I hadn’t originally intended to study abroad. My plan had been to secure a work placement, but frankly my expectations were unrealistic and I did not do enough research. This meant I was a late applicant to study abroad, left with a limited selection of choices and told to choose one. As a joint honours French and Spanish student, I chose la Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain (though pretty much anyone there will tell you it’s in the Basque Country).
There is a certain amount of pressure on students for their year abroad to be the best of their life so far, and for some students this is the case. To be honest, I think I had more fun on my term abroad and backpacking in Europe during the summer before I started my year abroad. A massive part of this is the change in academic rigour and the early starts expected of me! Another is the key difference between enjoying somewhere as a tourist and living somewhere as a student.
When I first arrived, I noticed differences, especially ones that seemed unfavourable: I missed the cheese, tea and beer options I was used to in the UK. However, I soon became acquainted with how great and cheap Spanish wine and coffee is and my diet became more Mediterranean as I adapted to what was available locally. For tea, I generally made do with using two bags at once, boiling water in a saucepan as electric kettles were not a thing! This worked out ok as most Spanish advert breaks were at least 8 minutes long, even during cartoons like Family Guy and Futurama.
An easy thing to do on an exchange, if local laws allow it, is to get involved in the student drinking culture. In Spain this was especially true as prices were much lower than the UK and serving of spirits was more generous, rather than strictly measured. Most social events were also centred around flat parties, bars and clubs, as in 2006 there wasn’t much organised by the host University. Socialising with local students was difficult as many still lived in the family home. Any trips we arranged ourselves. The trick I found was to make sure to pursue other interests. I joined in with the Irish students who played football regularly, despite being utterly terrible at the sport. I also got into the local gigging scene, becoming a regular sight in Bilbao’s metal and hardcore scene (being over six foot tall made me stand out!). I made the effort to get out and explore, spending a long weekend in Barcelona and staying with a friend studying abroad in Italy at Easter, but also visiting local museums, strolling the nearby beach and going up the funicular railway to admire the views.
I got a lot out of my study abroad year, even though I didn’t necessarily realise it at the time. I went into my final year with a sense of focus and greater self-confidence. My grades in final year were better than second year, in some cases by a grade boundary. My first job involved calling people in Spain, Portugal and Israel, something I was happier to do as I had confidence in my abilities to communicate, whether in English, Spanish or French, as I had tested them out in a place where people tended to speak Spanish first and Basque second. My study abroad experience also helped me stand out in job applications, helping me to get interviews as I have stood out from other candidates. I am still in touch with friends I have made through study abroad, either through my time in Bilbao or people who have studied abroad at Leeds. These friends have given me the chance to visit various parts of the world I would never have otherwise been to. I in turn have been able to show them a good time in Yorkshire!
A study abroad year naturally involves change, so it is helpful to prepare yourself for the challenges ahead and to know who and where you can draw on for support. That way you will be ready to face whatever comes your way and make the most of your time abroad.
Written by Adam Parkin – Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao Spain 2006/07