Category Archives: study abroad series

study abroad: writing the personal statement

Dear Prospective World Travelers and Global Students,

As you collect your materials for your study abroad applications, which are probably due presently, you are also drafting your personal statement.  Many of you are writing in your language of study.  Some of you are terrified.

For once, I will refrain from posting a list or creating a formula that will help you perfect your personal statement.  A list would be unhelpful and a formula would be dishonest.  Instead, I will offer you a single piece of advice: WRITE. IT. YOURSELF.

To back up, I don’t think any of you are plagiarists and this is not an indictment.  In fact, you are probably most guilty of being over-conscientious.  Some of you probably have friends who speak French, Spanish, German, and will ask them to edit your work.  You should, in all your communication, check that your readers understand you and work tirelessly to unite word and idea.  You should not, however, ask your knowledgeable friends to help you write a more authentic-sounding language.

You are not a native speaker, and that’s okay.  In fact, it’s great!  Your personal statement is a forum for you to demonstrate your drive to learn a language, not your mastery of it… which brings me to another key piece of advice: MAKE. MISTAKES.

I mean, obviously, don’t make mistakes on purpose, but don’t be afraid of them either.  Say what you can using what you know; this method occasionally produces awkward results, but it demonstrates your desire to think in a language rather than to translate to a language.  When applying to a study abroad program that includes study of a foreign language, define yourself as a student and a curious mind – not an expert.

You defeat yourself when you falsely represent your ability.  About halfway through my semester abroad I discovered that, unbeknownst to me, a significant portion of my cohort had cheated on the French placement exam our program had administered during orientation.  The results, for those who placed into higher French classes, were unfavorable and even humiliating.  After seeming to breeze through the exam, they struggled in their classes.  Don’t be ashamed of your ability, and don’t ever be afraid to say, “I’m still learning.”  Everyone is.

Even the most confident people can experience insecurity when speaking a foreign language.  We become vulnerable when we risk error, so remember that, regardless of experience, everyone is at least a little terrified.

Bon courage!

Love,

Thea

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

study abroad: why?

Dear College Juniors (and anyone) thinking about studying abroad as an undergrad,

I think you are a bunch of attractive geniuses and I am about to tell you why.

Recently, I have found myself engaged in many a conversation with rising college juniors who are planning to study abroad, and who have looked to me, older and wiser as I am, for advice – advice I would like to share with the Internet at large.  People frequently ask me about my experiences studying and living abroad, I think, because I have shared them so publicly and I evidently have a lot to say.  My semester abroad turned out to be an incredibly formative experience for me both as a student of French and as an individual, and it has informed (continues to inform) my postgraduate trajectory.  In fact, if I hadn’t studied abroad, I would probably have spent the past year languishing in my childhood bedroom and would still have no idea what I want to do with my life.

Naturally, I have become a huge advocate of study abroad because of the profound effects it can have on your personal and intellectual development.  Yes, of course, it’s a great addition to your résumé, and it has a positive effect on postgraduate job placement, but that isn’t why you should go abroad.  In fact, you shouldn’t take anyone’s word (not even mine!) as your reason to study abroad.

Let me be clear: I don’t think you should ever ask yourself, “Should I study abroad?”  Of course you should!  You may, at some point, have to ask yourself, “Can I study abroad?”  Certain majors can make it very difficult to study abroad (notably the sciences and psychology), so some of you will need to plan ahead.  Although some of you may be reluctant to miss out on campus life and time with your friends, don’t deprive yourself of this opportunity; college is the best and easiest (and, often, most financially feasible) time to spend an extended period of time abroad.

So, now, you’ve decided to study abroad, you clever, clever person.  Now you ask, “Why should I go abroad? What do I want to gain?”  Perhaps you already have a country (or at least a continent) in mind, but setting a goal for yourself will help you choose the perfect program.  Going to France with a program that teaches all its classes in English won’t do you any good if you want to improve your French.  Try going through the following laundry list to figure out your study abroad priorities.

When I go abroad, I want…

  1. to travel.
  2. to learn a new language.
  3. to become fluent in a language I already speak.
  4. full cultural and linguistic immersion.
  5. to engage in service or social justice work of some kind.
  6. the opportunity to do an internship for credit.
  7. a home-stay with a host family.
  8. to live in my own apartment or in a dorm at a foreign university.
  9. to learn about foreign policy and/or government.
  10. to take classes at a university.
  11. to take classes in English in a non-anglophone country.
  12. a program that is more experience-based than class-based.
  13. to meet students from all over the world.
  14. to meet and travel with other [insert your nationality here]s.
  15. to fulfill requirements for my major/graduation.
  16. to live in a big, iconic city.
  17. to experience life in a smaller city or town.
  18. to feel uncomfortable (in the sense of being pushed beyond your comfort zone… except I think “comfort zone” is a cliché that doesn’t mean anything).

As you narrow your priorities, you will find that choosing a program will become easier.  No detail is too large or too small, and you may need to do some initial research before you figure out exactly what appeals to you, but I think it’s important to enter your study abroad experience with a sense of purpose.  Perhaps that purpose will change over the course of your study abroad experience, but it will remain a source of motivation and stability.

In my next letter, I’ll break down my own study abroad experience to the essential elements that made it amazing as a guide for you to translate different programs’ features into the actual experiences they will create for you.  I’ll also continue to post study abroad advice throughout the year, and I would love your guidance: what do you want to know?

Until next time, I think you are all beautiful.

Bisous,

Thea