Study Abroad in Paris through Columbia University
Falling in Love with the Capital of France
The Opera in Paris
The 6ème, 7ème, 17ème arrondissements …as a newly enrolled study abroad student in Paris, it was all rather confusing. In an email, the Columbia University housing coordinator had written to me that my home for the next two months would be located in the 6ème arrondissement. A quick Google search cleared things up: Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (neighborhoods) and the one I was to be living in happened to be the hip Quartier Latin, replete with bars, restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues. Confusion immediately turned into excitement, and I was ready to live out a Parisian summer that I had always dreamed of.
Arrival in Paris
But that was not to say that confusion did not resurface once I arrived in Paris. Finding my studio apartment turned out to be another odyssey; after picking up the keys at the Reid Hall campus, I took a taxi, giving the driver the directions to the Rue de l’école Polytechnique, exactly as noted on my housing confirmation. But when I arrived at house number five, the keys did not fit into the lock. I pulled and pushed at the heavy, wooden door, but to no avail.
Upon seeing my desperate efforts, a Parisian couple stopped to look at me, possibly thinking that I was trying to break into the house. Smiling nervously, I tried to explain in broken French that I had just arrived, and that this was indeed the address where I was supposed to be living. They took a quick glance at my housing confirmation paper, and seemed to understand the problem. "Ah, oui, mais ca c’est l’école Polytechnique, pas rue des Écoles." It turned out that the taxi driver had taken me to a more well-known street called Rue des Écoles. My address, was actually on la rue de l’école Polytechnique, a tiny street that was a few blocks away and up the hill.
I decided against the couple’s suggestion to take a taxi and lugged my suitcase to the apartment—second floor, no elevator, typical of many older, beautiful Parisian buildings. On the glass table in the modest living room, I was welcomed by a series of annotated maps, color-coded explanations, and a letter. “Bienvenue!” Ashley had written; she was the girl who had been living in the apartment up until a few days ago, studying at the Sorbonne for the spring. Her explanations covered everything: which supermarkets are open when, advice that the Phone House is good for getting a cell phone, and which cafés had the cheapest Wi-Fi; there was no Internet access in the flat, which was common for most other students living in studios or shared apartments. But it did not matter to me; I had traveled here to be in Paris, not to be connected online. And if I needed Internet access, I would happily enjoy a jus d’orange in one of Ashley’s recommended Wi-Fi cafés. A map of Paris in hand, I was ready to follow the outlined route to class the following day.
The Reid Hall Campus and Classes
It was exactly as Ashley had described—a wonderful, 15-minute stroll through the Jardin du Luxembourg took me to the Columbia Reid Hall campus, a former villa now turned into classrooms, offices, and other administrative rooms. The courtyard bustled with incoming students, sipping café au lait and enjoying warm pastries. Syllabi and further academic information was distributed: we were to read through them carefully and then make an appointment with our assigned advisor the next day in order to choose our classes.
I had already made my choices while back in New York City, Paris Walks and Issues in 19th Century French Art, but decided to consult with my advisor nevertheless. She confirmed that most students in the 6-week summer program enroll in two classes, with three credits each. And looking back on the program, it proved to be good advice; one single class would have left too much free time and too little opportunity to learn while in Paris. Three classes, on the other hand, left another friend of mine with too little free time to enjoy being in Paris.
Reflecting on the two courses I did take, I not only struck the perfect balance of academic work and leisure time, but also took advantage of the city. While my art history course was held at the Musée du Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Musée Marmottan-Monet and Musée Gustave Moreau, the Paris Walks class was literally as the title suggests—a weekly excursion throughout various neighborhoods with a teacher whose knowledge of the history, art, architecture, and sociopolitical events of France enthralled us all. For homework, we were asked to complement these cultural excursions with further visits to Parisian points of interest. Given that both classes were small, we were able to interact personally with the teachers—who enthusiastically shared their knowledge with us. I was glad I had opted for these interactive courses, and not for an evening literature course which could easily have been taken back in the States.
Is One Summer Enough to Learn French?
That obviously depends on you, your dedication, and your aptitude for language learning. I would say my French improved significantly over the six weeks. By the end of July, when I decided to extend my time in France to travel to Nice on the French Riviera, I was no longer the nervous, confused foreigner who could barely ask for directions. Nevertheless, I would say that the summer offered me only a glimpse of what a study abroad experience in Paris can be. For those looking for a more authentic immersion experience, I recommend going for an entire academic semester. During the fall or spring, Columbia offers programs at Reid Hall that run in conjunction with the Sorbonne and Sciences Po, meaning that you will be studying alongside French students.
The fall or spring might also be a better time in which to pursue an internship. In our summer program, there was only one girl who was working full-time as an intern for a law firm. As an EU citizen, she was able to make money, but was also always running from work to class (her only class being the evening literature class). She was also never able to travel with us on weekends; while we did not have class on Fridays, for her it was a normal workday. Having witnessed the stress she was experiencing, I would recommend a part-time internship. For those interested in journalism, for example, there are countless newspapers and magazines with offices in Paris. Another friend of mind landed an internship with The New York Times during her spring abroad. But be aware that interning with a company where the primary communication is in English will defeat your purpose of coming abroad: to learn French.
Improving Your French
To improve your language skills via this Columbia program, take advantage of the following:
- Sign up for appointments with your Reid Hall advisor. Here, you can discuss almost anything, but it is useful to go over papers or presentations you have prepared for class. The advisors will correct your spelling, grammar, and help you with overall structure. Not many students took advantage of this during my program, but it really pays off. Not only does your grammar improve, but your grades are likely to increase, as well.
- Attend the Reid Hall social and cultural activities. Most likely, there will be a sign-up session during Orientation. I joined a wine-tasting and a cooking class, both of which were enjoyable. There are also opera and theater tickets available, and you can always suggest your own ideas.
- Participate in the trips offered. We went to Normandy and Reims, and both trips were heavily subsidized. Just make sure to sign up early. And then there’s also the Club des Jeunes activities to keep in mind, where you will meet French students.
- Consider living with a host family. Here, you will learn more about the French way of life and speak the language day-in, day-out. Just make sure to indicate certain things on the housing questionnaire beforehand, such as diet preferences, allergies, etc. Vegetarianism is not common in France, which is why I chose to live in an apartment.
- Take advantage of your Reid Hall ID. It gives you free entrance to all the museums in Paris and in some other regions in France (mine worked for the Musée Matisse in Nice as well).
For More Info
Academic study abroad programs in Paris
Want to immerse yourself even further, perhaps after an intensive language course?
Internships are offered by:
Columbia will offer to find housing for you, but if you would rather look on your own, consider the following:
- Adele and Les Etudines provide information about student residences in different French cities.
- There are also, of course, countless hostels for you to stay in until you find an apartment or student residence, although if you are only coming for a short time (i.e. two months in the summer), I recommend having your accommodation sorted out before you arrive.
Travel & Social Activities
- The Club des Jeunes organizes activities and trips for international as well as local students, and is a great way to meet people!
- To get around Paris and France, use the TGV. You may even consider a Eurorail ticket if you are traveling a lot and to other countries.
Registering with your Embassy
If you are a U.S. citizen, you can register with the U.S. embassy. Citizens of other nationalities should consult with their embassies to make sure their presence is registered abroad, just in case.