A year abroad comes with many challenges. Sam Pollard, who is on our English Language Assistants programme in Mexico right now, explains how to make the most of the experience.
When I got back to university after my year abroad, I was surprised by the number of people who said they hadn’t enjoyed theirs. It wasn’t just one or two people; it was a lot. I also remember, before going on my year abroad, that there were many people on my course who were worried about having a ‘bad’ placement.
I suppose we all have different ideas of what makes a bad placement, but the most common concerns I heard were: being 'stuck' in a small town or village, a lack of other young people, not practising the language enough, and no places of interest or tourist attractions to visit.
I don’t think such a thing as a ‘bad’ placement exists. This year, I've been a language assistant in Mexico, in Cárdenas, Tabasco. Don’t bother googling it – there’s next to no information online about it at all.
However, I wasn’t disheartened by this when I found out. I was excited to go to a place about which I knew very little. I love Mexico so much that I would’ve probably been happy anywhere there. There was only one thing I knew about Tabasco before coming – that it is incredibly hot (my dentist in the UK is Mexican, and she informed me of this).
Now that I’m here, I can tell you more about Cárdenas. It’s a city with a population of about 100,000 people, although, in reality, it feels more like a large town. It has one cinema, a few supermarkets, a couple of clothes shops, and that’s about it. It’s not a very cosmopolitan place. You might say, then, that it has all the makings of a ‘bad’ location. However, I am more than happy to call Heroíca Cárdenas, to use its full name, my home. Why do I feel this way? With a positive attitude, it is possible to adapt yourself to any location.
The truth is that the climate here is difficult, to put it mildly, especially for a lad from the north of England. So far, it hasn’t even been the hot season, although I have experienced the rainy season. When it rains here, oh boy does it rain! We’re not talking British drizzle, not that 'fine rain that soaks you through'. This is that heavy rain that soaks you through and floods your street. When it rains here, the streets flood - locals make jokes comparing the town to Venice. In previous years it has flooded to catastrophic levels, but thankfully, I haven’t experienced that yet.
How to deal with it
Really, there’s no tip for how to deal with this. You just have to grin and bear it, and I think I’ve done that well. I’m already super-adapted to the Tasbasqueño climate, and now when the mercury dips down to 25 degrees Celsius, I feel cold.
Lack of things to do
There really is very little of interest in Cárdenas itself, which means that most weekends I go to Villahermosa, the state capital. It is relatively close, but always takes a long time to get to because the highway isn’t built yet. Villahermosa is more or less a normal city with some beautiful parks and interesting museums.
How to deal with it
The best thing to do, if you find yourself in a location without many obvious things to do, is to try something new. I’ve been to places of natural beauty, which isn’t something I do regularly in the UK. And I went on a trip with the local university to do some caving, which again, isn’t something I’d ever considered in Britain. I didn’t especially enjoy the caving, but at least I tried it, and it has opened my mind to new experiences.
It's also important to realise that, even if you find yourself in a place with seemingly little of interest, there will still be things to do. It is just a question of finding the information, or perhaps travelling to a nearby town or city. If you’re into nightlife but you end up in a place without one (Cárdenas, for example, doesn’t have much of a nightlife) – then simply find other ways to spend your evenings.
Go out to eat instead, which is always a delicious option in Mexico (tacos, anyone?). I’ve also started salsa classes, and the cinema here is incredibly cheap in comparison with the UK. I even went to an evangelical church one time to see what it was like. Doing new things has been great as it has meant I have had experiences I wouldn’t usually consider. And if you try something you don’t like, then at least you’ve learned something about yourself. If all else fails, a 'lack' of things to do presents an opportunity to further throw yourself into your teaching role, as you can use your free time to take private classes or prepare materials.
All my colleagues and friends have told me not to walk around alone at night, and not to take out my phone in the street (even in daytime).
How to deal with it
There’s really no way to deal with this either, other than to take sensible precautions and listen to what the locals say, as they obviously know more than you. Nothing bad has happened to me, nor have I even witnessed a crime. I just make the best of it and try to be careful.
When in doubt, say yes
The best advice is probably the advice you’ve heard most often: say yes. It might be annoying but it’s true. If your middle-aged colleague invites you to their house, say yes. They might be older but that means they’ve probably got something interesting to say. If you hear about a local festival, go to it, even if you have to go by yourself, because you might never have the chance again. Whether you’re in a Mexican city or a small French village, the best thing to do is mingle with the locals, hang out with them, find out what they like, and become one. I’ve already become an honorary cardenense, and it’s great. You’ll get so much more out of your year abroad if you go in with a positive mindset and forget the idea that ‘bad’ placements exist.
Every year, around 2,500 language assistants from the UK teach English in 14 countries around the world.