I still remember the day I got my acceptance email. I was in my second year house kitchen, on my phone as a way of procrastinating – story of my life – when the email arrived. The small excerpt at the top of my iPhone was enough to make my heart stop. I was offered a place to study at Prague’s Charles University for a year. It was finally happening!
Like many others, undertaking a year abroad did not even cross my mind prior to University. I stumbled across the opportunity when looking at courses in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and settled on four year course, which included a year in “Continental Europe”, although I’m still not too sure what that means.
I guess I was quite lucky in the sense that my University is heralded as the UK’s European University, and so the Erasmus office is run extremely well and offers an infinite amount of support to those who choose to do a year abroad.
The reasons I chose to do my year abroad centred more around self-growth than living in a great city in Europe (I’ve got the best of both worlds really!) I wanted to prove to myself that I could stomach what is potentially one of the most important things you can do at this age: moving to a foreign country alone. I say ‘alone’, but you establish a network of people prior to leaving and as soon as you arrive, so it’s worth checking which services your university offers to year-abroad students. I was very fortunate in that I managed to meet other people from my University who were also going to Prague – something I would certainly urge others to do – and some of us agreed to live together.
Since being in Prague I’ve learnt a lot more about myself. That’s probably one of the most cliched things that can be said in an article about a year abroad, but it aptly summarises my time here so far. I’ve learnt to stand up for myself, and to be a better cook. I’ve learnt that the only person that can make you do anything is yourself, so I’ve discovered an amount of self-determination through that, which is probably what I’m proudest of.
Personal achievements aside, a year abroad can enrich your life and define your views on a number of topics. This is partly down to the change of culture you will experience as well as time spent meeting people with vastly differently experiences from vastly different places. My time in Prague so far has taught me a lot about the history and current politics of the Czech Republic, as well as the mentality and attitude of those who lived under a Communist regime. I almost regard it an honour that I have been able to receive such an insight into a country whose past differs greatly from my own. I urge anyone undertaking or thinking of undertaking a year abroad to explore the area you are living in, in both a physical and historical sense. Speaking of exploring, it would also be ludicrous to not check out a neighbouring country/state on your year abroad, especially when you are from an island like the UK, where it can get quite lonely. I have had the opportunity to venture to Kraków where I then visited Auschwitz, a significant landmark for those both interested in the past and those who do not wish to repeat it.
Travel is cheap in a lot of ‘year abroad destinations’ and trains are of great quality in Europe (they have wifi and give out free mint tea!) There is good reason to travel and discover history first-hand. It’s definitely given me the travel bug and there are plans to travel to Berlin and to the Balkan region of Europe in the summer.
Although these experiences are great when you undertake them in the immediate future, the memories that you create, and the wealth of knowledge you’ll gain, stay with you for a very long time. You may not remember all three years of your time at university, but you will remember the times you were challenged on your year abroad and were rewarded in tenfold for it. From a career perspective, it this growth adds colour and flair to your CV, and it will most definitely give a potential employer something to ask you about in an interview.
A year abroad journey often begins with a talk regarding the programme as a whole towards the end of the first year of University and only really begins to take heed in second year, particularly in the second term where you are inundated with emails from the Erasmus office as well as forms and talks that they recommend you go to. One of the talks to look out for are when students who had gone on their year abroad the year before come to talk about the process and their personal experiences. I lucked out as one of the students had actually gone to Prague on their year abroad, so straight after the talk I accosted him and spoke to him at length about his time time there, which is another thing I would recommend doing. The Erasmus office are great for pairing people up with others who have undergone a year abroad.
The scariest part of anything is getting started, and that applies to when you are shooting off emails and forms incessantly to the Erasmus office to when you first arrive in your chosen city. If at any time you are overwhelmed, just remember that it will all be worth it. Even though I knew all of the above before coming to Prague, the feeling of actually being here was frightening up until I arrived.
Expect a culture shock, even if you only go to a neighbouring country. Expect to accidentally buy cream instead of milk for the first few times you go to the supermarket until you learn the word for it in your chosen country’s language. You’ll find that you’ll have to use your hands more often and made to be aware of your fast paced speaking when conversing with a native speaker. People may stare more and not understand the unwritten rule of queuing but it comes with the territory of choosing to study abroad. Nothing can be said to prepare you for what you will experience – the best way to understand it is to see for yourself!