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Sunday, 5 March 2017

Year Abroad Photo Diary: 6 months down, 4 to go.



Come March 16th, I will have been studying in Bergamo for six months. I remember the build up to starting my erasmus placement, feeling like ten months away from home was a LIFETIME. I was unbelievably nervous, apprehensive but also a little excited about what the next ten months were going to consist of and whether I would actually stick it out.

If I'm being honest, I spent the entire summer before moving here pushing it to the back of my mind. Moving to university had been hard enough for me and that was only an hour down the motorway. How on earth was I going to cope with living in a foreign country who's language I had struggled with for the past two years?

I didn't really accept that I was moving here until I was sat, alone, in Manchester Airport's terminal three, where there is so little to do that I had nothing really to distract me. I had rushed through security as I had seen that my mum was on the verge of tears and knew that if I started crying I wouldn't want to go. I was in one of those funny little moods where literally anything could set me off, so to be strong I put my best foot forward and walked on through.


Nearly six months on, I don't know what I was so scared of. Bergamo is a truly beautiful city and although Italian universities are renowned for being unorganised, I found that Bergamo wasn't half bad. The trick is literally just not to worry, because if you do then you will end up stressed out over things that can either be changed so easily, or cannot be changed at all so what is the point? 

People who have studied abroad for a year always say the same things; it was amazing, it went too quickly and it was nothing to worry about. Now, obviously there are situations where things go horribly wrong and not every single aspect of studying abroad is all unicorns and stardust and magic. There are some really difficult times too, like when you're feeling homesick and miserable and all you want is to talk to your best friend/boyfriend/family in person rather than on the phone but that would mean having to catch a flight home, not just take the train. Something I found quite bittersweet was how whenever I have visited home, I have never been able to just have a week off and chill; there are so many people I wanted to see and spend time with before coming back to Italy that by the time I actually did fly back, I was exhausted and felt I hadn't spent much quality time with my family. This is in NO way me suggesting that I am some popular celebrity who everyone wants to spend time with - far from it! 


Something I found very helpful when preparing for my year abroad was hearing other people's experiences - the good and the bad. From my own experience, universities are very good at showing you the extreme scary sides and the extreme amazing sides of erasmus but don't really prepare you very well for what happens when you're here. Naturally, they are very busy as they're trying to send a whole years worth of languages students abroad - and the man who sorted out my particular placement was actually leaving at the end so just couldn't be arsed helping - but to me it always felt like I was basically on my own with regards to sorting out accommodation and what to do when I was actually here. 

I don't think it is the same with all universities, as I have friends who had meetings every week or so to ensure they were prepared for their year abroad, but if like me you don't feel you're receiving much help, I have written a couple of points about what I was most worried about vs. the reality of the situation.


"What if I don't understand the language?"
Any language student will know that you never really learn a foreign language properly until you're immersed into the culture. I was in a particularly bad position because I had struggled so much with the language for the past two years at university and hadn't made an effort to keep up with it over the summer before moving out here. When I arrived, I felt like I could barely say a single word and for the first few days it was difficult, I will admit. My landlord only speaks Italian, so working out the rent agreement and everything to do with the flat was a bit confusing, but he understood that I didn't really speak the language so was very clear and concise, not asking me too many difficult questions.
I was lucky in the sense that my university offered an intensive language course prior to starting classes and then a language course throughout the year of which I could actually gain credits for. I don't know if many foreign universities do this, but it definitely assisted me with my language and meant that I was still learning grammar in preparation for moving back to Manchester in September for final year.
When picking your university, this is something I would definitely suggest looking into. Admittedly, I chose Bologna as my first choice, but I am so glad I ended up with Bergamo because of this course and the fact that it seems to be a bit more geared towards actually helping erasmus students than some of the others I have heard about. 
Six months on and I am now studying at level B2 (upper intermediate) in Italian and I am able to hold a conversation and understand a good 75% of what is being said during my classes. This is a HUGE improvement for me and when I told my language teacher from Manchester, she said that she was really proud of how far I had come.
My top tips for picking up the language are definitely the same as you will have already been told; make an effort to speak to locals, attend all classes, go out of your way to listen/watch/read/speak/breath in the target language, yah-di-yah. The language will come, you don't need to worry about that. A lot of the erasmus students will speak English, as well as the teachers if you really need to ask them something and can't say it in Italian, so it's not like you're going to be stuck somewhere unable to communicate for the next ten months. Also, don't be worried about speaking the language with the natives - they are a lot more patient and accommodating than you think and a lot of the time they are learning English just as you are learning Italian so they understand that you need to practice as much as possible. Don't be put off by the random impatient arsehole who doesn't have time for you - there is a man near my flat who sells bus tickets and is always really blunt and will reply in English no matter how much I try to speak to him in Italian, but not everybody is like that and they are more likely to help you and correct you where you go wrong than ignore you and treat you like shit for trying.


