Reflections on Study Abroad

Sunset over Provence

Only a few more days until my time in France comes to an end. It feels like I’ve only just arrived and finally started settling down, and now it’s time to pack up and go home. As always, time goes by far too quickly for my liking.

Now that my semester abroad is almost over, I started looking back and reflecting on my experiences. Over all, this semester was a great one. Life in France, how could it not be great? However, this semester wasn’t really at all like I expected it to be.

When I was looking at potential exchange programs, I had to decide between going to a French university and living in an apartment or dorm or going to an American university and living with a host family. After my experience in Germany, I opted for the latter. My first home-stay experience forced me to speak a lot of German, forcing me to pick up the language quickly, and also allowed me to really experience German culture. I hoped to get the same benefits from a home-stay in France. I decided to trade off going to a French university with harder classes in order to be more immersed in French culture through the home-stay.

Unfortunately, my host family this time around was not quite what I had expected. Although they are generally very nice people and they provided us with the required daily breakfasts and dinners, they were often very busy, so the experience wasn’t as interactive as I had hoped. When we did spend time together, everything was fine, but I never felt fully integrated into home life.

I guess choosing to live a host family is a bit of a gamble. I knew plenty of people in Germany who hated their family and numerous people here who like theirs. I’m not trying to say I disliked the family here, it just wasn’t the experience I thought it would be. I thought I would speak a lot more French than I have and eat tons of traditional food. I still believe that home-stays are one of the best ways to be immersed in a culture, but I have a more realistic view of what to expect.

When I arrived in France I knew very little about the school I would  be attending. No one from my school had ever participated in this program, so I was just going off the program’s flyers and the website. There is a mix of pros and cons with this program. On the one hand, my classes weren’t terribly hard. My French conversation class for example was basically just a review of grammar I already knew with barely any conversation. Then again, my French phonetics class was a lot of fun and I feel like it really helped my pronunciation and speaking ability. IAU offers a variety of art, history, literature classes, so there are lots of interesting subjects to choose from.

It was also helpful for me to have a few political science classes in English because it made it easier to transfer credits back home. While my French would have improved a lot more at a French university where even my poli sci classes would have been in French, being at the American university did simplify issues with the registrar.

The relative ease of all my classes made for a very low key semester and allowed me to do a lot of traveling. Honestly though, the work load was pretty comparable to my usual work at home. Aix-en-Provence is nicknamed Aix-en-Vacances (Aix on vacation) by the American students because everyone is always gone and not doing homework. IAU doesn’t schedules after 12pm on Fridays to make it easier for people to travel. I got to travel to so many new cities and several new countries this semester, and I am grateful to have had such great opportunities.

Looking back, I guess thinking that a bunch of Americans would try to speak French with each other outside of class was rather silly of me. I think the school technically has a policy that we’re supposed to speak only French when at school, but no one ever enforces it. There is such a range of ability at IAU; some students are just starting to learn French and can barely speak and others are really advanced, making it very difficult for everyone to use French all the time. I would recommend to the school to be more strict about speaking English in the future in order to improve the experience for others.

I was lucky to have made some absolutely wonderful friends this semester. All the people that I met at IAU are great, and we all enjoyed some fun times together. Since it’s such a small program, it was very easy to meet people and really get to know them. I’m going to miss everyone so much when we all go home in a few weeks and are spread out all over the US. Now I have more excuses to travel around the US in order to go visit everyone in Texas, Colorado, California, Oregon… I’ve definitely got the domestic travel bug now- maybe I’ll manage to put international travel on the back burner, at least for a few months!

So although the reality of my semester was much different from my expectations, the semester was far from a loss. Quite the opposite, actually. The negative experiences were completely balanced out by the positive ones. I guess this is just another case perfectly described by my traveling mantra: it’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just different.

Everyone that knows me can tell you I believe 100% that everyone should study abroad. It’s such a great experience! You learn so much about other cultures and languages, but more importantly you grow a lot as a person. I wish I could convince everyone to travel and take a semester abroad. It was interesting for me to compare the my experiences in Germany with those here. Having already been through it all before, I didn’t experience the same roller coaster of emotions and homesickness that I experienced the first time around and that I watched other people going through this semester. It definitely made settling in a lot easier and made me feel like an old pro at some things.

101 days down, 3 to go. I’ve got a lot to do between now and then- several exams and packing! Then I’m off to Paris for a week with mom and back to Germany for Christmas.

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