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How to Study Abroad in France

Former Students Reflect on Their Experiences

Before we stepped on the plane for our junior year in Europe, the program director advised us to be prepared. “This will be the best year of your life.”

Not relishing the possibility that my life would be downhill from the age of 20, I was skeptical. Yet, decades later, I recognize the truth in her words. The nine months I spent in France were a magical, eye-opening time of adventure, challenge, and growth. Being dislocated from my American base and forced to adopt new strategies for daily living taught me about myself as well as about French culture.

My program sent me to Tours, in the Loire valley. But lately I’ve been comparing notes with others who studied in Paris, Lyon, and Strasbourg. Each of our programs equipped us to varying degrees for what lay ahead.

Anjea Ehrle in Lyon

Anjea Ehrle, a French major from the Univ. of Texas at Austin, returned from Lyon in 2001. She raves about her spring semester there, where she managed to complete all her classes in French. Among the half-dozen other UT exchange students attending at the same time, most embraced their host culture; others had difficulty accepting it. Ehrle relished the adventure. With the Brazilian, Canadian, Irish, Italian, and Swedish students who lived in her residence hall she shared cutlery and sugar along with cultural insights. Ehrle is convinced that her travels have made her more open-minded and she encourages anyone who has the opportunity to study overseas to do it.

Jody Lyons in Paris

Over a decade before Ehrle made her trip, Jody Lyons attended The American College in Paris for the spring semester, enjoying the luxury of her own small apartment. Since her classes were conducted in English, she worked to develop her French language skills by wandering and exploring the urban kaleidoscope, intentionally avoiding activities with the other American students after class hours. Despite her independence, she found it daunting being alone in a big foreign city and surprised by how difficult it was to make French friends. She reflects that having prepared ahead of time with better language skills would likely have helped increase her opportunities for local connections. Back in New York City, she befriended a French foreign exchange student who became and has remained a good friend.

Dixon Miller in Strasbourg

Upon his arrival in Strasbourg in the fall of 1980, Dixon Miller concluded that “there was no point being homesick, because the year would be over so soon.” So he devoted himself to exploring an exciting world so different from his native Texas and capturing special moments with his camera. Thanks to rigorous study and the lack of English-language TV in his apartment, his fluency in French grew. He bought a Peugot moped and buzzed around the neighborhood, stopping at a neighborhood café hangout for philosophical discussions. He still recalls the grief he and his French friends shared when the news came through of a global loss: John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York. After graduation, Miller returned to France for another year, this time to teach English. Today his fluency in French allows him to communicate with French-Canadian customers.

The Author in the Loire Valley

I was not a French major nor had I taken any French courses since high school, but I wanted an adventure that would take me away from my New Jersey college campus for a while. So in 1978 I tagged along with a Rutgers University Study Abroad program. Fortunately, the majority of paperwork and arrangements were handled by an expert team of program directors, and I was ushered painlessly through an introductory Paris sojourn to a dorm room in the lush Loire valley, with side trips to chateaux along the way.

By a stroke of good luck, I brought my guitar along and found myself something of a mascot to the group of 46 American students, leading them in warbled renditions of Joan Baez classics that helped us all cope with the occasional bout of homesickness. An exciting moment of the trip came as I performed before a packed auditorium of 300 students at a Soirée Internationale. Another was the first moment I noticed myself thinking in French during a weekend stay at a friend’s house in Brittany. My biggest regret came later, after returning to the U.S., when I let embarassment over my deteriorated French language skills prevent me from responding to a hand-written letter from that same friend.

Regrets aside, after 20-something years, I cherish that special year when I stepped out of my ordinary life, took risks, and surprised myself by succeeding.

WENDY LYONS is a technical and freelance writer who has studied and lived in France and Morocco.

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