When you are given the opportunity to take a year abroad, it is solely for your own academic benefit, right? That is, at least, how the year is advertised; and opportunity to improve your language skills, to study in another country, to learn from other institutions with different ideas and programmes.
This, I would argue, is a false ideal. Not that I can speak for all experiences, but I can speak for my own. I have no doubt that my spoken Italian has improved, and that I did learn plenty about the Italian way of life, but compared to what else I learned, these aspects aren’t nearly as influential compared to the other ways in which my year abroad has changed my perspective.
1) Learning to cope with difficult situations, alone
Going on a year abroad is like starting university all over again. So many people told me to prepare for the “best year of my life”, and this consequently became the least comforting phrase I could hear. What kind of expectations does that someone who is about to go and live in a foreign country, knowing no-one, where you are expected to make friends with people whose first language is one you can’t speak fluently? It really isn’t an easy year, and while it undoubtedly gets better, just because you’re young, free and in another country doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Homesickness kicks in, sometimes you won’t feel like you’re doing enough. On a year abroad, you learn to stop comparing your experiences with everyone else’s, because everyone ends up making the most of the year in their own way. You learn to focus on doing what makes you happy, which is crucial in later life, and which also brings me to my next point…
On a year abroad, you learn to stop comparing your experiences with everyone else’s, because everyone ends up making the most of the year in their own way
2) Defeating idleness
I’ve never been a fan of doing absolutely nothing, but there were so many days when I woke up and did not feel like facing the Italian-speaking world. While I advocate not being too hard on yourself, repeated idleness is never going to allow you to make the best of your situation. Going out and doing something – asking someone you met at university to get a coffee, visiting a museum or gallery, or raising money for a charity out there are all going to make you feel like you have achieved something by being in a different country. Don’t do things just so that you can tell people you’ve been busy on the year abroad, but find something you can be proud of doing. Being able to tell people about it later is just a bonus.
Don’t do things just so that you can tell people you’ve been busy on the year abroad, but find something you can be proud of doing
3) Growing up and gaining confidence
Frankly, I think my mum was terrified at the thought of me living independantly in another country. The months between arriving and the Christmas holidays were unbelievably hard, and I felt like I had been thrown in well beyond my depth. I had to deal with Italian landlords trying to overcharge me, and fight my corner. I had to explain to a dentist I had a wisdom tooth coming through. It was all worth it in the end when I felt like Italy could, well and truly, become my home one day, because nothing I had gone through was too difficult to handle.
It was all worth it in the end when I felt like Italy could, well and truly, one day become my home
It is not the problem that universities encourage only the academic benefits of the year abroad, but I think they place too much emphasis on how it will improve your employability, and not enough on how it enhances other aspects of your life. To be honest, as long as you learn how to manage yourself and your time, and how to get the most out of the experience in whatever way is most appealing to you, you will come away more employable than you were before. Work, volunteer, tutor or study. Speak the language, make friends, travel, and you will understand yourself better than you ever have done before.