How the hardest year of my life changed my perception of the world

Written by Laura Smith, 21.

It is really quite strange now to think I once lived in Austria. It was something I had prepared to do, ever since I was in sixth form. I had a traineeship contract between the British Council and my university to spend nine months teaching abroad to improve my language skills. So, just last September, I packed my bags and left London. I moved to Krems an der Donau in lower Austria, a Baroque town on the Danube.

Everything seemed twice as hard because nothing was familiar

Navigating a new city - or even town - in a language that is simultaneously alien and known to me, was quite a task. It wasn’t an easy ride, nor a holiday (despite what Erasmus critics point out with their accusing fingers). I missed home comforts; I missed not having to think twice about public transport; the list goes on. Everything seemed twice as hard because nothing was familiar.

It’s hard to believe people who – left, right and centre - tell you everything’s going to be ok, and it will all work out for the best and that everything happens for a reason, and so on. But you don’t believe them. They were not the ones living this nightmare, I was. It was incredibly difficult living a completely different life. Anyone who knew me back home knew that I was the most sociable person around; always up for a gossip; always discussing the latest drama.

It became hard to have faith in myself; to fully grasp the concept of progression

Abroad, I was the opposite. I had nothing to talk about. I had nothing new to share. Life seemed to come to a complete standstill. It became hard to have faith in myself; to fully grasp the concept of progression; to admit that I couldn’t expect as much from myself in this situation as I could in my old life.

There is no perfect way to combat this state of mind or being. Everyone deals with their own battles differently – it makes us unique. It takes our mental state time to heal. While everyone was struggling to comprehend the beginnings of lockdown, it was second-nature to me. And it meant that my ‘year’ abroad concluded early, so it even seemed like a personal win. I was back in my comfort zone and I could finally leave the negativity behind. I told myself I wasn’t going to become a victim of seeing with rose-tinted glasses. University told me it would be the ‘best year of my life’. Lord, they were wrong.

The more you do alone, the more you realise how capable you are

However, having been away for so long; away from the people, places, experiences, etc, the things I considered so precious – really made me think. As much as I tried, I couldn’t just ‘forget’ the journey I had, like it never happened. The more you do alone, the more you realise how capable you are. As one of my closest friends once said to me, every tiny bit of progress is an accomplishment on the year abroad. Whether that be going to the supermarket, opening a bank account or meeting someone new – it doesn’t matter. It’s something I can be proud of now: my disconnection from the world in what felt like a mental prison didn’t completely tear me apart. In fact, I’d like to think it’s made me stronger.

The struggle is only ever temporary

Now, months on, I’ve found the faith in myself I needed back in September. Somehow, I managed to complete a dissertation in German, teach my Austrian students remotely and most crucially, start thinking about my future and being proactive. The world is less daunting to me now because I feel like I’ve been through enough of it now to deal with anything that comes my way. It might feel like the world is collapsing around you; the walls might be closing in within your mind – but the struggle is only ever temporary. Once you go through the tunnel, the light on the other side really is brighter than it ever seemed before. I wanted to forget this year so badly; but in actuality, it’s helped me to change my perceptions of how I see the world.

This contribution was written by Laura Smith, 21. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.