I got into a bit of an argument with thirdyearabroad.com on twitter recently. They’re an online forum of information for students who are on, or considering going on, a year abroad. In all credit to them, they are in most senses a font of useful knowledge and I only followed them on twitter in the first place because I usually found their articles interesting and helpful. They are, however, overwhelmingly positive, and more recently this had started to rile me. Definitely go on a year abroad, they were proclaiming, by way of retweeting comments from those who wished they had. You’ll only regret it if you don’t! I put it to them that perhaps there might be people who might regret that they did do a year abroad, having jumped into it without anywhere near enough thought about what would be a mammoth ‘adventure’ of loneliness and misery. Or something.
First they asked if I’d like to write about my experience for them, and I replied half jokingly that if they’d like a piece on ‘why my year abroad was the worst year of my life’ I’d be quite happy to do it. That doesn’t sound very productive, they replied. Why don’t you write about what you should have done differently to make it better?
I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’ve worked something out. That attitude is precisely the problem.
‘Year Abroad’ has somehow earned its spot on a pedestal, unquestioned, uncontested. You’re supposed to love it. It’s meant to be the best year of your life and you’re supposed to be sorry to leave. You’re supposed to feel lucky and delighted to be doing one, while all your friends who stay at home ought to be seething with envy. These ideas pervade and grow and it becomes very difficult to explain when your lived experience of it is anything other than true.
Asked at the end of second year whether you’re looking forward to your year away, you shrug and you’re met with an incredulous stare. “Are you mad?!”
Asked a few weeks in how it’s going, and you try to explain that it’s lonely and scary and intense, and you don’t have any friends yet and you kind of just want a hug. “But at least you’re abroad right?”
Asked just before Christmas how it’s going. Fine, you say, but you miss everyone, and your internship is draining, and you can’t wait to come home. “At least you’re not in the library!” You’d actually love to be in the library, safe and cosy and Oxford-y, but somehow you’re not allowed to say that.
Right up until the very last week you’re counting down the days, sick of it, desperate to leave. Your year abroad friends say they want to stay forever. You feel like an alien. You feel like you’ve failed.
The idea that year abroad is for everybody, and that if yours isn’t great it’s because you didn’t do it ‘right’, is completely bizarre. It makes no sense. There is no comparison. University isn’t for everyone, travelling isn’t for everyone, working a big city job isn’t for everyone, marriage and children isn’t for everyone, but for some reason, moving to a foreign country for a year is a major life upheaval that we’ll all enjoy? I don’t buy it.
I’ve been back from Paris for the best part of a month now, so I’ve had a lot of time to reflect. My year abroad, and especially my time in France, wasn’t at all awful, or objectively disastrous. I just didn’t ever really want to be there. Whether a different set of circumstances might have made for a different attitude is rather an obsolete question. I might have enjoyed a different year abroad. Maybe. Who knows. All I know is that I didn’t really enjoy this one.
I did go into it all with a retrospectively rather-too-blasé attitude, though, and it took a while for me to realise that there were very important things I’d barely even thought about. And perhaps I should have done. Here they are, in Part II.