Phoebe, a 4th year BA Modern Languages ( French and Spanish) student, shares her experiences from her Year Abroad in Spain.
Pre-Adventure and visa stress
Back in September last year I packed my whole life into a 20kg suitcase and departed for ten months in the sunny, south-eastern city of Alicante in Spain. Having studied Spanish for the past two years at university and spending three months au pairing in Madrid whilst on my gap year (sorry I mean gap yah) I felt quite confident about moving abroad but realistically no amount of research or planning will ever fully prepare you for such a unique and enriching experience. Despite having previous experience of living abroad it is still incredibly daunting thinking that you have to pack up your whole life and squeeze it into a suitcase!
The most prominent challenge I faced before moving abroad was applying for and obtaining a visa. This was something that I wasn’t familiar with seeing as I lived in Madrid back in 2018 and since then the UK is no longer a part of the European Union. I faced incredible challenges when applying for a visa. If you are lucky enough to have a European passport, skip this section knowing that everybody is extremely envious of you! The stress of the visa application is something that prospective British year abroad students will experience so hopefully there will be more resources and information available in the future. However, we were the first year to go through this and had to figure it out for ourselves. The most important piece of advice I can offer is to be organised, in this case there is no such thing as being ‘too organised.’
There are three Spanish consulates in the UK — Edinburgh, Manchester, and London. The consulate that you are assigned to will be determined due to where you reside at home. I live in the Midlands, so my nearest consulate was Manchester. The process is relatively universal across the three prospective consulates but double-check with your consulate as to what documents you will be required to bring to your appointment. I highly recommend buying a ring binder and making endless photocopies — trust me you can never have enough copies. I joined a Facebook group that was specifically for students requiring visas for their year abroad which was really helpful. Seeing those who had already had their appointments would post on the group about their experiences made me feel more at ease. It is imperative to apply for your appointment as early as you can, regardless of whether you have all the documents required or not as it will probably be a few months until your appointment, especially if your consulate is London as usually the London consulate is busier. Upon successful completion of your appointment the consulate will most likely take your passport and in the following weeks your passport with your visa inside should be returned to you in the post. This might sound straight-forward but trust me, the process is quite complicated and quite expensive, but it is 100% worth it.
Arrival in Alicante
I remember sitting in an induction on freshers week back in 2019 and the lecturer talking about the year abroad and how far off in the distant future it felt but it came around so fast. The year abroad definitely felt like the pinnacle of my university career since it’s the year where your language skills are really put to the test in real-life situations. Additionally, you can fully immerse yourself into the culture which I certainly did, often eating my body weight in tapas and paella. Alicante was certainly a huge change in comparison to living in Hyde Park in Leeds, where I had been living whilst at the University. When I first arrived in Alicante in September, it was still sunny and about 26 degrees every day. There was that wonderful feeling when you step off the airplane and the sudden rush of warm air hits you. For my first two weeks I stayed in an Airbnb. I recommend doing so as you can get a feel for the area and where abouts you might want to live. It also eliminates the risk of getting scammed as you can be physically present whilst looking around apartments. I lived in the centre of Alicante (for those that are familiar with the city: I lived in ‘mercado’) with three other girls. In total, there was two American and two British girls, which was a good dynamic.
Regardless as to whether you study or work on your year abroad, you will have an amazing time! However, it is definitely a decision to be carefully considered as I think it does really shape your year abroad. I chose to do British Council work experience, rather than doing a study abroad as I am considering teaching after graduation and thought it would give me relevant experience. Looking back in retrospect, I definitely made the right decision for me as I found the experience valuable and rewarding. This was largely down to the fact that I had a wonderful school and a great mentor to guide me through. British Council is an established institution and had lots of useful teaching resources. Inevitably your school will have expectations set in place. Every school is different, but my friends and I all had really positive experiences. A huge advantage to British Council is that you are paid for the work you do, I worked 16 hours a week Monday-Thursday so I had a long weekend which I used to my advantage to travel around Spain and other countries in Europe. The hours you work and the payment you receive will be largely down to what country and region you are in.
I was incredibly nervous but also excited for my first day of school. My school was a primary school, which is what I opted for. My placement ran from 1st October 2021 until 31st May 2022. The week before I was due to start I went to my school just to familiarise myself with its location and to meet some of the other teachers and my mentor. British Council allocates you to a school which means you do not get to choose the specific school but can obviously request the country and region. I got very lucky with my school. It was a fifteen-minute tram journey from the centre of Alicante and being a sun worshipper, it was perfect for me as it was only a five-minute walk to the beach! My mentor was amazing and was always predisposed to helping me whether it was to do with school and teaching or just settling into life in Spain. She was a huge support and a good friend. My school requested that I assisted in English oral classes, core English, arts and crafts and music, which were taught in English too. Remember that each school is unique so it might not be the same for everybody. The first few weeks were a little daunting. Meeting all the children and staff as well as adapting to all the challenges of living in a different country can be difficult but it is all so new and exciting! Over the course of the eight months, I found teaching techniques that worked for me. It is important to remember all students are individuals and I often found that one technique that worked for one student or class did not necessarily work for all. Like any new job, you will definitely get ‘into the swing of things’ and establish what works for you and the students that you teach.
A lot of people shy away from doing British Council or TEFL as they are concerned from a linguistic perspective that it won’t challenge them enough as you are teaching in English and so they opt for study abroad. I can say that this was not the case for me. Although the teachers make it clear to speak as little Spanish to the children as possible, so much of my day was still in Spanish. Most of the other teachers, even if they could speak English, would speak to me in Spanish. Moreover, as I was in a primary school and the youngest children that I taught were only three years old and sometimes they could not express themselves in English therefore spoke to me in Spanish. Outside of school things like going to a café and ordering a coffee is all done in Spanish, so I do not feel like I was at a disadvantage from a linguistic perspective. I actually found that now I know really obscure Spanish words from being around children and engaging with the things they tell you.
Without sounding too clichéd, my year abroad, like any point in my life, has been full of ups and downs. I think the idea of living abroad is a little over glorified, but don’t get me wrong -it is an amazing experience. I spent months partying until the early hours, drinking loads of sangria, sunbathing in little ‘calas’ and eating copious amounts of paella. What people don’t talk about are the tough realities that come with moving abroad — you can feel very homesick and lonely at times. ‘FOMO’ was a big thing for me when seeing my friends from the University who didn’t do a year abroad or a placement year all going out together. However, I made lots of wonderful new friends (a mixture of British and Spanish) and got an authentic experience of living in Spain, filled with fond memories, which hopefully will have made a massive impact on my university career.
Written by Phoebe Green