Beyond the horizon

Alongside the cliché of the ‘Gap Yah’, is the year abroad.  I asked a friend just returned from Germany whether it was worth it.  The reply could come from any British Council or Erasmus advert- “it improved not only my language but my confidence and everything. It was an amazing time, I got to travel around Europe, meet some amazing people and do so many things that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to.”   But is it really worth the grief, upheaval and stress?

The defining moment of my own year abroad came in February, on the island of Chile off the coast of South America.  As I stared at the patch of marsh where my shiny new camera had probably met its end, a strange thing happened.   A year ago I would have had a mini breakdown.

Instead, I looked around;  I was six hours into a seven hour trek along a white sandy beach, through subtropical vegetation. Surrounded by horseflies the size of my thumb and as vicious as a cobra, I realised that it was 28 degrees and the only problem was how to take pictures of the penguins the next day.   The insurance claim would be inconvenient, but the trip to the police station would be different…

The same pragmatic attitude seems to have developed amongst all WIYA (With Integrated Year Abroad) students.  “You develop an attitude of, if it goes wrong, it goes wrong, I’ll deal with it” agrees Colette Talbot, returning from a year in the south of Chile.

There are low points. Loneliness seems the main issue; “sometimes it feels as if you’ve hit a brick wall … There was one point when I literally had nobody, and you realise that you are the only person who can solve your problems,” adds another student who spent last year in Murcia, Spain.

Eventually though, mortifying mistakes morph into anecdotes.  “I went into the bank and when they asked why my name on a document was different from my passport I wanted to say ‘Es una falta’” [it’s a mistake] but I said ‘falda’ [skirt] and the woman laughed until she cried.”

But what if it goes wrong, really wrong? A foreign language, a different approach to teaching and assessment, and being completely alone are a challenge.  If it gets to a point where you have to choose between your degree and immersing yourself in another culture, is it really worth it?

If you choose to study abroad instead of work, St Andrew’s uses your Erasmus year marks in your degree classification, unlike many other universities in the UK.  One student offers a pretty damning opinion of his Erasmus year. “I reckon St Andrews didn’t prepare us adequately to go abroad. More specific details would have been on how the host university works. They also place ridiculous demands in terms of modules that enforce too much work to actually live in the country. I ended up living in the library or reading in my room and now feel very under-confident in spoken language … It was a waste of a year as the aim should be to learn the language, customs and culture. I might as well have been in Scotland for all the exposure to the host country I was getting.”

Another (now ex) student dropped out of his year abroad working as a language assisstant.  “There were too many issues.” A combination of language difficulties, bureaucracy and accommodation issues made staying impossible.  That decision ended his degree. I asked him if the experience was worth the hassle; “Totally, I’ll never get to do anything like that ever again.”

A combination of planning, support and pure luck is a potent mixture.  The unifying feature?  The anxiety of going is outweighed by the fear of never knowing.


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