"What if I make no friends and end up a complete loner?"
Unless you literally never leave your room except for food and water, you're going to meet someone. The universities tend to put on a lot of ice-breaking activities and events so make sure you go to them all and make an effort to join in with the trips, even if you don't really like the sound of it. You'll see familiar faces and make friends so even if the trip turns out to be totally shit, you will have at least made some friends. Make an effort to speak to people in your classes too, especially Italian students as they may offer to help you with your work if you're not too sure on something. Remember that everyone is in the same boat as you and wanting to have a good time on their erasmus placement so make the effort to speak to everyone and you'll be fine.
Most people have at least one person from their home university in the same city as them and friends in places all over the country, so use your student loan to buy train/bus/plane tickets and explore the country a little bit more. I didn't do this a lot in my first semester because I was already visiting places with my friends here, but this semester I have made a lot of plans to visit people and have them come visit me. 
If all else fails, get your friends from home who aren't on erasmus to come visit. I'm sure they won't pass up the opportunity to have a holiday in a foreign country and only pay for flights. My boyfriend has visited twice, my sister has visited once and my mum and aunt are going to come at the end of March. Arranging little visits like this is a great way to improve your language, too, because if like me none of your friends/family speak Italian, you are the only one who can speak for them! 


"What if I can't find anywhere to live?"
This is another thing I was very fortunate with, as Bergamo has their own accommodation service specifically for erasmus students, so I already had a flat set up for me when I arrived. However, I know that some of my friends literally couldn't find accommodation for weeks. But they did, in the end. Prepare yourself for having to stay in hostels for a couple of days or even weeks, ask the university if they have any suggestions and look on websites such as easystanza if in Italy. I would even suggest contacting your home university if you really cannot find anywhere because it is their job to be responsible for you while your here and may be able to help you out.
Another good piece of advice is to speak to students who have studied in the city you're going to before or are currently studying there - they may be able to ask their landlord if you can take their place or if you can put it on hold for the following year. Manchester has a list of students who completed questionnaires upon returning home and it says which university they studied at, so you can usually find their details through that. 


"Can I afford it?"
For students in England, we are very fortunate in that when studying on your erasmus year abroad you receive your normal student loan/grant (plus a little bit more) and an erasmus grant. I don't know the exact figures, but it is a couple of thousand pounds on top to help you whilst you are out there. You do need to make sure you qualify through your learning agreement, but this is basically just showing that you are actually there and studying the right courses. I know that some countries/cities are more expensive than others, but I have found Bergamo to be relatively cheap; I pay €355 a month inclusive of bills and internet for a double bed room in a large flat, which is admittedly out of the way of ALL of my friends but still in a good location for university and the city itself. My advice would be to save up as much as you can for when you first get here, because you will receive your first student loan instillment in August and then nothing until around the end of October, then nothing until January. I did what I always do and spent loads of money on clothes and going out as soon as I got here which meant I had to be pretty frugal whilst waiting for my next bit of money to come in, but for those who are more sensible than me you shouldn't have any problems.
There are also usually opportunities to babysit/tutor English in Italy. I do this on Wednesday afternoons and charge €13 per hour, which is what I was told was the norm for students like me doing the occasional hours worth of homework help. This gives me a bit extra to play with and covers my food and necessities for the week easily. 
If you know you are going to be in a country which is more expensive, it makes sense to spend your summer before saving up as much as possible to make your time enjoyable whilst you're here; I took up a part time (which was actually around 50 hours a week) job in a restaurant over the summer and just kept reminding myself that it would all be worth it when I was able to go on all the trips I wanted without having to worry about paying my rent first. Also, if you are in a 'higher cost of living' country, you will get more erasmus grant to cover it.
I know this is often easier said than done as a lot of people do not receive enough student loan to even cover a couple of months rent, but if this is you then you would already know the amount you need to save up before coming and have things in place to help you whilst here.


