I don’t remember deciding to study abroad. It was always something I assumed was a life changing part of a college education, and I was merely biding my time until a semester or two abroad fit with my course requirements. Of course, making plans to study abroad was not nearly as simple as I had believed. There were personal obstacles because I transferred colleges and had limited time to study abroad, but the biggest challenge in planning came from my own lack of knowledge regarding the sheer volume of programs and trying to navigate the differences between them.
The wealth of different options came as the biggest surprise to me for two reasons. First, as a French minor I had already decided I was going to France, so I assumed many options were already eliminated before I even began to look (this was true, but there were still a lot of options). Second, I went to a very small university and didn’t anticipate their affiliation with a larger university’s study abroad program in my state. I had genuinely believed I would walk into the office and say “I would like to study abroad in France,” and would be left to decide between a small number of choices that could be counted on one hand.
I wish I could write here that I carefully evaluated each program and made a thought-out decision. Due to the pressures of being a college student and preparing for an international internship, I did not. This resulted in my selection of the program which accepted my scholarships and provided some additional scholarship opportunities. Essentially, I defaulted to the cheapest option. While I’d always assumed that studying abroad in France meant Paris, the company I selected to go through was affiliated exclusively with universities in smaller cities. I read through all the material I was given, and did some quick browsing online to select the location that I felt would be the best fit.
I don’t recommend this strategy. Reading Wikipedia pages is a great starting point, but it doesn’t give you a real picture of any city. I liked that Caen was close enough to Paris, featured a medieval castle, and was near the Beaches of Normandy that I’d learned so much about in school. While all of this was true, these individual facts gave me no insight to the spirit of the town, the day-to-day activities, or the programs offered by the school, all of which would have been more useful to me.
My late nights spent googling in no way prepared me for the reality of my program. First, I had to get from Paris to Caen without any assistance. I thought that my years of classroom French would make this entirely manageable. While I arrived in Caen in one piece, it was only thanks to the kindness of strangers, including a businessman who wanted to practice English who helped me find the metro, a very nice man who spoke no English but was able to walk me through the process of buying a train ticket, and a kindly American veteran and his wife returning to Normandy whose familiarity with Caen got me on the public transit system to the University.
Second, while social programs and transport were not organized by the university, every minute of my curriculum was. There was no flexibility in choosing the classes you took or your schedule. Coming from the American university system and having credit requirements that had to be fulfilled while I was abroad, this system was entirely unexpected and caused me some stress while I figured out how to make it work.
Third, I’d made the mistake of assuming that as a capital region near Paris with a castle smack dab in the middle, the city would be filled with the old world charm of a country so much older than my home. In fact, while the aforementioned castle and a few other locations were the oldest structures I’d seen, most of Caen was destroyed in the Second World War, meaning the entire city had been entirely rebuilt in the last half-century.
Fourth, I’d completely romanticized the idea of studying abroad. I thought I was going to meet tons of French people who would eventually be charmed by my American tenacity and wit. In reality, most of the people I met were other foreigners there to learn the French language, but many were also trying to learn English and frequently wanted to talk to me in my native tongue. While I was able to use the communal cafeteria and library and lived in the dorms, my exposure to French people was limited by my lack of faculty with the language and lack of exposure to French people within an academic context. I take full responsibility for my inability to go out and meet people, but it impacted my stay none the less.
Fifth, I got walking pneumonia immediately upon arrival. So there’s that. Additionally, I can’t eat seafood and somehow ended up in a port city where the cuisine centers around the daily catch.
While my French decidedly improved while in Caen, and exploring the town and culture was an amazing opportunity, I would have made very different decisions in hindsight.That isn’t to say that I didn’t benefit from my program, or love my time abroad and the friends I made, because I absolutely did. Had I been aware of how basic my French was, I would have chosen a much more hands on program. I would have been more proactive about making the experience I wanted, rather than hoping resources would be provided. I would have studied locations more closely and asked more questions or just gone to Paris, and I would have found a program that let me live with a host family even though I could only go for one semester.
I learned that I am excellent under pressure. When my flight was cancelled the day before I was supposed to leave, and on the eve of a blizzard, I was able to book another flight, reschedule all of my transportation to the airport, and leave almost six hours earlier than expected, all without internet or phone at the University and no way to contact my parents, who were picking me up when I got back to the states.
I learned the importance of thinking everything through and asking questions before you make any commitments. I learned not to assume that programs and organizations in other countries will operate in the way you are used to. Most of all, I learned that France isn’t a country frozen in the 16th century. Living in a foreign country isn’t always like climbing into a story book and making the lives you’ve studied and read about a reality. Some days, living abroad is just life. You grocery shop and take public transportation.
But other days. Other days you buy a pain au chocolat and walk to the top turret of a medieval castle and spend the morning reading and looking out over the city that is your temporary home. The reality is that while not every trip can be perfect, there is always something unique to learn and experience.