Years abroad, without fail, are sold to us as the best years of our (university) lives. So when it comes to deciding whether we apply or where we apply to go, depending on what our degrees demand of us, all we can think is that it is going to be a revolutionary experience no matter what you do or who you are. We are prepared to experience the year as an intense, non-stop high, with little other than bureaucracy standing in our way. But that is just not the reality.
I am currently on a compulsory year abroad as part of my degree in German and Linguistics. I won’t say that I have not been enjoying it at all so far, but I also won’t say that it’s been the most amazing time. For someone like me – a shy extrovert who did not enjoy Freshers or most of first year, more focused on making German-speaking friends than English-speaking – a year abroad can mostly be described as okay, but isolating. Getting to grips with the paperwork and the practicalities of living in a new country has definitely been a learning curve, but that has not been the hardest part. The hardest part is fitting in.
I have cried a lot. I have seen depression and anxiety return after I thought I had beaten them for good. I have experienced homesickness for the first time in my life, and it has been so painful I have found it hard to get out of bed some mornings. I have also met some great people, I have seen and experienced some things I would not have had the opportunity to otherwise, and my German has definitely improved as it is supposed to, but all of this has been overshadowed by an intense feeling of loneliness, which, even in the darkest days of my first year at Edinburgh, I had never felt so strongly at university before. And because we are never really told that it might be miserable and that that is okay too, I feel ashamed about it. It is like ‘fun’ and ‘happy’ are requirements that I have failed to fulfil.
I do not precisely know what the issue is – I have definitely reached out to different people and I have been creative about how I spend my time. And I know that, ultimately, moving from ‘vague acquaintances’ to ‘good friends’ requires time and patience. But when you have been ripped away from the whirlwind of Edinburgh, where, by the end of the first two years, you have a patchwork family and you have made it a home, having to start that process anew in another country feels far more trouble than it is worth.
I know I am not alone in feeling depressed and isolated. I have spoken to many people who share similar feelings about their year abroad. I have also spoken to people who are having the time of their lives. Perhaps the issue is personality, or it is simply luck – among the people I have spoken to, I cannot say there is enough of a pattern to be sure. And throughout all this, all I can think is: why did nobody warn us? Why was nobody more up front about the fact that a year abroad just might not be the happiest time of your life – and that is okay?
I do not want to put anyone off doing a year abroad. By all means, go for it, if you have the opportunity – no matter what happens, it will not be a waste. Just please, please take the hype with a pinch of salt, and do not be ashamed to say if you do end up unhappy. Year abroad propaganda treats the student population like a uniform body when we are not, and neither are our experiences.
Image: Miroslav Petrasko