No two experiences of a year abroad can ever be the same: whether that’s due to the location, or the placement, or the weather on a particular day in the middle of November. So far, I’ve told you – quite bluntly – what my experience has been like. In the name of fairness, I spoke to five other assistants across France about their experiences: what they knew before leaving, if their expectations were met, what they would change, and what advice they would give someone heading abroad this September.
Olivia and Lorena are two assistants from the universities of Sheffield and Glasgow respectively: they’re living in Nîmes, southern France, home of denim and Insta-worthy scenery. Before leaving, Olivia felt that being a language assistant was the best option for a year long placement due to the pay and the freedom that programme offers, such as the possibility to travel. Lorena was told the year abroad would be incredible and lots of fun, and at this stage she agrees she is having a good time! She points out that it’s not a constant walk in the park, though, and it would have been good to have a more realistic idea of potential issues. Olivia is enjoying herself, too, but hasn’t had the most flexible working hours. Luckily, Nîmes has other assistants – like Lorena – and lots of social opportunities to meet others, so her French has improved, too.
(Apparently that’s the point of the year abroad? Not just the cheap wine? Who knew.)
She does wish, though, she’d known more about finding accommodation, as she didn’t realise what options were available. Overall, they both would advise anyone heading abroad to jump in the deep end, as it’ll pay off. Lorena was told before leaving to ‘say yes to all invitations’, and wishes she’d have taken it more seriously: more events means more people and more chances to speak French. Problems will occur – naturally – but they’ll get sorted, and you’ll have something to laugh about later on!
Liv is an assistant with an entirely different experience – based in Martinique, they are technically still in France, but are nearly 4500 miles from Paris on a Carribbean island. France has number of overseas regions, known as ‘région d’outre-mer’: despite being thousands of miles apart, students in ‘outre-mer’ share the same education system as a student in Marseille.
Liv heard everyone’s favourite phrase – ‘it’s the best year of your life!’ – before leaving, and that the information given was overwhelming positive. They have found Martinique an absolutely beautiful but difficult place to live, with issues including sexual harassment, a lack of public transport, and no university support. Unfortunately, Liv’s university has been unhelpful during mental health difficulties they have faced during the year. An introvert, Lorena’s ‘say yes to everything mantra’ would not help Liv, and they have struggled with socializing overseas. Despite this, they are enjoying themselves – but appreciates it’s hard. Outre-Mer, while technically France, is not the same: ‘ignore what people tell you about France, it’s totally different’, they say.
Rachael, a student at the University of Aberystwyth, is based in France’s fifth-biggest city (and capital of the wine world), Bordeaux. At first, their worries were mainly finance related – finding and affording accommodation in a big city – as well as natural fears about making new friends and struggling with the language. Luckily, the flat hunt was easier than expected, and they are also feeling a lot more confident in speaking French. They feel as though they’ve got everything they wanted out of the year, and would advise new assistants to bite the bullet on arrival; it’ll make things you’re scared about a lot easier! Homesickness – something only Rachael raised, but an important point – passes, ‘just like any other sickness’.
And, finally, based on the opposite end of the country in Basse-Normandie, is Abi from University of St. Andrews. Abi’s main worries were the paperwork and finding accommodation: one was easier than the other (clue: not the paperwork.) Their expectations for the year have been surpassed, and their piece of advice would be to PLAN. Plan everything! You can’t be prepared enough ahead of something so big and important.
So, of course, the year abroad can be scary. Something that’s so life changing will be: be that moving into halls as a seventeen year old, full of hope, or moving for a graduate job, full of debt. But my experience is not universal, nor is anybody’s, for that matter. Who knows? It might actually turn out better than you expect. And, if it doesn’t, at least you gave it a go.
[Amy Shimmin -@amylfc]