"Is it worth it?"
Most students are aware of how difficult it is to get a good graduate job after university. Most people do not even know what they want to do and end up wondering if they have spent the good part of 40k and three years of their life to get a job they could've got without a degree. An erasmus year abroad is really good on your CV; employers like to see that you have had experience living and studying/working abroad and if you are learning a language too, it may stand you out from the crowd a too.
In my first year, I had a meeting with my academic advisor about my choice of degree and how I wasn't really enjoying it. She asked me what I would do instead; I said English. She pointed out to me how the degree I am currently studying gives me all the same skills as an English degree would but has the added extra of a foreign language too. Nothing against English students, by the way, as it was something I really considered studying and is a good, strong degree to have. 
The truth is, a lot of English people don't see the point in having another language because everyone speaks English anyway. Again, not a dig - my teachers here in Italy all agree that it is considered the 'passport to the world'. But if you can also show that you speak a foreign language, you increase your employment opportunities as many companies are global and want people who can communicate in the language of the people they are wanting to do business with. I read somewhere that apparently Italian companies will only do business with Italian speakers; I don't know how true that is, but it makes sense. 
In England, we are also lucky in the sense that we can pretty much study any degree - to an extent - and get a job in a wide variety of fields, so having a language also assists in that sense. At the end of the day, it is never going to be a hinderance to you if you mention you know a foreign language, so why not?


"What if I am homesick?"
You probably will be, but this shouldn't be something which prevents you from going abroad. I got pretty homesick for the first few weeks as it is a huge transition period and I especially missed being able to just think in English and not have to think about what I was saying before saying it. Truth is, if it gets really bad you can always go home; easier said than done for those of you studying in America or somewhere equally as far (my sister lived in New Zealand for 7 months and didn't come home once because of the cost/time implications) but if the going gets really tough you can do it. I am fortunate in that a flight for me to get home takes about an hour and forty five minutes and can cost as little as £15 - the perks of RyanAir! 
However, I find personally that going home too much can just make the situation worse. In November, I went home for the first time and then was home again a month later, then returned a couple of weeks later and only really got settled back here in Bergamo these past few weeks as I had my boyfriend stay, then went to Brussels, then my sister came. I found that I couldn't enjoy my time at home as much as I would've liked because there was the looming knowledge that I would be coming back here very soon. However, once I got back and was settled, I was fine. I am a very independent person, but going home too much in such a short space of time just made me feel really homesick and lonely. Not to mention it also meant that I missed pretty much all the ice breaker events and didn't meet all the new people, so felt out of the loop. I am not planning on going home now until May/June time for my birthday, but it is also exam season so I cannot stay for long and then it will be time for me to return permanently. I just don't see the point in wasting my whole year abroad, the only opportunity I might actually get to have the opportunity to live in a foreign country without the commitment of a job or family, by flying home every too minutes. Everyone is different, of course, but that's just my own opinion.


These are just a few of the immense amount of questions most people have before they study abroad and I plan to write a whole blogpost about relationships so didn't want to get too much into that element. My best advice for anyone thinking about doing a year abroad is definitely do it; don't be put off by the what if's and horror stories that people love to talk about. It is possible the only time you're going to be able to live in a foreign country without the commitment of a job and it's always best to do it when you're young and able than wish you did it a few years down the line. It's a great way to refresh yourself ready for final year; I have really got back into education and actually enjoyed university here (mainly because it is a LOT less heavy course-wise and pretty easy compared to home) so it gives you the chance to really think about what you want to do for your dissertation and allow you to return to your home university ready to tackle final year.

Are you currently studying abroad? Are you planning on it?
Lauren x







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Lauren Gibbins
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2 comments:

  1. Sounds like an incredible experience and something that's way worth the negatives. Amazing that you took the plunge to move because it's such a big thing but something that will stay with you for life! Love your pictures too! x

    Yasmin x
    The Sweet Seven Five

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    1. It is definitely something I think everyone should at least consider because so many universities offer it even if you haven't taken a language! Thank you so much! xx

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