Over the next couple of weeks, members of the Student Welfare Action Group will be writing a number of welfare-related guest blogs, first up is Torrie McAfee a final year languages student who writes about the troubles she first has on her year abroad.
In the first two years of my degree leading up to my year abroad, I was constantly told it would be the best year of my life, I wouldn’t want to return and I’d be infected with wanderlust for the rest of my life. Although I can confidently say that it was an unforgettable experience with incredible memories and wonderful travels, I can’t help but feel that the slightly more unpleasant aspects of Erasmus need to be acknowledged. Honestly, I feel like I’m committing some sort of horrific crime admitting this, but there were stages in the first few months of my placement that I really wanted to quit and come home! Erasmus information evenings are filled with anecdotes of days spent on the beach, evenings enjoying the local nightlife and weekends travelling to fantastic cities and exciting countries that are ‘must-sees’ during a Year Abroad. It’s marketed as a year filled with unlimited travel and parties, with the promise of becoming virtually fluent in the target language. However, I feel that this is very much the glorified, brochure view of what it’s really like to spend time living abroad. I’ve described the three main issues that I (and many others) came up against in the initial months: boredom, module problems, and local attitudes.
Although I was lucky enough to only experience minor bouts of homesickness in the first few weeks, nothing could have prepared me for the excruciating boredom I felt. Being an Erasmus student, I chose a selection of modules from a variety of degrees with the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and as a result had gaping three or four hour gaps in my timetable. This meant that I spent a lot of time waiting around, either in my apartment or on campus, for classes. Weekends in Alicante were good, but like in Belfast the majority of students returned home meaning that I was left with an empty flat (not ideal when most of your friends and the city centre were a 25 minute tram journey away). Realistically, you can’t travel around Europe every single weekend, or go out 4 or 5 times a week to Erasmus parties (which admittedly, are as good as they’re made out to be). After getting to know the city better we found a lot more to do, and during the good hot months I really could have spent endless time on the beach, but I won’t lie; boredom is a very real part of Erasmus life.
Probably one of the most frustrating aspects of university life was the inefficient administration and tutors not being overly welcome to international students. We were responsible for choosing our classes and building our own timetable, which is made all the more difficult when you are told to leave a class unless you have a near-native level of Spanish! At times, I found myself wishing for the friendly QUB staff and the comforting familiarity of University Square. Also, classes in Spain are cancelled more than they are on, which sounds fantastic but unfortunately no one feels it’s necessary to let you know in advance. There’s only so many empty classrooms you can turn up to without wanting to explode!
I fully expected a bit of an issue with a language barrier, especially as I only started learning Spanish 2 years before my Erasmus, but I didn’t expect to be met with such hostility when my language skills were less-than-perfect. Of course this quickly disappeared as I got more accustomed to living in Spain, but I’ll never forget being an absolute bag of nerves trying to explain to a shop assistant that I couldn’t find the toilet roll. I’m aware that I probably have a distinctive accent when I speak Spanish, and it’s certainly obvious that I’m a native English speaker, but it’s certainly disheartening to hear locals complain (not realising I could understand) about not being able to speak their language fluently.
My year in Spain was incredible, but I’d be lying if I said that every day was incredible. The bad days quickly became few and far between (and when it came close to leaving they were virtually non-existent), but at the beginning it often seemed like an impossible challenge. After having come out the other end alive, I would happily recommend studying abroad to anyone, just be prepared for a few teething problems along the way!