Author: Clare Marsh
You will have no doubt pictured the scene – there you are, standing at an airport check-in desk, equipped with your passport, perhaps a tear or two, and a stomach full of butterflies. You’ll probably be wondering exactly how you got to this point; how on earth has it come so soon? You’ll swear you were a first year just moments ago, and this can’t possibly be happening now. And, whether you admit it or not, the thought of jumping in a taxi and heading straight back home may cross your mind at least once. This bizarre cocktail of excitement and apprehension is to be expected as you embark upon what is sure to be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.
Getting to Grips with a Foreign Language
From the moment I arrived in Spain, I felt as though my happy Glaswegian comfort zone was a distant memory. Everything felt overwhelming – I physically shook as I sheepishly gave the taxi driver my address (which I had rehearsed in my head approximately twenty times,) and proceeded to spend the entire journey worrying I had somehow delivered such poor Spanish that I was in fact bound for Barcelona instead of Madrid. You will be as pleased as I was, however, to know that this was not the case, and things were decidedly less terrifying once a few suitcases had been unpacked. As a Law with language student, I had particular reservations about my linguistic ability (or lack thereof) before I set off. In spite of this, within a few short days I found myself relying on what I referred to as “survival Spanish” – this basically entails getting your general point across in any way that you possibly can, without consulting google translate beforehand, and subsequently feeling nothing short of distraught upon the realisation the incorrect verb tense had been used. This was probably the first change I noticed in myself, and it felt pretty liberating to be able to make mistakes in the knowledge that it really didn’t matter. At the end of the day, it is not paramount to the understanding of a shopkeeper that you use the correct preposition, and honestly, nine out of ten times they couldn’t care less. It’s perhaps also worth noting that colloquialisms and differing pronunciations are a certainty, and if you embrace them, you may just pass off as a local once or twice! The worst thing you can do is get so caught up in sounding silly that you hardly speak at all; even if your general understanding is good, without forcing yourself to overcome the inevitable embarrassment of speaking, it really will never feel any easier. Living abroad is very, very different to being in a grammar class – don’t be afraid to say the wrong thing!
Settling in and Finding Your Feet
In Alcalá, the Erasmus Student Network is huge. Living in student accommodation, within a week I had come across so many fellow Erasmus students from all over Europe, who were in the exact same position as I was. Regardless of where you go, there is sure to be an abundance of Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats that you can join before you even arrive. Without personally making use of of these, I was both shocked and relieved to see just how quickly I found myself making new friends. Although the first few weeks can be tough, especially if you’ve never lived away from home before, getting out and socialising at this time really is the best way form relationships with other students. Think of it of as a significantly opportunistic social window. There are tonnes of organised events, from club nights to mindfulness classes, courtesy of the Erasmus Student Network. Even if going out for drinks and tapas is the last thing you feel like doing when you miss your parents, hometown and the comfort of your own bed, you’ll definitely thank yourself later, as in my experience spontaneous nights out with new people often lead to the formation of some of the closest friendships. These friendships will be crucial in getting you through the whirlwind following few months!
University Life and Teaching Style
Of course, studying in a new country is going to differ from what you’re used to in many ways. Studying Law in another language can (and most definitely will) feel absolutely impossible from time to time. After all, there are few things more frustrating than understanding a concept, but not being able to articulate yourself in such a way that reflects any kind of coherent insight. Make yourself known to lecturers as soon as you can. More often than not, they will provide you with some kind of extra support, even if it is just checking in with you every now and again to ask if you understood the content of a particular lecture. Not only tutorials, but also lectures at the University of Alcalá are extremely interactive, which was something of a foreign concept to me when I arrived. Be prepared to be called upon during lectures, and, to reiterate my aforementioned point, try not to worry too much about this. If you make a conscious effort to show that you’re trying your best, the fact your answer isn’t always correct is immaterial. Lecturers are generally very sympathetic towards Erasmus students, and appreciate just how difficult grasping content, sitting exams or working with other students can be – progress, not perfection, is what they want to see from you in your first few months.
It is often said that the year you spend studying abroad is the best of your life, and that can feel like a sort of additional pressure at times. If I could offer just one piece of advice to someone about to begin their own journey, it would be that you will not always feel like it’s the amazing, once in a lifetime experience that everyone talks about, and that is absolutely okay. Allow yourself to feel upset, homesick, and overwhelmed, as these are all perfectly natural responses to any new situation. From saying the wrong word or phrase in conversation, to making a fool of yourself when you’re chosen to give an answer in a tutorial – it will be these unpleasant experiences that will give you new-found and frankly tenacious confidence. Remember that you may never again have the opportunity to travel and explore new places, immerse yourself in new cultures or be surrounded by such a diverse group of people quite in the same way you do while you study abroad. You shouldn’t try to compare your experience to that of someone else, be they in another country, perhaps another continent, or even back home. No matter what their Instagram story may lead you to believe, I can guarantee that they too will be feeling their fair share of occasional doubts. The most important thing is that you realise, even if you don’t feel like you’re coping all the time, that doesn’t mean you can’t cope at all. This year will be ultimately what you make it – so make it a good one!
All the best for your year abroad!