If studying abroad were easy, everyone would do it, right?
From your friends colourful Instagram pictures of relaxing scenes next to a tropical beach, or trying waffles in Belgium, or cute pictures of their new group of friends, they are only telling half of the story. Usually the good half. Lets be honest, who wants to see a picture of me stuck in an airport for 12 hours crying because I just had my bag stolen? Or me sitting in an aeroplane not able to keep even water down? Yea, didn’t think that would be much of a hit on social media.
When I said to people that in the summer of 2015 I would be packing up my things and moving to another country (for the second time) to study I usually got a generic response of
“Oh wow, that’s so cool!”
“You’re going to have the best time.”
“You’re so lucky!.”
Now I agree, it is cool and I will have good times and I certainly am lucky that I even have this opportunity but for those of you who are about to embark on the classic Kiwi Big OE study abroad adventure I think you should be aware that it’s no picnic!
Passport and Visa Paperwork on Instagram Passport and Visa Application in Real Life
Am I running a small business? Did moving overseas become another school subject? Well with the amount of things to research, print, fill in, scan, send, sign, fix, ring, email, research, send again and pay it seems like it.
Beware, it can take a lot of time to sort out your life for moving overseas, especially if you will be there for more than six months or one semester. And it doesn’t stop once you get to the country either. Remember that once you arrive you will need to find a place to live, enrol in you courses at uni, get a residence certificate (volante de empadronamento) and an ID card (Numero de Identificacion de Extranjero). Spaniards aren’t well known for getting things done promptly so the process of becoming a Spaniard is rather time consuming.
Top Tip: Get on to this ASAP. There are often many stages to getting a visa or an ID card and each of these steps can take several days if not weeks in themselves.The last thing you would want is to get held up at some customs boarder in a foreign country because you were to slow at printing, filling in, signing and sending.
2. Say what?
Yes, Im a genius child and can learn several The real struggles of learning a language
languages in the classroom while dressed in
a bow tie.
Before moving to Brazil I knew NOTHING of Portuguese. I then returned to New Zealand and studied Spanish for 2 years at university but guess what, learning a language in a classroom sucks! It probably just doesn’t suit my learning style but I feel like what I thought I had learnt actually had no relevance to speaking and holding a conversation in the real world. You learn so much about grammar rules and when to use the preterite vs the imperfect but you don’t learn simple things like “wow, that’s so cool.”
But spoiler alert: You have to try!
Take classes in Spanish, do your own study at home, watch movies in Spanish, read Harry Potter in Spanish, talk to Spanish people. Throwing myself in the deep end is definitely the best way to get a grip of a new language and I know that with a lot of practice and effort and hand gestures I will get to the top of Mt. Fluency. And like climbing a mountain, it is actually exhausting. It takes twice as much mental strength at school and usually twice as long. But don’t be afraid to be wrong. If you try and communicate in a new language people will understand that you are new and will guide you through one step at a time. The worst thing (for me) would be to live in a foreign language and return only with English.
Top Tip: The phrase I have found most helpful is “Sorry, I don’t speak much _____, but…” I have learnt this in each language of the new country I visit as personally I think it is courteous to initiate conversation with someone in the language spoken in that country, but it shows that you don’t actually know the language therefore a little help is needed.
3. Getting sick sucks
(This one doesn’t deserve pictures)
As I write this I am lying in bed on the first rain Saturday afternoon Madrid has given me in two months not feeling at all like a box of fluffies because lucky me, I have food poisoning! And nothing makes you feel like a helpless little kid than sickness. Being sick while your mother is on the other side of the world is simply unfair. But boohoo, you’re in Spain! You’re on an exchange! You’re living the dream! Well as a 20 year old I am still allowed to wallow in self pity and want my mum to bring me medicine, a hot flannel and even a bucket.
Sickness seems to hit me more often over here than it did back in NZ. Last weekend I was in Amsterdam with some friends and I got a massive fever as we landed. Obviously I was not going to waste the weekend lying in a bed in the Netherlands. But my Instagram pics and Facebook posts only showed one side of the trip, not the fact that I could barely walk and was ahving hot flushes every half an hour!
Top Tip: Always chuck a couple of paracetamol or ibuprofen in your bag. You never know when these might just make your trip that much easier to handle!
4. It can be hard to make friends with locals
This will depend on where you go as my experiences in Brazil and Spain have been very different. In Brazil I lived in a very small town with only 2 other exchange students in the area at any one time. I lived with a family, I went to a small school where the English teacher didn’t even speak English. In this situation it was very easy to make friends with locals because I had no other choice. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Madrid on the other hand is literally 1000 times the size of my humble Brazilian town which basically puts me in a whole other world. There is a lot more English here and a lot more international students who are in the same boat as me. Naturally we migrate towards one another in a foreign situation. I spend a lot of my time with friends who are every nationality other then Spanish! Maybe I need to start smoking to integrate better with the local crowd at university as all they do between classes is stand in groups and puff away on cigarettes! Hmm, but maybe the health of my lungs isn’t worth risking.
Top Tip: Join clubs and activities outside of the university or exchange organisations. I have used an app called MeetUp where you can find groups of people interested n the same things as you with pre organised activities. I recently went hiking and I met Spaniards studying, German travellers, Hungarian app developers and many more interesting people!
5. Life goes on at home without you
Moving to a new country requires a lot of sacrifices. You’ll miss holidays, birthdays, the BYO your friends have organised and your loved ones will miss your big events too. No matter how much you promised yourself and others you would talk all the time, its not the same with a screen in front of you. Your friends will make new friends. You’ll be on the outside of the new inside jokes. You’ll be missing from their pictures and they will be missing from yours. Life goes on back in that small town you called home whether you are there or not.
Top Tip: Don’t spend too much time being in a slump about what you’re missing out on back home. You’re family and true friends will be there when you get back and if they have cool new stories to tell you about their year, you better have some just as great stories to tell them.
I didn’t write this to put anyone off doing an exchange or packing up their things to move overseas. I am a realist when it comes to living and I think it is important to know that it’s not all fun and games. You will have to learn to be by yourself and do things by yourself and this can be lonely but an opportunity not to be missed. It’s not all that easy, but it’s worth everyone doing. All of these not so easy things just make the great things taste that much sweeter.