Personalise your year abroad! This is perhaps the best piece of advice you can get. And I do not mean that you should call it Lars, Pierre or Nacho. Tough, thinking about it now, it would make conversations much more fun. Just imagine it… Lars made me remember how beautiful White Christmas is. Thanks to Pierre, I have grown as a person and improved my language skills. And Nacho? Well, Nacho showed me what night life in a big city is all about. You might be wondering why I have used male names. The reason is simple; in Czech language, we distinguish between three grammatical genders – masculine, feminine and neuter – and ‘year’ is of a masculine gender.
What I mean by personalising your year abroad is to liberate yourself from stereotypes and make it what works best for you. Honestly, people have the tendency to be quite narrow-minded when it comes to study exchanges. What comes to your mind when you think of an Erasmus exchange? A year off? Partying day and night? Skipping morning classes because one is hangover? Handing in an assessment a day or two after the deadline because no-one really cares about the year-abroad grade? Not showing up for an exam at all since the continuous assessment is sufficient for (barely) passing a course? If this is what you picture your year abroad like, go for it! To be objective, this approach has a number of benefits. The most important one probably being that one gets to practise and improve their language skills unless one hangs out in the international, understand English-speaking, exchange students’ community. Then, one gets to experience the real life; and experiences, whatever their nature, shape who one becomes. Plus, one tends to graduate shortly after the exchange and join the adult world of obligations and commitments. So, quite frankly, a year abroad might then be the last chance to cut loose without being judged.
How does my year abroad, let’s call him Michel for the sake of amusement, like look then? (This choice is not a completely random one; I will, however, leave the interpretation up to your imagination.)
Let’s be honest, I chose Sorbonne for its reputation. The idea of having yet another world-renowned university on my CV proved to be too tempting and I have decided that a lack of courses in fields of study I would be particularly interested in was a price I was willing to pay. I then chose classes that were closest to my interest in Politics and Economics – contemporary history courses – and provided for a compact schedule that would allow me to take up an internship. Consequently, I understood that my academic aspirations would be mostly to improve my language skills.
A huge advantage of spending your year abroad in a major city are the opportunities to get work experience which I knew from the beginning I would make my best to take advantage of. To be completely honest with you, to get an internship you might combine with the study obligations is not exactly a piece of cake. Even if you come to terms with not acing your courses (which I thought I had but then the deadlines came and I realised I simply was not ready to resign on my year-abroad grade), you still need to attend (some of) the classes and eventually hand in the assessments. Simply put, you would be looking for an internship that would be flexible enough to adapt to your schedule. Under such circumstances you cannot really expect to find a paid one. However, if you find an internship of particular interest to you like I did (‘where, where, where?’ I hear you asking; I am interning with the Delegation of the Czech Republic to the OECD), the experience you gain is priceless.
Sure, there are moments when I ask the hyperactive myself ‘why have you done this to me?!’, ‘what were you thinking, studying and doing an internship at the same time while I am supposed to be having fun?!’ Did I picture myself declining a friend’s invite to visit him in Spain while I would simply love to return to Madrid for a weekend-long (well-deserved, I must say) siesta? Reading articles for my dissertation in between the meetings? Working on my essays/presentations well beyond midnight? Of course, not. But, at the end of the day, I take a deep breath, take a step back to gain a bit of perspective, and I ask myself ‘silly, having to choose between Sorbonne and OECD, which one would you pick?! ‘At that point I come back to my senses as I know that I would not settle down for just one of them.
Plus, despite my busy schedule I always find time for things I love. I travel. Definitely not as much as I would like to, nor as far as I would wish to but I do. I explore the city. As a tourist as well as a Parisian. And I have found French friends. Maybe not tones of them, but that is not what I look for, anyway.
You are unique so make your stay abroad a unique one too. Make it count the way you want it to. All you need to do, preferably well in advance of applying, is to set your priorities and expectations.