Step By Step: a journey to your year abroad
"An ERASMUS exchange is not a year in your life, it is a life in a year." but how do you get that? As with most things in life, there are rules and instructions to follow in order to make the most of your year abroad. There are two ways to do this: in some ways you are creating it, yet in another you make it just by turning up. It's very daunting. There are so many questions that you will ask yourself along the way: "Can I do this?" "How do I want to spend my year?" "What sort of accommodation is best for me?" "WHERE will I find the cheapest Baked Beans?!". These are all questions I have asked myself over the past two years, so here are my five top tips:
Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? What is best for you? Initially I thought a job was what I wanted - I imagined myself as a highflying intern working for a fashion or printing house in Paris, living in a chic flat in Montparnasse and going out for frequent coffee breaks in the Latin Quarter with my colleagues who were reluctant to let me go after the internship finished, begging me to return just days after my graduation. Wishful thinking! This wasn't best for me. So far, I have lived the majority of my life smothered in cotton wool having grown up in a small picturesque village in South Leicestershire, being educated at a small private school, and studying at the reasonably small campus-based university in Lancaster (which somehow holds the title of a 'city.') Because of this, I'm not best suited to the city life. Give me a book, blanket and wood burner over a club, cocktail and the cold any day. It's pretty obvious then, that a year in Paris may not be the best suited to me. Serena Van der Woodsen anyone?
2. Be Selfish.
What is right for you? How are you going to benefit the most from this year? Do you want to work or study? Is living alone, with people from your home university or with strangers going to work best for you? Regardless of the answers to these questions, you have to remember that it is YOU who is moving abroad to a foreign culture, country and lifestyle, therefore it is YOU who has to be as happy as you can be. This is where I was most selfish. As I mentioned above, my ideal year abroad was not as I wanted it to be. I soon realised this for a variety of reasons, mainly because I couldn't afford to be paid peanuts and expect to eat anything other based on the minimal wages and extortionate rent. From the start I knew working for the British Council wasn't for me, so this was ruled out and I was left with life as a French student. The choices of where we could study were limited at my university. I didn't want to live in the north of France for the simple reason that studying at Lancaster means the sunshine and warmth are too rarely enjoyed (I know, in the scheme of things, that this is a poor justification but it's honest!) so I wanted to benefit from some warmth and good weather. I was then left with a choice between Montpellier and Lyon which, in my mind, was decided between the beach or food (again, poor but truthful reasoning.) I don't want you to think I went about this in a daft way, I researched the institutions, the cities themselves and the transport networks amongst many other things, but to me it wasn't really a massive thing. My experience would be the same wherever I went so long as I was happy and open-minded, which leads me onto my next point.
3. Be Organised.
It helps! I know, I sound like a Mum, but seriously life is so much easier. After a few mishaps which I maintain were not my fault, I had to wait a while to be able to activate my log-in on the uni's website. Due to this, I got complacent and failed to think about any other deadlines which were due and, as a result, I have already missed a deadline to get my student ID card. Not a good start. Get a diary, cover your room with post-its, set reminders on your phone, get your mum to nag you - whatever it takes do it. Knowing that you have done everything you physically can before arriving makes the whole experience far less daunting. Especially when admin abroad can be less efficient.
4. Be Open-Minded.
Don't write people off: that old lady who serves you your daily croissant? - she could your guardian angel in disguise. You only get this opportunity once, so don't write people off. As over-friendly as someone may be, or as little time as someone may appear to have for you: persevere. They could be your next best friend. Talk to as many people as you can, go to as many events as you want, and don't judge something or someone too soon. For me, unless I am confident I don't think I will be completely open-minded. As vain as this may sound, this meant a new hairstyle was required and a few pounds lost; being happy in myself means I'm more likely to talk to a stranger when I'm feeling lonely or left out which will (hopefully) result in friends, or opportunities. I intend to use this upcoming year as a second attempt at Freshers (try new hobbies, take up a new sport - that sort of thing) to offset any pangs of homesickness etc.
5. Don't Worry!
Remember - if it wasn't safe, fun, and worthwhile; the Erasmus scheme wouldn't allow 200,000 students to go on an exchange each year. It is completely natural to be panic-stricken, excited, stressed and nervous. I don't know anyone who is in my current situation and who isn't feeling these emotions. It is normal! In many cases you're going far away and you're not alone. Homesickness is as natural as the reluctance to end your year abroad, and the internet makes life abroad much more comfortable (both in terms of reading articles to help you prepare *ahem* to skyping and facebooking family and friends on a weekly basis.)
This is all that I've learned so far. I'm sure there are many more lessons on their way to me - I'm both excited and apprehensive to learn them.