‘It’s surprising how exhausting thinking in another language all day can be.’

The year abroad is a compulsory element of most modern languages degrees in the UK. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel, make new friends, and make old ones jealous. Except my own time in Spain and Paraguay turned out to be more difficult than my final exams the following year. Of course, students who get the change to study abroad should be grateful for the fantastic opportunity, and I don’t suggest anyone should feel sorry for them. But here’s my advice if the year abroad happens not to be the time of your life.

First and foremost, cut yourself some slack. I’ve lost count of the number of people I know who spent the first few months feeling like a failure for not immediately acclimatising to their new surroundings. When you’re no longer a tourist people speak to you faster, don’t disguise regional accents, and often interact with you in large social groups, all of which might leave you feeling like you don’t speak the language as well as you thought you did. It’s also surprising how exhausting thinking in another language all day can be.

Secondly, keep an eye on your social media consumption. While the internet is a blessing for keeping up with friends and family, it can be intensely lonely to scroll through the feeds of others abroad, or your friends still together back home. “A massive piece of advice I’d give is to not place too much importance on how you think other people are experiencing the year abroad,” says Ellie Hill, who went to Italy and Paraguay. “Especially when social media is involved.”

Studies show the worst thing you can do on social media for your mental health is use it a lot but not post yourself. As an experiment, during a low point on my year abroad I posted a snap of the local countryside to Instagram. I was astonished by the number of comments from friends about how amazing my new life was, and how jealous they were. This didn’t make me feel any better, but realising how different the social media image of my life was to the reality reduced the envy I felt of my friends’ posts. It’s easy to forget that people only display the good parts.

Finally, think seriously about whether you want to stay where you are. Most students find the year abroad difficult in one way or another, and the majority get through it and come out the other side better for the experience. But there can come a point when staying in a situation that doesn’t suit you starts to seriously impact your mental health, and in that case it’s worth checking out your options.

“If you’re unhappy on your year abroad and it’s because of the place, you are free to change your plans,” says Eleanor Fawcett, who worked with a group of other Cambridge students to create a guide to finding support during the year abroad. “I left Paris much earlier than planned and moved to Russia. The faculty supported me financially and allowed me to change my plans.”

Many universities have guidelines for what happens in this situation, but they don’t tend to be made clear to students. It’s worth emailing your course or year abroad coordinator to ask about your options for finishing a placement early or changing to a different one. As Beth Craig-Geen, who studied in Jordan, says: “Never be afraid to change your plans or make decisions to protect your mental health. Changing things isn’t a failure – it’s a success, because it shows you’re looking after yourself.”

[“source=theguardian”]