Halfway through my academic year spent at the University of Aix-Marseille, it seems pertinent to reflect upon the great experiences and feelings of satisfaction that living abroad entails.
N.B. In order to avoid a cliché-ridden account of life in the south of France, this article shall attempt to inject an appropriate amount of realism into what living abroad is actually like.
Firstly, as a History & French student, I always knew the time would come (third year) when I would eventually have to leave the beauty and comfort of York for an entirely alien, French-speaking corner of the world. Not only did the thought of leaving behind wonderful friends and my involvements at university fill me with frustration and sadness, but the prospect of having to adapt to a new way of life frightened my naturally-conservative self.
However, with ample mental preparation and the encouragement of all those people ‘jealous’ of the opportunity that had befallen me, I began to see the 10 months I would be spending in sunny Aix-en-Provence as a mysterious yet enticing endeavour, a fresh start if you will. Thus, since hitting the ground running with an extraordinary amount of enthusiasm, the year abroad so far has proven to be a consistently refreshing wave of new challenges, memories, and optimism for my own future.
Initially, what struck me about living not only on my own, but in a foreign country too, was the sheer level of independence required to survive. All of the unforeseen factors regarding everyday life, including bank accounts, phone contracts, accommodation, nutrition and local geography hit me at once, forcing me to spring into action and ensure that I settled in as quickly and smoothly as possible. Despite all of the pre-departure talks and notes, I actually enjoyed having to get to grips with the unexpected reality of adult life whilst here; skills easily applicable when I return to York.
Accepting the fact that I wouldn’t be able to directly translate my life in York to France (no Willow hurts), surrounding myself with the nuances of local culture has been vastly entertaining and eye-opening to say the least. Right from the off I was stunned at how many men wanted to kiss me on either cheek when greeting, as opposed to just shaking my hand! Similarly, the awful state in which cars are maintained and driven, the distinct lack of fresh milk and lined-paper, and the seemingly non-existent work ethic of some people all indicated that I was a long way from home and would have to adapt in order to get the most out of my time here. Consequently, after several months here of proving to myself that I can accommodate a new way of life, the prospect of living elsewhere in the world no longer phases me!
University life here is almost a complete reversal of the one I’d come from. With no reading to do and a completely different style of teaching and examination, the French education system has posed many challenges, most of which have been very humbling. However, the freedom to have studied a whole new range of modules I would never have been able to do in York (including Psychology, Ancient History, and other languages taught in French) has been a breath of fresh air, even with the stress of having to construct my own timetable! Ultimately, I feel I can be proud of the fact that I’ve held my own as a foreign student, seeing a marked improvement in my French language, as well as a rejuvenation in my thirst for wider historical knowledge and academics.
Perhaps the greatest benefit, however, of being abroad is the gift of time and perspective. I see now that getting away from my carefully-managed, routine life in York has allowed my mind to think in ways hitherto unimaginable. For example, at the same time as the excitement of learning from a new culture, I’ve certainly come to really appreciate what I had back home, including family, friends, even my degree. Additionally, the inevitability of breaking the mould whilst living here has inspired me to deliberately seek out unfamiliar situations, such as volunteering at the Red Cross, new sports, travelling, and other enriching cultural experiences with new friends, ensuring a bounty of happy, funny memories to look back on. The year is by no means over, but I am convinced that this continued attitude will help me to make the most of opportunities back in York, in turn putting me on the path towards a more fulfilling lifestyle and career.
I feel extremely blessed to have had this year built in to my degree, and in no way wish to flaunt my time abroad under the noses of those undergoing their final, most stressful year at York! However, I would like to appeal to those who are reaching the end of their time at university to not disregard the chance of living abroad and immersing themselves in another culture at some point in their lives. Like me, it could well change your outlook on life for the better. Furthermore, my experiences here (of which there are hundreds more), coupled with those of my peers elsewhere on their year abroad, should serve as a hopeful and encouraging example to students who may be about to embark upon a long period of study, work, or teaching elsewhere in the world. Admittedly, it is daunting, but the rewards of establishing yourself overseas far outweigh the anxieties.