By Anna Murphy
I knew that our year abroad, advertised as the most exciting year of a student’s University experience, would be filled with new challenges, diverse cultures and, of course, language learning. A year in which you hop from country to country, red passport (the essential ticket to free movement in Europe) in hand and a suitcase full of clothes and portable home comforts – a box of tea bags and a pack of rich tea biscuits is a must!
I do not believe anyone has ever claimed that a year abroad is easy. In a ‘normal’ year, MLAC students find themselves far from their friends, often watching their nights out in Jimmy’s on snapchat, longing to join them. Everything is new, getting lost is normal and the language barrier can prove challenging.
So, to prepare us for this, the MLAC department organised a general ‘Year Abroad Meeting’ last year. We were brimming with both excitement, nerves and a million questions. I went along with my housemate, assuming that we would be informed about the different routes into the YA and told anecdotes about the exciting things students had done before us. I was half right….
My expectation of anecdotes from previous students’ experiences were met, although not entirely in the manner I had anticipated. As well as stories of exciting travels and cultural discoveries, we were also informed that many Durham students can experience anxiety and depression whilst on their year abroad, and we were advised of the signs to look out for. At this point, I vividly recall glancing over at my housemate and realising that this was not going to be the holiday we had imagined.
We were told about all of the different opportunities that would be at our fingertips and the great variety of choices we had. The idea of Brexit was mentioned; it appeared that the lecturers had no more information than we did, but they did seem optimistic that a deal regarding Erasmus would be made. So yes, Brexit and all those issues were beginning to circle around us, but not enough to be of significant concern. There were certainly no PowerPoint slides on “What if a virus takes over the world and cancels all travel”.
Fast forward to July 2020 when our YA was due to begin – we all found ourselves wondering ‘what happens when that useful red passport becomes an unfamiliar black one and the most essential items in your suitcase are a face mask and hand sanitiser?’
I had never heard of a ‘travel corridor’ and booking a flight was as simple as going onto Skyscanner and seeing what was cheapest! So, the idea of a ‘normal’ year abroad now seemed like a walk in the park. I suppose that is how Covid-19 has impacted most situations though: things that we thought were complicated and stressful, now seem to be rather straight forward.
Nevertheless, I did manage to make it to Spain for a few months! Despite the various challenges that living abroad throws at you during a global pandemic, I do feel I got to experience Spanish culture and improve my language fluency, or at least I started to! My experience in Spain was sadly cut short as lockdowns were introduced once more and life in Spain, as in most other countries, grounded to a halt again.
As is the situation of many of my peers, I have now found myself stuck in the UK, currently unable to travel to my next destination. I left half my belongings in Spain in the optimistic mindset I would make it back, and am now faced with the challenge of getting them back before my tenancy contract runs out. England currently appears to be on an international blacklist thanks to the new Covid-19 variant, so that issue, accompanied with the long-awaited arrival of Brexit, has made the second half of this year abroad even more uncertain than the first!
However, the university are keeping us constantly updated on the travel restrictions ,whilst trying to provide the best virtual course they can. All we can do now is try to work out how to apply for a visa under the new Brexit rules and wait with bated breath for the borders to open so that we can get packing again!
So, the prospect of joining the world of zoom lectures and the dreaded breakout rooms appears to be looming over many YA students. That being said, we are aware that it could all change tomorrow and we will be booking a last-minute flight! I believe that statement alone summarises this rollercoaster of a 2020-2021 year abroad experience.
Photo by Anna Murphy