Why did you decide to study abroad?
I decided to study abroad because I knew there was more of the world for me to experience. Maine is great, but there's so much more than that to discover! I also knew that I needed to improve my language skills, and being immersed in a culture that speaks the language is the only true way to learn it.
How did you choose where to go?
I knew I wanted to study abroad in France all my life because I'm completely in love with the French culture. I did not know when I was younger, however, that I would choose first to stay somewhere otehr than Paris. Living in Aix-en-Provence with the Wellesley program was a great decision, and I wouldn't have made that decision if it weren't for the OCS fair and the French department seminar about study abroad I would not have know this program existed. The second semester abroad in Paris was just a natural fit and the Columbia-Penn program had been on my radar for a while.
Can you briefly describe your program while abroad?
I went on two programs: The Wellesley-in-Aix program and the Columbia-Penn Paris program. With Wellesley, I lived in a smaller French city in Southern France in an apartment with another American student studying through the local university and being immersed in the gorgeous place that felt more like a campus than a city. The program took us out on group excursions all around France and I got to know everyone in the program very well. With Columbia, I stayed in a host family in the bustling city of Paris and got to live as an independent person in a thriving French city. While I did not hang out with many students on the program, I was encouraged to go out and integrate myself into the community, so most of my friends were made through my internship that I found and the classes I took, also through the university. I feel like at the end of the year I can definitely claim both cities as my home, but definitely in Aix my stay was more about the people and in Paris more about the city.
What were some highlights or memorable moments of the experience for you?
I loved the food. It's hard not to in France, but honestly I had some of the best meals of my life this year in and around France. And I loved travelling. The ease at which you can jump from country to country and dip into the other cultures just to taste what it might have been like to live there was a hugely enriching part of my experience. A moment that definitely sticks out for me is my last night of orientation in Paris: I got a cone of the best ice cream in the world at 11pm, walked across my favorite bridge in Paris, stood in front of Notre Dame with my back to the front door, and watched the top of the Eiffel Tower sparkle in the distance, surrounded by good friends and excited about the prospect of spending a year in this wonderful city. Another highlight was sleeping in on a Sunday in Barcelona, meandering our way down the beach to eat paella along the water, eating a luxorious lunch in the sun, and then taking a cat nap by the beach, bathed in sunlight, thoroughly stuffed. Also New Year's fireworks off the London Eye, midnight mass on Christmas in the Dom cathedral in Salzburg, and a parade on my birthday in Aix. Or even when I hosted a Hanukah party in my apartment in Aix and made a hundred latkes and my friend made a speech about how happy she was, when I was sad that my parents and sister had left and my friend and I made cookies and hot chocolate and invited everyone over to watch Love Actually, when my friend and I finally ate Mexican food and then stumbled upon a Chinese New Year parade and followed it all the way through the Marais, or when I took a group of people on a tour of all of these chocolate places I had been researching all around Paris. Honestly, there are too many highlights to name them all.
What was your greatest challenge?
The greatest challenges were the transitions. Moving out of my house and leaving unsure of what was about to happen, travelling anywhere and not knowing what to expect, moving out of my apartment in Aix that I had grown to love and entering another unknown with a family who didn't know me, and even moving away from the entire study abroad experience feeling changed but not knowing yet how. Each transition, an opening of something new, was incredibly stressful, emotional, and tiring, but entirely worth it because the result was so great. By moving out of my house I was able to understand my capability of actually living on my own. By travelling I was able to experience something new in the world. By moving to a new place I was able to get a fresh start to a brand new semester in the city of dreams. By going home, I was able to understand how studying abroad had changed me into a better, stronger person.
How have you and/or your perspective changed after returning from study abroad?
I am now much more confident in my abilities as a speaker, writer, thinker, planner, doer, traveller, empathizer, and comprehender of the world around me. Experiencing the world in someone elses shoes is really the only way to truly understand someone elses viewpoint, and being able to bring in the French perspective and seeing America with new eyes upon returning, I better appreciate the situation I have at home, the countries around the world, and the importance of preserving cultures and avoiding globalization and therefore dissolution of cultures. We had to protect what makes each culture unique and different or else there will be no one around to see the other point of view.
What advice would you give to prospective study abroad students?
My advice: stay for the year. I know that it sounds crazy and impossible because 9 months seems like such a long time. And that's exactly what I thought before I stayed for the rest of the year. But it felt like a dream: so long while you're living it and so short once you wake up. Experience every moment, do everything you can, learn everyone's names, eat everything and don't count calories, try not to go home in the middle but don't lose touch with the US, take lots of pictures, and write as much as you can down. You will be so happy when you come back and not only have something to show others but a way to remember everything for yourself. Don't let yourself forget this dream, because it's the best dream you'll ever have.