Making the most of your PTY: Lessons I learnt whilst living and working abroad

As a languages student at Surrey, I spent my third year abroad between France and Spain: for 7 months I worked as a receptionist at a conference centre in Annecy, in the French Alps, followed by 4 months in Madrid, working as a marketing and communication assistant at a five star hotel in the city centre. Both were completely contrasting experiences, each with their own ups and downs, but it was without a doubt a brilliant year. The work dynamics, type of work, people I met, and places I lived while on each placement couldn’t have been more different, so it was definitely an exciting and eye-opening experience.

I couldn’t recommend a PTY year enough and they are available on a number of courses at Surrey (you don’t just have to study languages to go abroad). Living and working in another country is not only fun and exciting, but also a great chance to push yourself out of your comfort zone and learn so much, both on a personal and professional level. Hopefully the following points are helpful tips for your own PTY abroad, or if you hadn’t considered it before, maybe they can inspire you to take on the challenge of an unforgettable year, while building up your CV, enriching your studies and gaining that extra life experience, giving you the extra edge once you’ve graduated.


Living in a new place

  1. Take every opportunity to meet new people and try new things. Find out about local events going on and see if there is an Erasmus/international/language exchange group – Facebook is a good place to look for these.

  1. Make the most of the environment you’re in – you may not be used to living in the centre of a big city, or in a rural village, but each location has its advantages. In Madrid, I lived close to the centre so everything was on my doorstep but in Annecy, I lived an hour’s walk from the town – luckily I lived right next to a beach so got used to a much more laid-back lifestyle. This is where you need to focus on what you love about your new environment, whether that’s the people, views, city buzz, food, sunshine, tourist attractions or cultural events. That way you can avoid comparing everything to what you are used to back home or at uni, and instead have a more positive and open-minded outlook on your placement year.

  1. Immerse yourself in the local culture – whether that’s taking Flamenco dance classes in Seville, or getting to know France’s art history in Parisian galleries (which is what my friends living in these cities loved doing). There are so many unique and authentic cultural activities that you probably aren’t always lucky enough to have right on your doorstep.

  1. Make the most of being closer to other destinations in the country you’re living in. Taking a 2-hour train is a whole lot easier, cheaper and more relaxing than a 2-hour flight. And how about a short drive to the ski slopes for a day’s skiing instead of an expensive week-long ski holiday? These are the opportunities you won’t have all the time, so take every opportunity to travel!

Getting to grips with the local language

  1. Keep a diary (if you’re learning the language of your host country, writing it in that language is a good way to keep up written skills each day). The time passes so quickly and it’s good to have something to look back on.
  2. Another language tip: it might seem cringey, but record yourself speaking the target language before you start the year abroad, and then after every couple months or so, to be able to compare your progress. Sometimes it’s hard to notice the concrete progress yourself as it is often gradual, so this can be a way to reassure you that you have definitely made a big improvement in your confidence and fluency.


Having a positive work experience

  1. Be assertive. This will be more natural for some more than others, but the cultural and communication differences that you may experience abroad are likely to be more direct than the overly-polite and indirect mannerisms we can be used to in the UK! If you are doing an internship, you may be given lots of responsibilities straight away, but in some cases, you may have to prove to them than you are capable of working beyond the more basic tasks. Being enthusiastic, asking questions, suggesting your own ideas, showing an interest in other employees’ roles and being honest with your supervisor if you have any concerns, should encourage your colleagues to push you, see you as a valued member of the team and give you the responsibility and tasks that you are capable of.

  1. The 9-5 routine may seem quite tiring to start with if you aren’t used to working full-time, but try not to spend all your evenings just relaxing in your apartment like I did to start with. Instead, take the time to plan something fun to look forward to, so that there is more to your week than just your work. Make the most of having proper free time during evenings and weekends where you can completely switch off from work, without any exam revision or assignment deadlines looming!
  2. There will be always be a few challenges and hurdles during your PTY but it’s all about the things you learn during this time. You will look back and realise how much more resilient and confident you have become, thanks to these experiences that have pushed you out of your comfort zone and encouraged you to become a stronger person.

  1. See cultural clashes for what they are instead of overthinking them – try to brush things off and not take offense easily, instead see these cultural differences as an interesting learning curve or a funny story. Tolerance and adaptability when dealing with people will help make your experience a lot more positive.
  2. Your work placement could be very similar to the career you are looking for after graduation, and you may even have the possibility of returning there to work full-time after uni, so talk to your colleagues about it and ask for some advice. If not, still speak to them about your aspirations for your future career, they may know someone who could end up being a useful contact. I am hoping to return to Annecy to work after I graduate, which feels a lot less daunting after already having worked there last year.


And finally, have fun!

  1. Take lots of photos and make lots of memories – when you’re back in final year in rainy England, you will appreciate being able to reminisce on the fun you had on your placement year.

  1. Expect the unexpected and keep an open-mind – you never know who you will meet, what opportunities may arise, what places you will visit and what new things you find out that you are good at.

  1. Just like your time at university, your placement year will fly by. So seize the day, don’t turn down exciting opportunities and most of all, enjoy it!