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Why the Year Abroad Shouldn’t be the Best Year of Your Life

Why the Year Abroad Shouldn’t be the Best Year of Your Life main image

It seems to be generally accepted that the year abroad will be the best year of your life. Let slip that you’re undertaking this particular challenge and you’ll be inundated with cries of “It’s so amazing, you’ll have the best time!” and “You’re so lucky, I wish I could do mine all over again!” And it does all sound rather wonderful. Seeing new places, meeting a wide range of people, practicing a language, eating delicious (and sometimes strange) foods, gaining work experience or learning about a new subject and widening your horizons, all without the burden of any real responsibilities to pull you back down to reality.

For most year abroad students, it isn’t too long before the cliché becomes fact. They experience all the opportunities and have all the crazy adventures that really do make the year abroad feel like the best year of your life – so far.

“So far.” Two crucial words that are all too often left off the end of that quintessential year abroad mantra, and yet make all the difference to its implications.

Florence's year abroad

Living abroad IS likely to be a great experience…

Before I left for my year abroad, I was not-so-secretly terrified. Having looked forward to the abstract idea of living abroad, when the time approached to book a flight I became increasingly anxious. The nerves became a fear that took root in the back of my mind, coloring my perspective of the world during the summer before I left for Spain. “What ifs” danced around my head, filling me with self-doubt. Could I really cope in a brand new city, find myself a flat, stand up in front of classes of 30 teenagers, all without forgetting my basic grasp of Spanish grammar? It was very easy to persuade myself that I just wasn’t capable. I was bound to wind up homeless, friendless and unemployed in a foreign country.

As it turned out, that’s not quite what happened.

Of course, I got on a plane – because I had to. I managed to find a flat. And got through my first day of teaching. And made some friends. And improved my Spanish. I survived.

More than that, I flourished. I explored new cities, tasted new foods, laughed and cried more than I ever had before (or since), pushed myself, built my confidence and discovered a whole lot about myself in the process.

I’m not saying it was all tapas and sangria and hot Hispanic men named Juan. My time in Spain also includes some of the most difficult, loneliest moments I’ve ever experienced, moments that, at the time, I would never, ever have said that I’d be grateful for at some indistinct point in the future. Yet, if you’d asked me in July 2013 when I was sat on a flight from Madrid to London bawling my eyes out because my Spanish adventure was coming to an end, I wouldn’t have hesitated to assert that my year abroad was the best year of my life. In a way, it still is.

The thing is, though, I don’t want it to be.

Florence's year abroad

… but make sure it’s just the first of many great years

The skills you learn on a year abroad stay with you for life. A year abroad is fantastic, precisely because it teaches you how to keep improving yourself, to have the courage to step out of your comfort zone, to keep saying yes without forgetting that you always have the right to say no. You learn how to spot the people that truly care about you – clue: the ones who bother to stay in touch beyond the occasional, half-hearted WhatsApp – and gain the confidence to cut the stragglers out of your life, safe in the knowledge that it’s not bitchiness, it’s self-esteem.

I finished my year abroad with a greater sense of who I am, my core values, passions and ambitions. Not only is a year abroad (whether studying or working) a fantastic CV booster and interview talking point that will help you to get the job of your dreams, but the confidence and self-knowledge you gain from the experience is what will motivate you to actually apply for that job in the first place.

So what did you enjoy/are you enjoying most about your time living abroad? Exploring a foreign city? Speaking a new language? Working in an international team? Writing your blog? Take the time to consider which aspects of your year abroad in particular are making you happy and why (even write a list if it helps!).These are the things that you should strive for in your future career. Even if you still aren’t sure what you want to do when you graduate (and why should you be?), using your year abroad to identify what makes you happy will help you to return to your home country and your final year of university with a keener sense of purpose.

I left Madrid miserable in the certainty that I’d already peaked. When was I ever going to have that much time, fun, freedom again? Since that day, I’ve proved myself wrong many, many times and plan on continuing to do so.

So, yes, my year abroad was the best year of my life at one stage, but only because it gave me the know-how to go out there and make the rest of it even more fantastic – and that’s something I’ve held on to, long after the Spanish tan has faded.

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Written by Florence Robson
Florence Robson is the editor of ThirdYearAbroad.com. She studied English and Spanish at the University of Oxford and spent her year abroad teaching English as a British Council language assistant in Madrid. Get in touch at [email protected]/ @thirdyearabroad on Twitter.

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