(published on November 5, 2015)
Even as a high school senior, I was planning on studying abroad in college—probably for my full junior college year, but definitely, at minimum, one full semester. After arriving at Oberlin, I quickly declared my major in politics. I picked up my minor in French a year later; I’d been studying the language in various capacities since middle school. The more I thought about my Oberlin career, the more it felt like spending a significant portion of it away would be a vital supplement to the education I was receiving in Ohio.
I applied and was admitted into a program (via Oberlin’s exchange with Sciences Po, France’s major university for studying social sciences) where I could direct-enroll, and take all of my classes with other French and European students, instead of with other American students studying abroad. I was excited, for a time—I was (and remain) fascinated by the European Union, and was excited to study this unique political structure while in Europe for a whole semester. As a bonus, spending time in France would significantly improve my French.
But as junior year rolled around, I started to grow weary of spending so much time away. On the one hand, when do you ever have this kind of chance to travel, to immerse yourself in a culture (or a language) different than your own? But on the other hand, I would miss out on some of the Oberlin-specific benefits of my education. As I would only take classes relating to my major and minor abroad, I would miss the chance to take other liberal arts courses, and I would give up a semester of work at my campus job. I would miss time with friends who would graduate the semester I was abroad, and I would put a hold on the students groups I was involved in at Oberlin, including playing for the Oberlin College fencing team. As I evaluated my reasons for going abroad—to improve language, and to travel—I realized I could accomplish my goals, and reap the benefits of a full semester at Oberlin.
I started researching summer programs in France. The tuition was cringe-worthy. I went to the Study Away office to inquire about scholarships, and I was told that they didn’t offer any for summer abroad programs. This seems strange to me. The College promotes studying away as great part of an Oberlin education: “Oberlin College believes that all interested students, regardless of major, should have the opportunity to spend a semester away from campus on an academic program in a different part of the country or world”, the Oberlin’s office of study away website purports. Though many Oberlin students do study abroad, removing summer funding for this opportunity excludes others from studying abroad due to financial or academic constraints from studying over semester.
I found a program—actually at Sciences Po, the university I would have gone to had I chosen to spend a full semester/year away from Oberlin—which was only one month long, and was around a quarter of the price of most of the other programs I looked at. Despite my original intentions, I stayed at Oberlin during my second semester of junior year, working many additional hours at my campus job. With the extra income and some of my savings, I could afford my summer tuition.
Barring the knowledge that I was slowly drowning my bank account, I loved and learned so much from my time abroad, however brief it was. I met up with a friend and we traveled before my program began. The classes I took were very intensive; in my one-month program, we spent more than a semester’s worth of contact numbers (a total of 81) in the classroom, and finished with a hefty exam. My main course—a politics course on France and the EU—was taught entirely in French, as were my electives. I was one of the only Americans in the entire program, which made for some very interesting political discussions with European students who were confused or tickled by the US government, which often seems like a circus from the outside (and sometimes inside as well).
At Oberlin, I’m typically eager to participate in class, but I spent the first week and a half in classes at Sciences Po silent, nervous about my language capabilities. But, after that first week and a half, something clicked. I had spent most of that time in class listening, not just to what other people were saying, but how they were saying it—their vocabulary, rhythm of speech, syntax, and accents. I was proficient before, but after this program I felt fluent. I posit that, because I was immersed in a French-speaking environment for so many hours a day, my French improved more quickly than it would have in a semester long program where classes were more spread out. If I had started a program, say, at the end of January, the progress I completed over two weeks may have not been completed until March in a semester long study away program. I was “comfortable” on the phone with customer service with my French phone company a week in—obviously the most important part of one’s abroad experience.*
Of course, there are drawbacks to studying abroad over a single month versus an entire semester or year. If I had spent a semester (or a full year) abroad, I would have had more time to practice and maintain that level of fluency. Also, because my program attracted mostly non-French students, I didn’t get to interact much with many native French speakers. I could have better gotten to know Paris, traveled more, developed deeper connections with my classmates—and would have had more classmates just by taking more than one class at a time. A summer abroad is inevitably a compromise between spending a longer, more immersive experience in another country and being able to savor my time at Oberlin. One must weigh the pros and cons when deciding whether to study abroad.
There were times I felt that feeling my friends had described to me when abroad—a sense of aloneness, of not knowing where you’re going or what you’re doing. Miraculously—perhaps due to the short length of the program—I never felt that way for too long. Because I had such a short time in France, I operated with the notion that I had no time to spare, that I could not waste a moment. Consequently, I didn’t let myself not do things, even if it meant, for example, going to museums alone. And to live in a different city, and operate in another language—it was exhilarating to always be learning a little bit, and empowering to feel so independent. I spent a lot of time meandering around the city by day and via the metro by night (The New Yorker in me fell in love with the metro. It was a little weird).
For all intents and purposes, I felt like I met my educational objectives—improving language and experiencing a new country—without having to sacrifice a semester of Oberlin education. As trite as it sounds, I did learn a lot about myself during the university program and during the traveling portion of my time abroad as well. If studying abroad is in the equation, my “compromise” experience of studying over the summer is one which I would recommend.
*Side note: if you’re spending a short time abroad, it’s cheapest to either pay for a flip-phone or equivalent on a French plan, and if you have a smart phone, use that for wifi. If you have no sense of direction—like myself—your best option is to do a pay-as-you-go plan with a super cheap data plan and then use it sparingly. One fun tip is that if you ever don’t have data and you are using Google Maps (or Apple Maps), and aren’t quite sure where you are because street names are hard, if you touch the “navigation” arrow-type-symbol, it shows you your current location. Without wifi or data, you can’t get directions to an actual address or landmark, but you can get a general sense of where you are on a map.