, you can walk into your corner shop, be able to get what you need, pay and leave within about one minute. That was not the case when I first went into a shop during my year abroad. All the labels were in a foreign language, you could hear a pin drop in the store because there was no music and no one was saying anything to each other so the mood was incredibly tense. A lot of the food was mouldy and my flatmate and I got laughed at when we asked for a plastic bag.

Basically, everything that you associate with normality and ease gets completely turned upside down. Things that you do at home without a second thought suddenly require 50 thoughts. Even though this is terrifying, find refuge in the fact that this is just part of the process and you will adjust. After a few weeks, you’ll find a routine and things will start to feel like home again.

Life at home goes on without you

I have never been humbled more than when I got back home from my first semester abroad. It was like a moment in the film where the main character finds out the people around them are characters too and not just extras. What do you mean you’ve had stuff going on in your life? That can’t be true because I haven’t been here.

I know it sounds obvious but life actually doesn’t care what you’re doing or where you are, which is easy to forget when you’re not actually there to see it. The life you leave behind will be completely different by the time you get back.

Find a new purpose to ground yourself with

Change can be really unsettling, but the more you lean into it, the more your year abroad can offer you.

You’ve got new goals, new friends, new accommodation and, most importantly, a new life. Nothing gives stability more than purpose. A new purpose is the main way to ground yourself in this new life and embrace the changes you’re about to experience. This could look like various things, just try to make sure that you find an activity that feeds every aspect of your life – one for your mind, one for your soul and one for your body usually works best.

Life can get quite lonely and repetitive

A new school? Yeah, it’ll feel pretty mundane after two weeks. A new place to live? Talk to me when the heating stops working and you can’t communicate that to your landlord. New friends? You’ll probably fall out with them after a month.

You might feel excited and happy at first, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly. There’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself for this other than get over it – this is probably the biggest hurdle of going on a year abroad.

It’s kind of like the first semester at Edi. It’s big and scary but soon you’ll settle in and start calling it home and not uni.

Flexibility is key

At one point literally everything will go wrong. That thing that you always thought was 100 per cent sorted will fail you eventually. You’ll have the most embarrassing mental breakdown ever and want to just get on the first plane home.

This moment will pass. The best thing to do is embrace it and try and work with it. When something falls through, there is always something you can do.

When I was worried about where I was going to live, I was convinced that living with a Russian family was the worst idea ever. Now that I’ve done it I’m so glad that I decided to try it because it was even better than living in a flat. I made friends with an eight-year-old Russian boy and we follow each other on TikTok. See? That wouldn’t have happened if things didn’t go wrong.

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