The Year Abroad: 30 years ago, and now

The importance of the internet to the planning of the Year Abroad cannot be overstated, writes Emma Turner, in Varsity. A blog post by my niece, comparing her plans for her Year Abroad with mine 30 years ago.

I am now in my second year of studying French and Spanish, and this means many new things: my reading list has practically tripled, I’ve learnt a few lessons about leaving supervision essays until the night before, and I still feel like I have no idea what I’m talking about most of the time. It also means I’ve started the mammoth task of planning my Year Abroad: a terrifying yet exhilarating prospect which involves translating my CV into other languages, hunting down and applying to approximately a million jobs, and being on a constant rollercoaster of excitement and dread.

All my efforts so far have required the internet in some way. Every job I’ve applied to has come from a careers website or from the endless emails from the Year Abroad office, and I’ve needed the internet to land my applications filled with polite business French in my potential employers’ email inboxes. These emails required vocabulary from WordReference, research from Google, and plenty of Facebook procrastination in between.

“Thirty years ago, this would all have been very different”

When I arrive in my chosen foreign country in a few months’ time, I will have booked my flights online, looked up all my connecting trains and methods of transport in advance and made copious notes on my phone, booked accommodation through a website, and probably downloaded the relevant Google maps for when I inevitably get lost. When I’m not sight-seeing in my free time (using, you guessed it, recommendations from Trip Advisor), I’ll probably be working on my Year Abroad project and typing it up on my laptop from the comfort of my bedroom, with millions of pieces of online research at my fingertips.

Thirty years ago, this would all have been very different. My aunt also studied languages at university, but her options were much more limited, and she didn’t have the variety of internships that I have benefited from. Her placements were largely arranged through her university, and instead of sending off a quick email, applications were written by hand and sent via snail mail. To make the final arrangements with her placement school in Germany, she had to call them from a phone box… which ran out of change and cut her off half-way through the conversation. We might complain nowadays about dodgy WiFi connections, but I know which I would choose.

“Internet or no internet, it is a huge step out of our comfort zones”

Once she had arrived in Germany, travel plans had to be made spontaneously by looking at train timetables, and when she got lost, she relied on physical maps, or a good old-fashioned: ‘Wo bitte finde ich den Bahnhof?’. I can’t even imagine how much scarier it must have been to move abroad without even being able to text your friends and family when you arrived. Thankfully there was her dissertation to keep her from feeling too homesick, handwritten and then painstakingly typed up on a typewriter, with all the foreign accents drawn in by hand afterwards.

However, there are perhaps some unexpected downsides to a year abroad with the internet. The high prevalence of English online means that if I’m ever lonely, communication in my native language is just a click away – and perhaps immersion in my target language is therefore a bit easier to avoid if I’m not careful to ensure it. The way we define international friendships has inevitably changed, too – while it’s easier to add someone I meet on my year abroad on Facebook and stay in touch with them long after I return home, it’s ironically harder to stay in close contact with them, as the concept of a passive Facebook ‘friendship’ is a far cry from the effort required to keep in contact with international friends through writing letters, as my aunt did.

Of course, there are some aspects of the Year Abroad which will never change. Internet or no internet, it is a huge step out of our comfort zones, and technology doesn’t make us immune to unexpected twists which require fast-thinking and frantic babbling in the target language – such as when an entire pane of glass fell out of the window and onto a car below when my aunt was in Spain, or when I got abandoned on a language school trip to Marseilles last year and had to get the train back alone to my accommodation two hours away. The purpose and challenge of the Year Abroad has endured – but I am very grateful to be doing it today, and not a few decades ago.

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