If you are in your second year of a degree in which a year abroad is compulsory, now is the time you must start making those important decisions. First year is over, fresher’s fortnight is over, and all of a sudden it’s time to begin thinking seriously about what you will do on your year abroad. If you’re anything like me you might feel like it’s all come around very quickly. This time last year I wasn’t even sure whether I wanted to work or study, let alone have an idea which area of France (or the rest of the French speaking world) I would choose. I had a lot of questions and a lot of doubts, and I was worried about making the wrong choices. The one thing I found very useful was reading advice from people who had done the same thing. So, while I can only speak from my experience as a French student, I have compiled a short list of things I wish I had known a year ago in the hope that I can help other students in their preparation.
Decide quickly whether you want to work or to study.
The sooner you decide which route to take, the more time you have to research opportunities in detail. It is important to seriously consider both options, but counter-productive to spend hours looking at jobs abroad and then deciding you would rather go to a university. I think a useful way to work out which option is best for you is by writing a good old fashioned list of positives and negatives. That way you can clearly see the benefits of each, and all you have to do is work out which points are the most important for you. For me, getting paid and not having to write any essays for a whole year made doing a work placement a clear winner, but there are plenty of positives to both options.
Picking the right location.
Ending up in a small French town in the middle of nowhere and having to walk five miles to the nearest bus stop was one of the things I was most concerned about. The downside to becoming a language assistant with the British Council is that there’s no guarantee you will be placed in a bustling city with lots of students and impressive architecture. If you apply for a university exchange or for a job in a specific city then location won’t be a concern, but with the assistantships, you can literally end up anywhere. With this in mind I think it’s important to work out your priorities. Personally, I decided that I didn’t mind so much which area of France I lived in, it was more important that I didn’t end up in a village miles from anywhere exciting. I picked regions that might not be the most popular, seemed to include the largest towns and had the best facilities for travelling. Whatever your personal priorities, good research is essential. Try not to fall in to the trap of choosing a region because of a particular city, get to know the whole surrounding area because even if you get your first choice of location you could be pretty far from that city.
My new hometown, Valenciennes.
Be prepared for a stupid amount of paperwork
I have been living in France for almost six weeks now and I am still doing paperwork linked to my arrival. I can’t speak for every year abroad destination, but in France everything takes a long time and uses a LOT of paper; I feel like I have single-handedly wiped out a small forest. Make sure to arrive at your destination armed with everything important in a ring-binder, as by the time you leave home you will have already acquired a substantial amount of paperwork and it’s essential to keep it all organised. You never know when some bugger is going to ask you for a letter you were sent about six months ago, and your life will be a lot easier if you know where it can be found. It’s also a good idea to have at least five photocopies of your passport, your birth certificate and a healthy stash of passport sized photos if you intend on getting any sort of travel or student card.
Two things that really aren’t worth worrying about.
There are a couple of things I spent my time worrying about before my year abroad which seem completely trivial now that I’m here; friends and my relationship. For a start, I was concerned about not meeting any new friends and spending my Thursday evenings wishing I was back in Sin City enjoying third year with everyone else. The fact is that there are hundreds of students every year who go on a year abroad and meeting those in your area is not hard, thanks particularly to the miracle that is Facebook. Whichever option you take for your year abroad there will be other students nearby and finding them is always easy. Living in a house share is also a great way to get to know local people and really immerse yourself in a new culture.
Secondly, when you’re in a long term relationship the idea of spending a long period of time out of the country raises a lot of questions. I think it’s important not to dwell on what could happen and to just take it as it comes. Long distance doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, so try to see the positive side and give yourself little things to look forward to. See it as an opportunity to do fun things together that you can’t do when you live nearby. Choose a city in the middle of you both and meet there for a weekend. It’s definitely not something you want to let ruin your experience and it doesn’t need to.
Things I didn’t know you can’t buy.
Squash, gravy, decent rashers of bacon, English mustard and fast food after a night out (no, not even McDonalds is open past midnight in Lille). These things will obviously vary greatly depending on where you are located, but the chances are wherever you go you will end up with your own list of British goods that are nowhere to be found, so if there’s something you can’t live without, take it with you.
Coming to France the one thing I knew that it was essential to pack was tea bags. If you’re a tea lover like myself, you will know that it is not possible to live for 8 months abroad without a decent cuppa, and that it is true that nobody does tea like the British. When I arrived in my new house, not one of my seven housemates even owned a kettle.
In the next few months be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting…
From the moment you submit your year abroad application, to the day you’re all packed up and ready to leave there will be a lot of waiting around, especially if you are doing an assistantship. You wait months to hear if you’re accepted, months to hear where you’ve been located and then you spend your entire summer waiting for various emails and letters. It can get quite frustrating when everyone is asking you where you will be spending your year abroad, and two months before you’re due to leave, you still don’t know. The important thing to remember is that it will all fall in to place with plenty of time to spare; it may feel quite last minute but you WILL have time to prepare for your arrival. Do not worry, living abroad is an incredible opportunity and wherever you are and whatever you end up doing, it will be a lot better than being in Swansea writing your dissertation!
By Rhiannon McVeigh