After graduating University in the summer of 2018 I decided I didn’t want to go back into the Academic field to do my master’s, although I was lucky enough to find my path and know what I wanted to do next. I feel that many people choose to do an ESK because they are not sure about what they are good at, they don’t know what they want to do later on in life or what “their next step” is supposed to be. In my opinion these are all perfect reasons to sign up for a program like this.
For me, however, it was supposed to be a break in which I could still work on the thing that was important for my future, which is improving my German. They tell you at the beginning of your ESK that language learning is not supposed to be the main focus of your year, but rather a secondary one in order to help you adapt to your new life. I definitely don’t agree with that, and I will explain in the following.
First things first, choose your project carefully.
I initially applied for projects that seemed promising for nurturing my passions (reinventing spaces for cultural purposes such as art exhibits and concerts - http://www.diebaeckerei.at/) but because I didn’t get chosen, I decided to go for an already familiar place that was still very fresh and happy in my memory – the city of Leipzig.
The project I got chosen for implied working with grade school kids in an afterschool. Basically playing games and helping the educators out in different administrative things. I was an additional helper and my role was quite clear: not a lot of responsibility, but relatively long hours of doing nothing relevant. I kind of knew what to expect, so my main focus was to improve my German. I had studied the language for many years before so I didn’t want to take an official course (the European Solidarity Corps offer every volunteer a paid language course of their choice) because I felt like I needed to improve my speaking skills and that could have easily be done at work. However, the challenge was greater than I expected. My colleagues were all nice people, but none of them had an international background to understand the struggles of a non-native speaker. I often found myself deeply frustrated for not being able to express my thoughts or personality because my language skills were not good enough. That was my main and hardest challenge and still is to this day.
When you’re not doing something you love or you are passionate about, it can get really bad very easily. That’s why I think it’s most important to choose a field you are actually interested in when deciding to spend a year abroad doing something new.
Second, be willing to listen and change.
The whole point of having this experience is wanting to grow and test some personal limits. I learned a lot about living with people this year, since I shared a flat with 6 other volunteers. It was the nicest flat I’ve ever lived in, spacious, central; I had the freedom to decorate my room and had an incredible balcony on the rooftop. It offered a lot of space for get-togethers, but that didn’t happen a lot because of the very different personalities of the people living in the house. You learn how to compromise when sharing a living space with people. You learn how to let go and adapt. You learn you are not the center of the universe and that you have to listen to other people’s needs as well. Of course, it’s lovely if the other person acknoledges your efforts and tries to do the same for your well-being, but I wouldn’t recommend going into that with high expectations. It’s already good as long as you feel you’ve done something to be a better human being. Not everyone is going to be your friend and that is fine as long as you have some good ones to hold on to.
Third, have some fun.
The things that saved me from falling into a deep depression caused by the monotony of the adult “nine to five” job, with constant tiredness and no will to go out anymore (terribly sad thing to think of when you’re only 23; heck, sad thing to think of at any point in life) were my guess-you-can-call-them-hobbies and my friends, which both proved to be way more numerous than I expected. I travelled to Iceland and drove a van in winter for 1400 km in two days. I got introduced to the concept of house-project through my lovely flat mate with whom I went to a festival in Dresden to. I travelled to Berlin and Köln alone for some other concerts and learned how to enjoy my own company as well as attract fun people through it. I organized two concerts, a living room gig and an actual pub concert of the band Stray Dogg (you should totally check them out!) – both extrmeley nerv-racking but totally cool! I had a friend joining me from Romania for another concert in Prague. I guess by now you see a pattern. Music is a big part of my reality-escape system. I am also planning on doing a photo exhibit together with my same lovely flatmate I was talking about earlier, and hopefully skydiving at the end of August. All in all, I am just finding ways to keep busy and kick boredom in the ass my way.
The money for all of this did not come from ESK. My monthly income of 385 euros berely covered the food and some bus/concert tickets here and there. I also suck at saving money – I am totally the product-design victim and I often buy pretty overpriced things that make me happy. However, there are ways to help yourself out. I am not going to lie to you, my dad is a very large part of my financial support system – so if you have a parent who supports your choices I suggest you show some appreciation because you are quite lucky. Although you are not allowed to have another job during your ESK (I really don’t know how you’d have the energy and time for one anyway) you could find small sidejobs. Try babysitting, or dog walking... I mean, I didn’t, but my way of earning some extra money was writing articles on youthreporter and translating texts for an association back home in Romania every now and then. I do the dog walking for fun.
So, as a conclusion, here's a piece of advice from someone going through something similar to what you’re about to go through: just hang in there. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be boring and it’s going to be very exciting and new all at the same time. But most importantly, something our trainers told us during the mid-term meeting, it’s going to teach you social skills (I would also add life skills) you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to learn. And that can be so much more valuable than any other skill they ask for at job interviews.
Some extra links: