Taking charge of your year abroad

Taking charge of your year abroad by marcosdemadariaga

This article was written by Lucy Colclough from The University of Southampton, published on 27th July 2015 and has been read 1911 times.

Lucy studies Spanish and History at the University of Southampton. While on her year abroad in Madrid she worked for 6 months as a marketing intern in an art museum and then for the remaining 3 months as an intern bookseller in Casa del Libro. She also spent time creating a year abroad blog, travelling throughout Spain, practicing photography and learning to play the clarinet. Here's her advice about taking charge of your year abroad.

A year abroad is a scary thing. Leaving my home country, my family and my friends behind to start a whole new life abroad entirely from scratch was definitely the most daunting thing I've ever done. Lots of things can happen while you're away that are totally out of your control and can make you feel small, weak and worthless. Maybe your flat-share is a nightmare, you fail an exam, you get your wallet/phone stolen or you get shouted at in a shop for not understanding...

The trick is to grab hold of the things that you can control and mould them to your liking! A year abroad is a fantastic opportunity to try new things, meet new people and explore the world. You're the one who has to live through this year so don't let a few sad/disappointing moments get you down; take charge of your new life!

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Your attitude needs to be positive from the start; maybe you're a little disappointed with where you were placed by British Council but I can assure you that every destination has its pros and cons. The first step is to do some research on where you'll be heading and see what takes your fancy. Grab a piece of blank paper and a pen and write down anything that you want to do/experience on your year abroad. This has to be things that it's entirely down to you to achieve - don't write things like "make lots of new friends" or "become totally fluent in Spanish/French etc" as these are either reliant on other people or not easily measured/ticked off.

For example after reading a few guidebooks on Madrid I wrote:

  • Go salsa dancing  
  • Go to a Jazz club  
  • Practice using my Camera/photography  
  • Start clarinet lessons  
  • Visit Segovia and Toledo  
  • Take up a sport  
  • Keep a year abroad blog  
  • Keep in touch with the other students from my uni 

By setting these targets for myself it helped me feel like my time away was worth something - my first couple of months abroad may have been a bit difficult but at least I managed to visit my first ever Jazz club. After my original list was ticked off I started writing a new one every month with all the things I wanted to experience in Madrid before I came home. Not only did this mean that I was filling my free time productively and enjoying myself, it also helped me to keep track of the time I was away and ultimately got rid of my homesickness completely.

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It's all very well making lists of fun things to do, I hear you cry, but what about the serious stuff? What if I hate my job, I have no friends, my flatmates are awful, my language isn't improving or I don't understand my lecturers? Well, the same positive attitude needs to be applied to these situations. After about 3 months abroad and a good few sleepless nights and teary Skype calls home I honestly remember sitting down and writing a list that began with:

1. Make work less rubbish
2. Find a new flat.

My internship hadn't been advertised and when I actually turned up to the office I found I was being given hardly anything to do. This made me feel so useless and like it had all been a waste of time but I made up my mind to improve things and by making sure that I consistently asked for new tasks everyday I was gradually given more responsibility. Though I was also lucky in that my first internship only lasted 6 months and I managed to find myself a new one working in a huge bookshop on Gran Vía. Likewise, the first flat I moved into had seemed perfect but after a couple of months it was clear I had made a mistake; we all lived in fear of the landlady's daughter who would shout at us like children if we so much as left a bowl in the sink. I made up my mind to move and I did. I'm not saying any of this is easy, the month of flat-searching that followed was the most stressful time of my year abroad, but I'm so much happier now that I took charge of my own situation. I now live in a little flat in a great location with 3 lovely housemates and am loving the rest of my time here in Madrid.

My advice
If you're not happy with the way your time abroad is going - change it! I know this is much easier said than done (believe me I do) and sometimes downright impossible. But this article is about what is possible. If you're hating your time away for reasons outside of your control then there's not much that you can do but endure it. If, however, you can make a positive difference to how things turn out then take the plunge! Ask for help from your lecturer, find a new flat, stand up for yourself at work, join that new club or get yourself a fun language exchange partner - you won't regret it! The year abroad is about setting off on your own personal adventure and it's you who charts the course.

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