“The year abroad is what everyone wants to hear about”, said every lecturer at every open day I went to. Partner universities in distant countries were used as marketing tools, the names of remote locations hung in the air: Argentina. Guadeloupe. Japan.
Even before I’d filled in my university application, I had started thinking about my year abroad. I would spend rainy days in second year dreaming of lounging on sunny beaches or climbing mountains. The question on all of my coursemates’ lips was, “Where are you going next year?”. Everyone, from lecturers to returning students to family friends would tell me,“It’ll be the best year of your life”.
Jump to September 2018. My year abroad had started and I was in Peru. My friends would say things like, “you look like you’re having a great time, I’ve seen your Instagram pictures!”, or “you’re living the dream!”. I found it so hard to admit that, although I was having fun, I was also really struggling. Cultural difference combined with distance and a lack of independence left me seriously homesick. There were times when the semester felt endless. Sometimes all I could do was to stare at the seconds ticking away on my countdown app.
We need to stop telling students that they’re going to have the best year of their life in their year abroad, and face the reality that moving to a different country and starting afresh, often several times in a year, can be a difficult, lonely, and emotionally draining experience. My homesickness was just homesickness, but it so easily could have manifested into something more serious. Accessing mental health services abroad can be extremely complicated, and foreign universities often don’t have the same support services that British universities do. And British universities can only do so much to support overseas students – this needs to improve.
On the whole, it was a fantastic experience. I saw so many things and visited places I’d never dreamed of. I made friends for life and lived with incredible host families. I realised what a privileged life we lead in the UK, and how many of these privileges we take for granted. And without wanting to sound ridiculously clichéd, I learnt a lot about myself. I pushed myself to the limit and I bounced back stronger, but I also learnt to be gentle with myself.
To students preparing for a year abroad, I’d say be aware that it’s not going to be one long Instagram feed. True, you may have the best year of your life, you may not – and that’s ok. But however it turns out, try and make the best of it. If you are seriously struggling tell someone, and access whatever support you can. Take as many opportunities as you can to see new places and meet new people. Enjoy the good times and learn from the bad times. And before long, you’ll be back in the rainy UK, eating Wetherspoons chips with your friends.