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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Stepping into the unknown: anxieties about the year abroad

Elena Buccisano sheds a light on the less glamorous side of preparing to study abroad.

The Year Abroad – exciting and ominous words which all students of Modern Languages are faced with from the moment they begin university. Echoes of the compulsory year spent abroad begin in first year, until the words themselves become deafening in second year as tutors, parents, and friends all weigh in with their advice, hopes and ambitions.

Often considered a ‘rite of passage’ for Modern Linguists, the year abroad was for many, myself included, a significant selling point of the Modern Languages degree. The chance to experience life for a year in the countries whose languages you spend so much time studying is both exciting and invaluable, and it is certainly presented that way. On hearing that I was going abroad in my third year, the most common reaction I received was one of wonder, exclamations of jealousy and many comments on the special nature of this opportunity. My best friend described it as chance to ‘find myself’, my mum described it as a chance ‘to grow as a person’ and experience a year of travel with relatively little responsibility. All these inviting projections help to build an enticing, albeit idealised, picture – reminding me of what drew me to this degree and ultimately, rendering the year abroad a looming, exciting prospect for my future. But, as the time to depart gets closer and closer the reality and stress of the upcoming year was not only unexpected to me, it was anxiety-inducing.

As the pressure mounts to figure out my exact plans for my year abroad my anxieties are gradually overwhelming the excitement and hope I previously felt. When I took a moment to unpack the nature of my apprehension, I quickly realised that it is multi-faceted – the stress revolves around not only where I will end up, but what I am leaving behind, and the uncertainty of what I am coming back to. As the faculty emails mount reminding us that the time to leave is getting closer and we need to start finalising our plans, the idealisation has mostly disappeared and what I am left with is what feels like an overwhelming logistical nightmare, and the weight of a mountain of opportunities. The beauty and, as I am discovering, the pressure of the year abroad is that you can really do what you want and go wherever you want (as long as they speak the language you study) – in fact, the possibilities are vast and thrilling. This freedom was one that I used to rave about – but the pressure to make the ‘right’ choice, the choice that would mean I could truly make the most of my year abroad – one that I am so lucky to get the chance to embark on – feels more and more suffocating. The accompanying voices and opinions from the people who care: tutors, family members, people who want you to have the best year abroad possible, can unexpectedly add to this mounting internal pressure to make the right choices which respect everyone’s opinion. On top of this comes the logistical stress – all of a sudden, the curtain falls on the romanticised view of the year abroad as emails come flooding in about funding, tutors start asking about accommodation and internship arrangements and I realise that I have absolutely no idea how to plan a move abroad. How do I fund it? How do I find somewhere to live? Which is the best arrondissement to live in? The questions become endless and I put off planning in order to avoid accepting that I am out of my depth. Deep down, what I really want is to overcome the feelings of dread and regain the excitement that the prospect of an entire year spent abroad used to bring me.

Beyond the stress of ‘where will I end up?’, what often looms larger is the anxiety of what I am leaving behind. Unfortunately, as many Modern Linguists experience, many of my friends will have left Oxford on my return in fourth year – making Trinity term 2022 the term of many ‘lasts’. Although I am excited to spend what might be my best term yet amongst them, it will nonetheless be bittersweet knowing that when I come back from my year abroad, I will have to readapt once more to a familiar albeit different environment. Ultimately, at the core of my anxieties, is the idea of the unknown – in other words, a fear of not knowing what lies ahead. I need to convert that fear back into anticipation and find joy in the multitude of possibilities and experiences which lie ahead.

Image credit: Daria Shevtsova

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