study abroad: what?

Dear faithful readers, and especially undergraduates,

Welcome to the second of what I hope will become a useful series of posts about studying abroad, which I think plays a vital role in our linguistic development, both as speakers of foreign languages and of our own.  Last time I wrote to you, I gave you some (useful?) advice about setting goals, figuring out the why of your study abroad experience.  Since this is my blog, and my fake epistolary correspondence, though, I’d like to shift the focus back to me and my experience in particular.

In the fall of 2009, I spent a semester in Nantes, the illustrious sixth largest city in all of France, with IES.  Over the course of that semester, I experienced every stage of this annoyingly accurate phenomenon study abroad offices across the country refer to as “the W.”  Retrospectively, I realize that I may have actually spent a huge chunk of time feeling miserable for various reasons, but I still seemed to think I was having the most incredible experience of my life… and that’s how I remember it.  Likely, I was, indeed, having the most incredible experience of my life, and the misery is part and parcel.

The program I did was a perfect fit for me because it provided the exact amount of support I needed to survive my first time in a foreign country without (s)mothering me.  Instead, the whole experience gave me the courage to explore on my own and to take responsibility for my cultural and linguistic growth.  Below, I have isolated a few features of the program (the what, if you will) that were significant to my experience and personal growth.  Note: immersion was foremost among my priorities.

Why this experience was perfect for me:

  1. Program support: Studying abroad with a program, as opposed to direct-enrolling at a university makes a huge difference!  (Especially in France, where the bureaucracy can seriously prolong any of your problems or concerns.)  You have an entire staff that exists just to support you and isn’t part of a larger organism.  For me, this meant help understanding the University’s scheduling system (nonexistent), program-organized travel around France, a place to congregate with other Americans, and a Tuesday evening conversation group as a way to meet some honest-to-goodness Nantais.
  2. My host family: By some stroke of good luck, I ended up with the perfect host mom for me.  She was the first to help me discover the city, unfamiliar French cuisine, and conceptual art.  We are still in touch to this day, and I had the chance to reconnect with her when I was living in Angers this past year.  I realize that a home-stay can seem unappealing – what if you don’t get along with your family? what if they are really strict? – but living with a host family is the best way to have an immersive experience.  Reputable programs screen and prime their host families.  At worst, you decide you’d prefer to spend most of your time elsewhere (and by default end up doing lots of exploring!); at best, you get along famously and drastically improve your conversation skills.
  3. Living outside the capital city: Often, when I tell people I studied abroad in France they assume I was in Paris, and Paris will always be a temptation for us students of French.  Living in a less cosmopolitan city, though, can often provide a more authentic, immersive experience.  Fewer people were in the habit of speaking English, so even mundane activities tested my ability to communicate in French (and occasionally required a certain amount of daring).  The scale of the city also meant that, within a few months, I really felt like I knew my way around.
  4.  The university: I will be honest: although I took three out of five classes at the Université de Nantes, I would not say that the largest benefit of having access to a university is academic.  The program notified university professors of our presence in their classes, and they set their expectations accordingly low for us.  Having access to a university, though, allowed me access into a pocket of life within the city.  It was a way to discover a different education system and to have some of the important shared experiences that connect people: having an incomprehensible professor who turns his back to the microphone while he’s still talking, eating in the student cafeterias, attending concerts and conferences on campus.  Through the university, I took Friday afternoon salsa lessons and joined a group for international students.
  5. French friends(!): Okay, so, this wasn’t exactly part of my program’s marketing campaign because no one can guarantee who you become friends with… but it was important for me that it be possible to find friends outside of my American compatriots (is that redundant?).  A lot of them wanted to travel all over Europe, and only a few of my friends were particularly keen to speak French all the time.  I was more committed to getting to know the city (and country), culture, and language I had come to experience.  Through my various activities at the university, I ended up making some incredible friends who showed me aspects of life in the city (and in France) that I never would have otherwise discovered.  Also, notably, I dated a French guy: recommended for improving conversation skills.

It’s easy to take certain obvious program structures for granted – location, housing, etc. – but each feature has an impact on the shape your experience will take.

Happy decision-making!

Thea

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