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I Dropped Out of my Year Abroad by Charlotte West

Failure and Fate During my Placement Hunt

My plans for my sandwich year have changed a lot since starting my degree. From spending time abroad, to work placements, to deferring – I went through every option possible, each one seeming to lead to a dead end. I felt lost and my anxiety skyrocketed at the uncertainty at what I was supposed to do with over 12 months of my life post-June 2019. It seemed to be a gaping void that was ready to suck me in and swallow me whole.

I think second year of the University at Surrey is like that for a lot of us – at least it seemed to be that way on my English Literature course. Almost all of my class-mates contemplated studying abroad as ‘easier’ than finding a placement, with employers just seeming to strike us all with ‘no’ after ‘no’; it was exhausting and demoralising to say the least. At a university which prides itself in promoting their infamous ‘placement year’ with all their exciting contacts, it really was disappointing to realise just how much you had to do on your own, praying that the jobs would be paid, commutable or even worth it.

I knew I couldn’t go straight into final year, I wasn’t ready and hardly any of my friends were doing it. During the Easter holidays when I was feeling particularly disheartened, I turned to my Mum and admitted that I wished I had just applied to study abroad – I could have turned it down if I wanted, but at least I’d have had an option. That’s what it felt like: my future was not in my power, it was down to some big bosses in swanky offices relishing the opportunity to shatter some naïve student dreams.

Two days later I got an email from the Global Engagements Office. It said they still had a place on the English course at Stockholm University in Sweden.

I was overjoyed. It felt too good to be true. My wish had been granted and I was so quick to define it as a ‘miracle’. I watched as my previous worries gradually lifted from my shoulders and drifted off into the wind.

I don’t like to think of myself as ‘fortune’s fool’, like Romeo is depicted in Shakespeare’s famous play. I try not to sit back and hope that the universe will bring health, wealth and happiness into my lap with no grafting done on my behalf. But also, there have been moments when the timing of events is too perfect for it to be shrugged off as merely a coincidence.

This opportunity to go to Sweden seemed like one of those moments.

I spent the entire summer attempting to learn some basic Swedish, listening to endless ABBA tracks and practicing my fika (a social coffee break). I was excited, I was ready to do something outside my comfort zone but still in the ‘safety net’ of a university environment, this was exactly what I had been looking for – and then I found myself sat on the loo in Gatwick airport, minutes before our gate was set to open. I stared at the blank cubicle door opposite me and was struck by this razor sharp question: Why am I doing this?

It felt stupid. I felt stupid. So when I arrived and had this gnawing feeling of displacement, I could already tell I wasn’t going to last the week. The next day I went to the university campus and checked out my accommodation – nothing was as I had expected. Suddenly the campus didn’t feel like my safety net; just another hill to climb. I couldn’t even spend a night in my new bedroom. This wasn’t the place for me. And so in just 24 hours I had decided to leave. Sometimes you just know.

My vision of this opportunity as a ‘miracle’ completely evaporated in that moment. But when I was working out how to return to England, and found there was one seat left on my parents’ flight, I got caught up in that feeling of fate again.

Once I arrived home I, unsurprisingly, felt completely at a lost for what to do next. My brain was so wrapped up in this idea of destiny that I was trying to become a sort of fortune-teller, attempting to envision my future for the year. I was desperate to find out what my next path was supposed to look like, which route was I supposed to take? Should I stay at home for a year, in a place that feels incredibly claustrophobic nowadays? Should I return to Guildford, which I love, even though most of my friends are elsewhere? Should I look for internships and placements like I had intended to six months ago? Where should I apply? Which companies would accept me? Where could I afford to live?

I tried every pathway, not really committing to any one in particular, hoping that my gut or my heart or my head would know what was ‘meant to be’ when the opportunity rolled around. Instead I just ended up getting stuck. I wasn’t putting all my energy into any of the options, which then meant that none of them were working out. I knew that I had to take action to get out of this rut, yet was spending my empty days googling the Law of Attraction and trying to work out how I could manifest some success into my life.

I just found myself completely caught up in this headspace of wanting to ask the universe why it had bothered sending me to Sweden in the first place. It had made me feel so embarrassed returning home. Failure is, of course, the word that comes to mind. I hear about students dropping out of uni all the time, but I’ve never heard of someone drop out of their year abroad. It felt like the universe had really screwed me over.

I think a lot of people have felt like that about some of the grueling placement application processes, especially for the big companies like Disney or Warner Bros for English students. It’s natural to get invested in a job as you successfully progress through each stage, only to reach the final hurdle and find out they want the one person that was more suited to it than you. It makes you question what the point of it was, but it’s important to see a life lesson hidden in there somewhere.

I looked back over the months between Easter and Sweden and realised that maybe it had allowed me to spend the last six weeks of second year completely free in the certainty that I had a plan. I could revise for my exams without feeling like I should be sending out more job applications. I could party with my friends without feeling like I’d lost every aspect of myself. I had forward momentum for the first time in the whole of second year, and for that I am grateful to the universe.

Admittedly, I still don’t know what I’m doing with my year, but I’ve realised that I’ve got to build my own pathway, rather than rely on ‘destiny’. I finally have a new plan now, and I’ll know if that works out at the end of October, and if it doesn’t, then I guess I’ll just have to build another plan. And another one, and another one, until I eventually find one that sticks – or until I have to go back to university, whichever comes first.

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