A year abroad: staring change right in the eye

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Whilst for the most part Durham students are settling back into the comforting rhythm of the northeast, those of us on our year abroad are still trying to find our feet.

It is no secret that a year abroad entails more than the fair share of – dare I say it – change: a word that tends to riddle us with panic. It is easy to perceive change as the monster under your bed, but it is essential for allowing you the space to grow, and ultimately what makes your experience truly worthwhile! I think your best bet here is to welcome it, arms wide. However, like most things, this is easier said than done. Sometimes, even the most resilient of us can feel totally overwhelmed. After surviving the first two months of my year abroad, I feel I have earnt the right to compile some useful advice to bear in mind when approaching your own.

No number of seminars will prepare you for the stifling awkward silences you are bound to encounter on your year abroad

How does one say “language barrier” in French? Regardless, this one is inevitable no matter how many speaking exams you have aced: no number of seminars will prepare you for the stiflingly awkward silences you are bound to encounter on your year abroad. Unfortunately, they are a necessary part of the learning curve. Once you realise that you have been repeatedly calling the waiter a jerk (le connard), when what you really wanted was to order the duck (le canard), you will never do it again – I promise. Often, universities will offer tandem programmes that allow you to converse with other students- a language exchange, if you will. Make sure you take advantage of the opportunities available.

Finding your way around a new place can be stressful, particularly if that persistent speaking anxiety we discussed earlier gets in your way; it can make asking for directions seem disproportionately daunting. The remedy: Citymapper is your best friend. During my first couple of weeks, what I found to be particularly useful was challenging myself to get off the metro at totally random stops and blindly exploring the nearby area – sans Google Maps, much to my initial horror. It proved to be a really great experiment and has made my sense of direction one I can (humbly) boast about. What is more, I actually found it to be a really relaxing way to enjoy some time alone. Not having pressure to be at a specific place, at an even more specific time, made the experience far less anxiety-inducing and actually rather liberating!

Part of your year abroad is learning how to spend time with yourself, which is something that gets  frequently overlooked in our humanly pursuit for companionship. Psychology Today explains that “studies show the ability to tolerate alone time has been linked to increased happiness, better life satisfaction, and improved stress management”. If this idea makes your pulse quicken and your eyes widen, just remember that you can start small: go and buy a book and read in the local park; take yourself for a walk; grab a coffee (takeaway if you need). However, this is by no means a call for you to abandon all sense of friendship – this is your chance to make friends from all different walks of life. Let the group chat go international!

Part of your year abroad is learning how to spend time with yourself

Friendship is constantly a variable in our lives that is ever difficult to predict and, like most things, on a year abroad it is made just that extra bit harder. The trick here is to remember that there is no harm in trying: ask for their socials; ask them if they want to meet up; sit next to them in class. Remember, if things don’t go as planned, you don’t have to see them again – no strings attached! Otherwise, there are usually a lot of support systems readily available to exchange students. For example, follow your local Erasmus student Facebook and Instagram page; they often have pre-planned excursions and rendez-vous, which present as great opportunities to meet people.

Perhaps the most useful thing that I have learnt so far is that of ‘wiggle room’. Although structure and routine are important, don’t pressure yourself to settle into one right away, be spontaneous! If you have ‘wiggle room’ you can say yes to more invites and you can explore what’s nearby at your own will.

Everyone’s experience is totally different, but between you and I, it is never going to be easy. Your best bet is to dive in head-first and stare change right in the eye… you can do this!

Image: Zinneke via Wikimedia Commons

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