I study Russian and German at university and I went on a year abroad last academic year as part of my course. Whether you’re also going on a year abroad as part of your degree or you’re taking a year out purely for fun, it’s important to know not only how to ‘survive’ but also how to grow in character and ultimately to thrive.
Here are some of my tips to help you out:
1) Seek advice from people who have done it before
Speak to language students who have been abroad for an extended period of time and to anyone who has worked where you will be working. Your experience will be unique and not exactly like anyone else’s but it will overlap with others’.
2) Inform yourself about the culture of the country before you go
You don’t need to do tonnes of research but an overview will help. Knowing in Russia that people save their smiles for people they know and only open up once you get to know them meant I wasn’t deterred if people came across cold when first meeting them. Learning that Germans are more direct than we are in England meant I wasn’t as offended when people quickly pointed out my mistakes at work. Having an overview of the culture may not prevent culture shock (adapting to a new culture is always hard) but it will definitely make your experience easier!
3) Try new things
Whether it’s food or social events, you will have many opportunities to try new things so don’t be afraid to say yes. Don’t wear yourself out or put too much pressure on yourself to do everything but remember that this is a once in a lifetime experience and you may never do something like this again, so go for it as much as you can!
4) Settling in takes time
You may experience a range of emotions such as extreme homesickness, isolation, self-critique; especially if you’re the only foreigner in your environment. A lot of people I’ve spoken to who have been immersed in another culture have said that they needed roughly 4 to 5 months to really settle in. Walking in and expecting to feel at home in a week is not very realistic.
5) Seek familiarity
It’s great to immerse yourself in the foreign culture but a break now and again is good! If you’re immersed in a different language, try and find some international cafes or groups to connect with people from your home country. This will make you feel way more at home.
6) Explore, explore and explore some more
Don’t just go to the touristy places but visit other places too. Visit nearby cities, go for walks or cycle rides in unfamiliar places. Don’t be afraid of going alone- you don’t always have to explore in groups.
7) Keep your friends and family updated
I sent all my friends and family newsletters by email (the website mailchimp.com is great for this!) This allowed me to process my experience as well. You can also simply take lots of photos, keep a journal or write a blog. You will probably experience a lot in a short space of time so processing it in some way is really helpful and helps you to take it all in.
8) Make friends in the country before you go
I had some pen-pals in Russia and Germany who I had been writing to for years before I went on my year abroad. This meant I already had some friends in the country when I arrived who could show me around and make me feel welcome. I used the website www.interpals.com to find my penpals.
9) Invite the friends you make into your culture
Bring some snacks or sweets from your home country abroad and give them to the friends you make. You can even cook your favourite dish from home for some friends. For example I organised a tea-party for my friends in Germany with typical English snacks. This will make you feel more at home and your friends will really appreciate it!
10) Have some mottos to help you through the year
One of mine was ‘Stepping outside your comfort zone is the only way you can grow’. Being away in another country, especially where your native language is not spoken, automatically puts you outside of your comfort zone. You may feel disorientated at times but I knew these challenges would simply grow me in character and mature me. This meant I could enjoy the good times and not be massively discouraged when things got hard.