We spoke to people on their year abroad to find out the truth about what it’s like
It might not be just one giant holiday
The year abroad is often painted as the equivalent of a year-long holiday, filled with good weather, beach pics and Insta-worthy culture everywhere you look. We've all been subject to the abundance of insane stories of our mates living their best lives around the world, making lifelong friends and becoming fluent in another language. Plus, to top it all off, they were allowed to do all of this because they are technically "studying", when in actual fact they have very little work to do. It really seems like Freshers' Week 2.0, just in another country.
However, for many people, this isn't the reality. You may just have the time of your life, but you need to be aware that this isn't a guarantee. As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, despite looking this way, it's not a giant holiday, it's uni. And just like how come people's university experience can differ from others', so can your time on your year abroad.
We spoke to a number of students from Soton and elsewhere who have been, or currently are, living it up abroad. The majority of them wish someone had told them about the difficulties before they left, so they could prepare for it. So, we're here to give you a real insight into the ups and downs of a year abroad. The real deal. Not just the stuff they tell you in the advertising pamphlets, but what it is actually like, straight from many horses' mouths. (We've changed their names for privacy reasons though)
'It's amazing what you can experience when you step outside of your comfort zone' – Matthew
I think a year abroad is what you make of it. If you go into it with an open mind, willing to meet new people and (most likely!) embarrass yourself with your language skills then you will have the time of your life.
The thing I have most enjoyed about my year abroad is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world that I would have otherwise never met. I now have friends from Iceland, Chad, Germany, Mexico, America, France and more. I think people forget that they’ll meet people from an array of different countries as well as nationals. This to me has been the biggest learning experience, meeting people from all different countries helps you to understand that there is more than one way to live your life. Cultural differences are so interesting.
I would say to anyone considering a year abroad, go for it and take the opportunity to talk to anyone you can as you’ll probably form friendships with people you’d never expect to. I believe that I will look back in years to come and be super glad I did my year abroad as I feel its made me a more rounded person. It’s amazing what you can experience when you step outside of your comfort zone.
'The most exciting but also the most challenging year of my uni experience' – Maddie
This year has been the most exciting but also challenging year of my uni experience so far, everything is new and being immersed in a different culture is amazing but can be overwhelming. I’ve been so lucky in meeting a fab bunch of friends and experiencing it all with them has been so much fun, and definitely got me through moments when I felt a bit out of my depth. However, I really can’t recommend it enough.
'The amount of work meant I didn't have time to travel, or even go home' – Ella
In all the meetings I had in second year about the year abroad, they spoke about how it was the best year of our lives. In reality, I've found I've had to do more work here than I had to in the UK last year (which is insane as my second year is worth three times as much for my degree as this one). The amount of work meant I wasn't travelling around at all – I didn't even have time to go home! It could just be my specific Uni but I felt like some teachers really had it out for foreign students too!
I wish that instead of people at these meetings glamorising it, and giving me really high expectations, they were honest and told me that it is difficult, and not a doss year, that I would miss my family and friends and the new culture will need adjusting to.
Luckily I've managed to find some really lovely friends here, but it took time, and nearly all of them are from the UK or Ireland. I’d advise anyone going on a year abroad to really think about where they’re going as well. The city I’m in is very beautiful but small, and hard to get to. It made me feel very trapped as going home takes a whole day of travelling, and I’d say I’ve pretty much done everything there is to do here. As a result I am travelling around a lot this term, even though I still have lots of work, I’m prioritising my enjoyment over the overall grade (probably not a good idea but oh well). So I’d say don’t be afraid to travel around a bit just to keep things interesting, yes it will probably affect your uni work but I think it makes the most of the difficult situation you’re in.
'Being in a gorgeous country doesn't matter if you don't have people around you that you're comfortable with' – Katie
"I’d say my year abroad has probably been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. People keep telling me that I'm lucky, because I'm in Spain, but I've found that doesn't matter if you don't have people around you that you are comfortable with. I'd much rather be back in Southampton with my best friends, then in a lovely country without."
'Don't make up a perfect idea of what it'll be like' – Fiona
I’d say for people going don’t make up a perfect idea of what it’ll be like in your head before going because you’ll end up disappointed most likely. Just try and live each day as it comes and it’ll all turn out for the best!! I have off days but try and remind myself this is an opportunity I’ll probably never have again and most of the time it is pretty amazing. However it's important to remember too that not everyday is gonna be amazing, there are just normal flat homesick days too and that’s normal.
'I realised that despite cultural differences I could always find a way to relate to someone' – Ellie
"So here are my positives: Pushing myself out my comfort zone was a big one, learning to be open minded and friendly towards everyone because you’re on your own in the beginning! Also, I quickly realised that despite cultural differences & language barriers I could always find a way to relate to someone in some way.
And the negatives: I do feel like I’m missing out on life back home sometimes. Trying to manage a long distance relationship can be tough too. Also dealing with added stress of living in a different country all without your normal support base there – but that kind of turned into a positive in the end because I learnt what I can cope with and how I can manage stress/problems
Also a tip – say yes to things you would normally shy away from & don’t hesitate to reach out to people for help or even a chat, it really helps!"
'Speak the language as soon as possible to get over that initial fear' – Robin
"It’s normal to be worried about the year but once you’re there you will probably have a good time. I would advise as soon as you arrive speak the language as soon as possible to get that initial fear out the way that you can’t do it or you’re really bad. Whatever level you’re at just speak and you’ll improve and get lots of confidence from speaking. I’d say make the most of where you are. Try the cuisine. Get to know your city. You’ll find some amazing things. But also find something that is similar to your routine in the UK. Something that keeps you busy. For me doing sport here has been one of the best decisions I’ve made. It also meant I met people and got to practise the language regularly."
So there you have it. I think we can agree that, based on these descriptions, your experience can really differ depending on where you are and who you are with. A lot of it is down to chance – whether you're lucky enough to live or study with people you get along with. But, at the end of the day, it seems that the year abroad is what you make of it. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, and be open to trying new things as soon as you get there (but stay safe kids), and it will make it soooo much easier.