Studying Abroad in France or The Shit Pamphlets Won't Tell You

18 December 2012

If you've stumbled across this blog, it's probably because you entered any combination of the words 'study abroad' and 'france' into a search engine in preparation for your own adventures to the land of romance and cheese. I certainly remember that it was not too long ago that I was seeking to know what it would be like to live in a country that I had only dreamed of for years. Sadly, the results my search yielded hardly painted a realistic picture of what was to come. When I moved to France I was overwhelmed and quickly became depressed. How was I suffering from so much culture shock when I had prepared so thoroughly for this trip? To avoid my emotional breakdown, here's what you really need to know to prepare for your academic stint in France:

My university
The grading is harsh
I mean, I had always known that the grading system was a bit different in France. A scale of 1-20 is used with 20 being the best and anything over a 10 being considered good. Something you need to understand before you go is that you should not expect to get good grades. I remember writing a paper for my Medieval Literature class and being so proud of my work, only to get an 11. I was heart broken. How could  my professor not appreciate my hard work? But, you know, that's just the French system. No one (not even native French students) gets amazing grades. The whole time I was there I never got a grade above 15. One time I handed in a paper and the professor looked at me and said "You're a foreign student, right? What grade do you need so that you can get credit when you return home?" "Ten," I replied. He pulled out his pen and wrote '10' at the top of my paper and handed it back to me. At the end of the semester, out of 40 students, only 14 passed this class. This is the kind of shit you will encounter. Don't let it get to you. Just remind yourself that you're doing double the work of other students since you're learning in a foreign language and, even if the grade doesn't reflect it, you are doing good work.

Making friends is hard
I remember my freshman year of college there were a lot of students from China in my dorm. I also remembered that they only hung out with each other, only ate Chinese food, and only spoke Chinese. 'What the hell?' I thought, 'You're here to experience American culture and learn English! You spent all that money to get here and you're not even taking advantage of it!' Fast forward a year and now I'm the foreign student. 'Ooooh, now I get it.' The second you add in a culture or language barrier, making friends becomes ten times more intimidating. "What if I mess up and say something wrong? What if I offend them? They're totally laughing at my accent." These are all fears that will echo in your head and make you fearful of creating friendships. You'll be drawn to other English speakers instinctively. And at first, I will say that's ok. It's scary figuring out a foreign country on your own so find some one who understands you. But don't hold on to them for too long. The best advice I can give is get rid of your inhibitions. When class is over, go right up to a fellow student and say 'hi'. You have this class together so you already have a common thing to talk about. The French are friendly once you get them talking so they'll probably invite you out for a cafe in no time. Also, don't be afraid to make mistakes. French isn't your first language and they all know that. No one will judge you for messing up.

Celebrating Thanksgiving with friends from four different countries!
The French are more relaxed
Many people like to say the French are lazy but I think that's an over statement. They do however, seem to do things on a different time schedule and follow a more leisurely pace than Americans are used to. For my study abroad program I arrived two weeks before classes started. I didn't find out which courses were going to be offered until the day before classes began. If I were in America, I would have scheduled my classes six months ago but to the French there was really no rush to get us that information any earlier. As someone who's there to transfer academic credits back to your home country, knowing which classes you're taking is really important but try not to stress about it. Just adopt the French mentality and reassure yourself that you'll take care of everything eventually.

Protests will get in the way
One of the most frustrating things I had to put up with were protests. They get in your way. You have to find new routes to get home. Public buildings close down so you can't pick up that care package from the post office you were longing to open. And, if enough students decide to join in on the protesting, classes are cancelled. In fact, one time I went a whole week with out classes. I really wasn't too worried about this until my adviser from my home university contacted me to say that if too many classes were cancelled I wouldn't receive any transfer credits. Balls. Now I was really freaking out. I had put a lot of money into studying abroad and I didn't want it to go to waste. My advice on this matter is to remember that protests do come to an end. Classes will start again, you will get credit, and eventually the post office will be open so you can get your package. In time things will work out so don't stress during the moment. Why not go join the protest? The organized ones are quite fun and kinda reminiscent of Independence Day parades.

Yay socialism!
It's ok to admit you're depressed
This is one of the things I had the most trouble with. I thought I was a really strong and independent person before going to France. I thought I had studied up on everything concerning French culture. There's no way I could ever have a problem with homesickness or culture shock. And yet, day one, I moved into my apartment and broke into tears. 'No, Aryn, you're not allowed to be sad,' I told myself, 'you're living your dream so you're not sad'. I went on like that for a while. Looking back on my diary that I kept during my study abroad experience, it's easy to see that I was depressed but some reason I wouldn't admit it to myself. But you know what, studying abroad, no matter what country you go to or how independent you are, is a challenging experience. It's ok to admit to yourself that you're scared and lonely. Moreover, it's ok to look to other people for support. Don't let your sadness prevent you from having the adventure of a life time.

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  1. Great advice. I'm also applying for France, and reading this has given me second thoughts, or at the very least given me some good tips for when and if I go there. Thank you

    1. No, I insist that you go! I wrote this to show that it's important to be realistic- France is not all rainbows and gumdrops. You will have hardships just like if you were back home.

      Also, this experience may have been unique to my program. My coordinator was very "hands off" and left me to fend for myself, in a sense. You can research other programs that offer a bit more guidance and support to help transition.

  2. thx for this post i realized it was differant but never knew this, i am looking into going there for post-secondary what were you going there for? (classes). I still have a while to consider but it still looks great to me. Did you know french before going because i went to french immersion (partial french school) for elementary school which might make living there a bit easier?

    1. Hi Sydney! I studied French literature and also took some other classes such as art history, sociology, and international relations.
      I studied French for 5 years before I went to France and it really helped because no one in my city spoke much English. If you go to Paris or a big city like that you can get by with less French.

  3. Hi Aryn,

    Just wanna say that your post really cheered me up after I'd bawled my eyes out from a long and stressful day at uni today. I'm doing a master's course in Grenoble with only barely B2 level French and I'm still struggling to go out there and make friends with the locals and even with the foreign students, surprisingly, because they speak perfect French which makes me feel stupidly inferior :/

    Anyway, tomorrow's a new day and thanks to your encouraging post, I feel ready to face it again!! Also, I'll make sure to check your blog occasionally as I'm a wandering polyglot myself :))

    Have a nice day!


    1. Hey Sheng, I'm so glad you found this helpful! If you have any questions, let me know! Good luck!