Like many aspects of student life, the two words 'year abroad' are often glorified to the point where you can't see the letters for all the sparkles. Being accepted on a study abroad programme is seen as a golden ticket to a perfect year of guaranteed non-stop life-changing experiences. Facebook posts, blogs, and YouTube videos set to upbeat music all reinforce the idea that a year abroad will always be the best year of your life. It's all rather extreme and this kind of rhetoric communicates a sense that if you experience even the slightest of negative emotions at all during your year abroad, you're doing it wrong.
Of course, the glossy version of reality that populates blogs and Instagram always has a lot to hide. While a year abroad certainly runs a high chance of being a truly wonderful opportunity and eye-opening experience, it's not a year long holiday. It's your life in a new, scary place where you're unfamiliar with the language, culture, and landlord standards. There will definitely be bumps in the road. It's even possible that - gasp - your experience will be rather negative on the whole. It's important to remember that this is okay. There is no hidden clause in your university exchange paperwork stipulating that you must enjoy your experience (or at least pretend to), come hell or high water.
Even if you end up being ridiculously lucky and every practical detail of your year abroad works out perfectly, it's almost guaranteed that your emotional life will take some kind of hit. Homesickness is by far the most common emotional malady. It has a tendency to strike harder when your expectations are not quite aligning to the reality of your experience - whether that's because they were a bit too lofty or because your situation ended up crappier than you could ever reasonably expect. However, you need to account for the fact that you may end up dealing with more difficult mental health issues. Moving abroad is stressful, and you're removing yourself from your usual support networks. What's more, you may very well find yourself in a place that has an almost non-existent mental health support system. University-based counselling is not available everywhere.
More likely than not, than you will run into some practical problems. Your flat may resemble a rat-hole barely held together with glue. You may be broke all the time. You will probably get sick a lot. These issues may pile up one after the other, and trying to deal with them might give you even more problems. A paperwork issue leading you to lose out on housing assistance for your rent, can lead into problems with your landlord, and may only be solved by travelling across the city to queue up in an obscure office, on a public transport system that ends up on strike... Sometimes, these small issues become so many that you just want to call it quits.
Of course, as we've become all too aware of in the past year, sometimes big events out of your control will end up having a big impact on your experience. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels are the starkest examples - but what ends up affecting you might not be something you see on international news, such as a strike, a political event, or a changed law. EU students and prospective British Erasmus students are currently nervously biting their nails over the outcome over the upcoming EU referendum. It can feel profoundly unfair.
You're not entirely powerless in how your year abroad turns out. The more research and preparation you do, the less likely it is that you will run into problems. Stay on top of your paperwork, search for housing well ahead of time, carefully look into what banks and phone companies you should go with. Check out sites such as ThirdYearAbroad and the FCO Know Before You Go pages for comprehensive advice on the practicalities of your time abroad, from culture shock issues to health insurance, and follow the FCO travel advice Twitter account for live updates on what's going on in your location. Reach out to students who have been where you're going. Don't forget to check in with yourself emotionally before you go - how do you typically react when encountering new situations and when dealing with stress and adversity? Who can you reach out to? Who can you ask to send a care package to combat homesickness? If you have any existing mental health issues, try to draw up some kind of plan for how you will practice self-care and what kind of support you will have access to, as well as what you will do in worst-case scenarios.
Most importantly, accept that it's entirely possible that your year abroad may (though it's unlikely) end up being a pretty crap experience overall. Admit to yourself and others when you're having difficulties. You don't owe perfect and constant happiness to anyone. If nothing else, there is great resilience and self-development to be found in dealing with a bad situation when you're vulnerable and alone in a strange environment. You will also have a great deal of advice to give to future year abroad students, so be honest with them!
In all likelihood, your year abroad will be a mixed bag of highs and lows. It will probably not be the worst year of your life, but not necessarily the best, either - and that's okay.