The opportunity of seeing the world after finishing school is often romanticised and has been stereotyped as the 12 months in which 18-year-olds stroll about various South American countries or maybe stroke an elephant in Thailand.
I am slightly guilty of the former as I opted to go and live in Chile for the second half of my gap year when I was 19. Even if your gap year (or year abroad) is just in one country, it is so much more than just seeing new things and getting some pics for the gram.
You get to try new things you never knew existed. You get to meet new people and you fall into new day-to-day routines. You fall in love with people and places and you build yourself a whole new life, something which is especially satisfying when you’ve built it off your own back. You reach a new level of independence but not without bumps in the road.
The hard parts at the start that build us
Arriving in any new country is a daunting prospect, especially if you don’t speak the language. However, you have to see those steps into the arrivals hall as the first steps into what is probably going to be one of the best times of your life. An unknown language can be learnt and strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.
It’s the practicalities which are the first obstacles in our path; finding a house, finding a job, learning how to stay safe, getting used to new social norms and the cultural differences.
I found the latter two the most challenging. Having spent a lot of time in France and with French people (I now study French Law at uni), I was used to greeting people with a kiss on each cheek. I embarrassed myself many a time in Chile by going in for two kisses when the done thing over there is a single kiss on the cheek in greeting and you must greet everyone like this.
It took me time to discern the various cultural differences too. Chileans are the polar opposite of Britons when it comes to addressing an uncomfortable topic. Whereas we beat around the bush and avoid causing offence at every turn, they take the Dutch approach of tackling the problem head-on and saying exactly what they think. This caught me out a lot at the beginning when I would take offence at being told that my tired face looked like a (roughly translated) “smacked backside”. With time I learnt to interpret such remarks as coming from friends concerned for how well I was sleeping.
The stage of homesickness
You’re still getting used to your new life and you’re not fully settled in with your new friends yet. You feel like you stick out as a foreigner and you long for your life at home where you feel completely comfortable and you’re surrounded by the friends that have known you for years.
The only advice I would give at this stage is: persevere.
Is moving abroad and starting a new life there easy? Not at all.
Will it be worth it? Absolutely.
Once you’re well established in your new life and you have your friends and your routine in place you will experience the most amazing and irreproducible highs. These are the times you will always remember and look back on with a mixture of joy and nostalgia. This is the time of your life to do everything, live every day to the full and be in the present.
This is even more important to remember once you enter the period towards the end of your stay where you feel the grey cloud, that is knowing it’s almost time to go home, starting to creep over you. It is essential not to waste a day of this time feeling sorry for yourself, go out and squeeze every second you have left. Make as many memories as you can.
Accepting that your time abroad is over is hard but it is made easier by the excitement that is knowing you’re going to see all your family and friends again.
When I arrived back in Manchester and heard northern accents for the first time in six months, I felt like a foreigner in my own country.
It was almost as if my life in England had been put on pause for the time I’d been away and I was thrown right back into it. I had to immediately prepare for starting university, find a place to live, unpack and repack again and visit all the family and friends I hadn’t seen for months.
When the non-stop, jam-packed days of getting everything ready to start the new phase of my life which was university slowed down, and I settled into my accommodation in Sheffield and made new friends, it hit me how much had changed.
The whole time I had been back in England I knew I was starting an exciting new phase of life and these next few years would be equally memorable as the ones I had recently lived abroad.
However, what was obvious to me was that I was a different person to the one that had left the country six months before. I was different from the one who had applied to university and to the one who arrived in Chile thinking the only thing she would learn was better Spanish.
Yes, there were some visible changes to those around me. My dress sense had changed subtly, I had gone through what those closest to me now refer to as the “Chilean Effect”. I listened to even more reggaeton music than before, I wore a much more relaxed style and nearly no makeup (quite a change for someone who had spent the first half of their gap year working for a cosmetics company).
There were many more changes that I felt were only visible to me. My whole world view had changed, what I esteemed as important had shifted.
In my time in Chile, I had seen real poverty which in turn had made me less materialistic, and I had heard the personal testimony and seen the scars of a victim of torture.
I knew that although I did want to continue with my plan of studying law at UoS, I now knew that I wanted to go into Human Rights law as soon as possible.
I could now put problems I faced on a daily basis into perspective and realised that many things that would have upset me before were in fact not worth stressing about.
All these changes you feel are almost impossible to describe to those around you. You can’t discuss it because you don’t fully understand how you’re feeling.
All you want to do is go back, go back to the place where the people around you speak the same language, and by that, I don’t just mean Spanish or whichever language it may be in your case.
You go through the process alone because no one ever talks about it. I’m now sharing these complicated feelings that come with travelling through this blog post almost a year later and having gone back to revisit the place I left behind.
If you’re thinking of going on a year abroad as part of your degree, I hope I haven’t scared you, please read on.
The positives of going abroad definitely outweigh the drawbacks. That’s why you only ever hear how fabulous someone’s gap year was and the clichéd: “I found myself”.
Studying or living abroad gives you a whole new perspective, you’re able to reason in a different way to before, you become more independent and more open to new things.
The transition back to life at home or at uni is hard but is just another opportunity you have to seize with both hands. Force yourself to sign up for new things at university, maybe a sports team, and expand your friendship circle. As you did in your time abroad, squeeze the most out of every moment uni has to offer. It won’t last forever.
If you went on a gap year and experienced something similar to what I’ve been talking about, I hope this was helpful and you don’t feel as if you’re the only one going through this process.
If you’re thinking of doing a year abroad as part of your degree – do it! Hopefully, this blog post gives you a bit of insight into the part of travelling no one talks about and to that end, prepares you even more.