Living Up to Abroad Expectations

As I enter my seventh week living in Paris, I am faced with my first big exam in both of my classes and a distinct feeling of unpreparedness. Adjusting to the French style of learning has occasionally been complicated, but in other ways it has exceeded my expectations. I arrived in France anticipating the classic lecture style: a professor speaking to a hushed room for three hours with little back-and-forth or practice. However, both my main language course and my elective course (History of Women and Feminism), follow a similar teaching method to America, with lots of discussion, interjections, and a mix of activities. Still, the assessment style is very French: my daily homework is rarely graded for correctness or completion, and our grade is mainly determined by large tests. Not that I expected it here, but it is a bit disorienting to receive very little information about the composition of our exams and no recommended study material. I have had to adjust my expectations this semester for my idea of academic productivity, as my usual (biology major) study schedule doesn’t quite fit for language learning. I find myself devoting less time to sitting and studying, rather finding learning opportunities in all corners of the city, through consuming media or talking with locals. While I did anticipate being less busy with school this semester, I still find myself challenged with productively using my ample free time. That being said, my actual time in the classroom (15 hours per week) has been very worthwhile, as both of my professors are fantastically engaging and supportive and somehow manage to make the three hours pass quickly.

In regards to my professional expectations for this semester, I find it harder than presumed, as my options for extracurricular activity are restricted to my department within Institut Catholique de Paris. I plan to join the various group conversation (language practice) clubs and the cinema club, but my intention to join the English tutoring startup company fell through due to scheduling conflicts. In any case, I came to Paris with little expectations to add any further bullet points to my CV, since my top priority was academic language instruction and cultural enrichment. My prospects in terms of healthcare exposure (I am premed) also remain limited within my program, though I am certainly learning plenty through reading and comparative discussions.

On a personal level, the overall study abroad experience has arguably an over-romanticized reputation among American undergrads. Many expect that we are constantly getting to go out and travel, as we may not always show the school-side of the experience on social media. Traveling around Europe, plane or train, is definitely more expensive than people claim (although it depends on your home base). It is difficult to accept that you will still have lazy, self-care, or recovery days just like back home. There is certainly some level of guilt when I feel like I’m not taking full advantage of the city around me. It can be hard to balance the fear of missing out with a healthy dose of mindfulness and rest; I find it helps to schedule out my week ahead and research affordable activities (museums, events, outings) to look forward to. Regardless, I adore and constantly romanticize Paris, and it rarely disappoints. Last week, two of my best friends from Pitt visited me during spring break and it was refreshing to indulge in the most touristy of places here and see the city through their eyes. So, while not every moment is the perfect social media-formulated façade I have seen so often, I am learning to ignore my preconceptions and build my unique relationship with the city. À bientôt!

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