Thursday, 10 April 2014

study abroad: what I did right

Spending my sophomore spring in Paris was an adventure, to say the least. Between exploding volcanos and near-death experiences, surviving that semester was an accomplishment. I had a fantastic few months there and I can say without hesitation that my time in France changed the course of my life. With the advantage of four years' hindsight, I can see that there are things I definitely did right and that there are things that I'd do differently if I were to do it all over again. Here are five things that I think I did right.

I picked a country I was interested in.
I don't just mean that I picked a country based on film-like visions of myself walking down beautiful Parisian avenues, laughing with my imaginary French boyfriend Pierre. As lovely as those visions are, they can't encompass the magnitude of what your life will be like when living in another country. I picked Paris because I was interested in the language, the culture, and the challenge of living somewhere that forced me to get outside my comfort zone. I wanted to experience Paris, in its entirety. Not everyone I met felt the same way--some people study abroad solely for the pictures or the partying, and a whole lot of the Pierre factor. Those can be good reasons to study abroad, but I think it should be deeper than a great profile picture. Pick somewhere that fascinates you, that makes you re-think your own life, and you'll open yourself up to so many amazing experiences and memories.

I took my classes in French.
I'd taken about four and a half years of French language at home before I left, but I wasn't anywhere near fluent. Because of my desire to soak up my time in France, I was set on taking my classes in French. I knew they'd be hard but in a good way--and they were. My classes were three hours long, taught totally in French. If I stopped paying attention for thirty seconds, I'd lose track of what was happening entirely. It wasn't just Americans in my classes, either, which meant I had to adjust my understanding of French spoken by non-natives. Their French accents didn't sound like the ones I was used to, and real French accents were different from all of ours. By pushing through the difficulties in my classes, I got better at speaking and understanding French. It was a challenge that paid off when I could have an actual conversation with someone in French understand the language enough to eavesdrop (just being honest here).

view from L'Arc de Triomphe, spring 2010

I didn't use Paris as a place to drop my stuff.
Not being from the European area myself, the temptation to spend every free second traveling is a hard one to resist. It can feel like SO MANY COUNTRIES, SO LITTLE TIME. You could pop to Spain for a weekend or see a show in London. But as much as I love to travel, I didn't choose to spend a semester in Paris so I could have a place to drop my stuff while I spent all my time elsewhere. I was in Paris to be in Paris. Adjusting to a new city can be hard, but you'll never get to fall in love with it if you don't put in the effort. Do some traveling, for sure, but leave some room in your schedule for the little things. Go out for drinks with your new friends, visit a museum you haven't seen yet and laugh at the paintings, get lost and find the places that will turn all your memories into sepia-toned nostalgia monsters.

I tried really hard to adapt and fit in.
The first couple of weeks in France were challenging. The language barrier, the jet-lag, the nasty wasn't all sunshine and prancing in parks. I always seemed to be drawing attention to myself at first, and I wasn't a fan of it. So I watched how people behaved, I paid attention to what they wore, I picked up on the subtle laws of the M├ętro. I tried to blend in and it worked. I stopped getting approached by street vendors and got fewer dirty looks on my way into school. I even got asked for directions once, which was immensely gratifying. When I started blending in, I began to see and appreciate so much more of Parisian life. It took the vacation feeling away and helped me to feel like I belonged--like this was a place where I lived instead of being a visitor.

I picked a good program that had a lot of support resources.
My college was too small to have its own semester abroad programs, which meant I had to find an outside program to do my semester. There are a lot of good ones out there, but I chose Academic Programs International, or API. The price of my semester included weekend trips around France, three full-time support staff at a local office, my housing, tuition, a semi-meal plan, and my public transportation costs. It introduced to me people I'm still friends with today and gave me a safety net in case something went wrong. I think it was really helpful for my parents to know that I wasn't going to be totally on my own in a foreign country. Picking the right program for you is important because it becomes the base of your whole semester. My program also helped introduce us to Paris, like where to avoid and basic etiquette rules.

picnicking on the Champ de Mars, spring 2010

My time in France inspired me to go abroad for graduate school. It opened me up to new ideas and helped me to see myself and my home country with clearer eyes. I'm so grateful that I had that opportunity. Studying abroad was one of the best things I have ever done for myself.

Anything to add, fellow study abroad alumni? What are your tips for other students? There are definitely things I'd do differently...I think I feel another post in the making. :)


1 comment:

  1. Those a really excellent things! I did two study abroad sessions and I chose them by the programs only. One was a month long intensive on design and italy. The other one was 6 months at Australian National Uni. I had no previous knowledge of either place. I also love the concept of staying in the place you are studying abroad and not just constantly traveling. It's nice to just be where you are and soak up that place.


Thanks for taking the time to comment! It's well and truly appreciated. :)

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