The Academic Side of Studying Abroad

At first, the classes didn’t seem all that different to the ones in the United States. You do a syllabus day, have assigned homework, show up on time, and take notes. But the minute details of it all really come full force after about a week. There are little trips that are required for each of my classes. An excursion to a museum, a little walk to the feminist library, or a small lecture in the cemetery. I also had the misfortune of taking all my classes in French, so the language barrier can become tiresome during eight hour class days. Homework is the same, generally, and the grading system is somewhat lenient, but it does take time to get used to. Additionally, when there are so many events and places that you want to see, it’s difficult to really engage in the classes when you could be out seeing the sites and making the most of your time in a new place.

But the classes do get easier. The professors are helpful, and they genuinely enjoy what they teach. It’s been an eye opening experience to have access to these classes that I wouldn’t take if I were still at Wofford. And being so close to all the art and food and language that we discuss in class really enhances the experience. I feel as though I’ve learned so much in such a short amount of time, and I don’t feel burdened every day to show up to class and learn something new. It’s all about the balance, and if you keep up with the classwork, there’s plenty of time to explore and learn.

The Honeymoon Phase

When I arrived, a staff member told me about something called the “honeymoon phase”. The first few weeks would feel like a vacation, and the city would still be bright and exciting. And, I’ll admit, I definitely fell for the novelty. Having my own apartment only one metro stop away from all the brilliant artworks and architecture and food I’ve always wanted to see and experience has been a blessing. Everyday I wake up and take the train over to a museum or bakery, just to make every second count.

I’m not saying that I haven’t been anxious. My first few nights felt like a simulation. It still feels like there’s a camera man around the corner, waiting to tell me I’ve been pranked. I like my apartment and being by myself, but when the windows are closed I forget that I’m studying abroad. I think the first culture shock definitely came when I went to the grocery store. The Monoprix has the same vibe as a Target does, but every single product is in French. I couldn’t really read a lot of the labels, so I guessed on a lot of the stuff I would need. Not to mention I never cooked an actual meal by myself before that day. I felt very lonely and helpless, and there was nothing I could do.

It was also extremely hard to adjust to the culture. In Southern culture, everyone is friendly to everyone. If you don’t make polite conversation in the Publix check-out line, you’re considered rude. But here, you can’t really interact with anyone unless you know them. Even making eye-contact on the metro is considered creepy. There’s a common misconception that French people are mean, but truthfully they just don’t want to interact with strangers. And once I got used to it, it was really nice not having to make painful small talk every time I sat next to someone or stood with them in line. Everyone is in their own world here, including me.

Maybe I’m still in the honeymoon phase. I may know the metro like the back of my hand, but I still haven’t explored much by myself. And today I’m happy, yesterday I was happy, but this bubble could pop at any moment. Everyday I struggle, and everyday I adjust. It’s all about making the most of it, and taking one day at a time. And when it gets really rough, knowing that I’m in Paris to learn and grow and experience as much as I can, should be enough to get me to the next day.

Am I Doing The Wrong Thing?

The words “study abroad” did not mean much to me. They meant a student studying outside of their region. But over the summer, those words grew an anxious attachment. Study abroad now means expenses. It means extensive packing. It means learning an entire language in two months, because I can’t even remember how to ask where the bathroom is. It means leaving my family. It means being alone.

But there is a reason I chose to study in France. I’m the kind of person who would rather binge the latest Love Island season in my bed alone instead of going out to parties. I’d spend my weekends at home, occasionally spending time with my friends at Waffle House or at the lake. I’m not a risk taker. But I love French culture. I love the cuisine. I love Voltaire and Victor Hugo and Monet and even Louis XIV. To spend time with the art in their home country, to eat foods I could never try in the states, to learn the language to the fullest extent is the only reason I went through with the application. I am not a risk taker, but this program will make me one.

My biggest worry is driving three hours to the airport Sunday, and something goes wrong. My passport is wrong or my medications don’t make it through security. Maybe I lose my luggage or maybe my visa isn’t valid. And then maybe I do (by some miracle) end up in Paris, but I can’t speak a word in French and I fail all of my classes. These anxieties have kept me up late these past two weeks. Two days ago, however, a classmate created a group chat for all of the participants in the program. They shared similar concerns about the language and being away from home. Some of them have never even traveled abroad before. And we’re all getting dinner together right before classes start. Somehow, being stressed and nervous with all these brilliant people right beside me makes it less scary. Almost exciting.

So, I’m going. Even if something does go wrong. Academically, I want to learn everything there is to know about French culture. The literature, artworks, landscape, language, architecture, or even the train system. Someday, I’d like to use my French degree, possibly in teaching, so to absorb as much information as possible would be ideal. And I’d also want to visit as many author’s homes and writing spaces as possible. I feel as though a new change of scenery, a new change in life will explode the possibilities in my writings, and garner some new ideas. As for my personal goals, I just want to grow. Venture outside the comfort zone of my laptop and blankets and find bits and pieces of myself in new situations. Meet new people. Learn how to live on my own. Learn how to become the person I want to be.

I’m going to make mistakes. I might mess up my academic standing. I might miss a train or two on the way to school. I might start a kitchen fire trying to cook food for the first time. I’m definitely going to get lost in the supermarket aisles. But those mistakes don’t even compare to missing out on a trip to Paris because I was terrified of change. So, I’m taking a risk for once. And I’m so excited to see who I become.