I always wanted to go on a year abroad.
In fact, I had practically decided to go on one even before applying to university and deciding to study modern languages. Everything about a year abroad seemed perfect. Not only an opportunity to escape the piercing wind and pouring rain for a year, but also a chance to travel the world, meet a wide range of interesting people and become immersed in a completely different culture. What more could anyone possibly want?
By the beginning of your second year you’re meant to have some idea about whether you will go on a year abroad and your subsequent plans for it. The unusual degree combination I chose (French, Spanish and Persian) meant that studying abroad would have been difficult . Instead, as encouraged by the university, I opted to spend a year working and applied for a placement with the British Council. I filled out all the necessary paperwork throughout the year and I received my placement in August. I was overjoyed to find out that I would be living in my first-choice city and that I would be teaching English four days a week at two secondary schools in Seville.
I’ve heard from many people that they were nervous about going on the year abroad, but I had no such concerns. In fact, optimism abounded. I’d spoken to lots of people who’d returned from their year abroad and almost all of them assured me that I was going to have “the best” time, that they’d had “the best” year travelling the world with their new year-abroad friends, and how much they wished they could have done it all over again. Moreover, I’d already spent my last two summers working abroad in France and Spain and everything had gone according to plan. This time I’d been lucky enough to have been offered what seemed like a stress-free job in a city I’d always wanted to travel to. How hard could it be?
It turns out harder than I thought.
If I had to choose one word with which to sum up my year abroad experience, “stress-free” would definitely not be my selection. My first few weeks were fraught with trying to adjust to life in Andalusia’s capital, sorting out accommodation and trying to keep on top of the huge influx of paperwork coming from what seemed like all directions – my placement, the university, my landlord, the Andalusian council itself. I also had to navigate the gruelling administrative minefield that is the Oficina de Extranjería, where I found myself in the Catch-22 situation of needing a bank account in order to obtain an NIE (foreigner identity number) and stay in the country, but simultaneously not being able to open a bank account without having the number already.
But surprisingly the hardest aspect of my year abroad was actually the placement itself. While one of the schools was an incredible environment with extremely supportive staff who I could not have been happier to assist, the other school was unfortunately the complete opposite. The majority of the staff didn’t understand why I was there and often said as much, along with disparaging marks about how I didn’t yet have a degree. One particular member of staff continually insinuated to teachers and pupils that I didn’t speak English or know anything about British culture, even though I am from the UK. In classes with this teacher I was frequently “corrected” on answers to bizarre questions I was getting “wrong”. These answers included (but were not limited to) the pronunciation of my own name, where I was from, which climate I preferred and which musical instrument I play (apparently I look like a recorder player). I was also tasked with trying to politely correct his strange ideas of British culture, such as when he very seriously proclaimed to his class of thirty young teenagers that “in Britain everyone is a vegetarian, that’s why they don’t eat french fries”. In another lesson, he told the class that British teenagers all turn up to prom in tractors. When I tried to address any of the many frustrating aspects of working with him he would try to pat me on the shoulder and say that I was just tired and should sleep more. My coordinator, who I hardly ever saw (and who actually retired halfway through my placement without my knowledge) did eventually alter my timetable but this support was short-lived. Later, they told me that I needed to be happy to work with him because otherwise I was letting everyone down. On top of these issues, the school was reluctant to pay me, suggesting that because I received an Erasmus grant it was not necessary. Apparently it was also my fault that I had not been paid on time because I hadn’t specifically asked for that privilege.
These issues aside, I had amazing opportunities on my year abroad. I had the chance to travel to beautiful places, participate in cultural celebrations, and meet other young people from Spain and the rest of the world. I also had the free time to try new sports, have a part-time job, and make the most of local events and culture, something I know I could not have gained from reading a textbook or attending a lecture. Nonetheless, one way or another, whether it was my landlord telling me that I had to leave halfway through my contract because of emergency work, or a certain pandemic causing the schools to close and forcing everyone home early, it felt like there was never a week without something major going wrong.
Sometimes this multitude of difficulties made me wonder if a year abroad was the right thing to do, if maybe I would have been better off staying in the safety of St Andrews with its three streets and close-knit community. But every time I thought this I quickly changed my mind.
My year abroad may not have been the best year of my life so far, but it was by far the most valuable. This is due to a few factors.
First of all, having no choice but to speak Spanish every day, including in difficult situations where I had to stand up for myself and express myself clearly meant that my Spanish and my confidence speaking Spanish improved immensely, much more than in my two years of studying Spanish at St Andrews.
My year abroad also taught me to be independent and resilient. I learned to stand up for myself when needed, and to work under pressure. Working specifically as a teaching assistant taught me the importance of patience, self-control, empathy, responsibility, and organisation, and although it was challenging working at both schools allowed me to witness first-hand what does or does not make an inspiring teacher and a thriving workplace.
According to a survey conducted in November 2017, interest in study abroad is declining among UK students, with just 18 percent of students interested in studying overseas, down from 34 percent in 2015. With the uncertainty generated by factors including Britain leaving the EU and the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely that this downward trend is only going to continue.
I also can’t help but feel that this is a shame.
My year abroad was certainly not what I was expecting. It was a far cry from a glorified holiday, as the experience is sometimes portrayed on social media. Every year abroad is unique, but what’s universal about them is that they are a time to expect the unexpected, to be challenged in ways you couldn’t predict, and experience things you simply would not find by staying at home.
Most likely you’ll have the time of your life, but even if it all goes wrong, it’s not the end of the world either.