6 Things I Learned During My Year Abroad

By Kaitlyn Webster, Marketing Associate

When I was a junior in college, I had the opportunity to study in Aix-en-Provence, France for an academic year. During those eight months, I faced new challenges, overcame old fears, and immersed myself in a foreign culture. I was twenty years old, and I was about to go on the adventure of a lifetime. Here are six of the many things I learned during my year abroad.

Expect the Unexpected

By the time I arrived in France, I had nearly seven years of French classes under my belt. I could conjugate verbs backwards and forwards and never forgot an accent aigu. I thought I had a firm grasp on the French language. I thought wrong. Believe me when I say there’s no better way to learn a foreign language than to converse with native speakers. I don’t care what Duolingo promises you. Native speakers will teach you how to speak like a true local. After all, you aren’t truly fluent until you can haggle in a foreign language, using slang words and local idioms like it’s second nature, n’est-pas?

Try New Things

Full disclosure: I had never eaten seafood until I lived in France. To say I am a picky eater is an understatement, but I promised myself when I was abroad, I would try to expand my palate. For me, this meant eating whatever my host family put in front of me. Luckily, my host parents were incredible cooks, and the raw ingredients in France far surpass what you can find in a U.S. supermarket. But one day I’ll never forget is the day I tried escargot for the first time. I knew it was inevitable, and to turn up my nose at this French delicacy would be unthinkable, so I mustered up my newfound courage and, yes, ate a snail. The verdict? Chewy, but garlicky and ultimately, not too bad.

Teaching in a French classroom.
Teaching ESL to 5th grade French students.

Learn Outside the Classroom

One of my favorite experiences during my year abroad came outside of the classroom. During my first semester in France, I had the opportunity to teach ESL to a group of intrepid fifth graders at a local elementary school. It was a wild ride that consisted of many games of hangman (in English, of course), discussions about pop culture (mostly Spongebob and Harry Potter), and well-intentioned lesson plans that somehow always got derailed in the best possible way. It was an educational experience that made me truly appreciate how hard elementary school teachers work to keep their students focused and how lucky I was to be able to learn more about the French culture from a ten-year-old’s perspective.

Don’t Forget to Study!

While this may seem obvious, it can be tempting to forget about your studies while you’re living and traveling abroad. School doesn’t slow down when you’re studying in a foreign country. In fact, in my experience, it offered new challenges and pushed me in ways that my home school didn’t. For example, the final for my French Literature class was conducted entirely in French. With the professor. One on one. Talk about intimidating! Not only did I have to prepare to answer questions about every short story and poem we had discussed that semester, I had to do it all by myself with only my professor there to prompt me for answers. Looking back, I can’t believe I did it, but I did. And I was a better student for it.

Boats docked in Monaco.
Excursion to Monaco.

Travel as Much as Possible

Don’t wait for your study abroad program to take you on an excursion. Make the most of your time abroad by exploring the country and the continent as much as possible. Living in the south of France was ideal and gave me easy access to neighboring countries like Italy, Monaco, and Spain. It also allowed me the opportunity to discover some of the hidden gems of France, like the Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux and the Château de La Napoule on the French Riviera.

Pro tip: If you can avoid air travel, take the train as much as possible so you can see the countryside, or take a bus and save some money.

Reverse Culture Shock is Real

I was surprised how hard it was to come home after living in France for a year. I missed my French friends, I missed the food, and I missed being able to travel around Europe. I also missed the culture, like getting fresh produce from France’s world-famous farmers’ markets and walking pretty much everywhere. The French culture is very different from American culture, and I had a lot to learn when I arrived, but by the time I left, I truly appreciated France’s je ne sais quoi and miss it to this day. So my last bit of advice to all prospective study abroad students is to make the most of your time abroad. It’s a once in a lifetime experience that you don’t want to miss out on. Happy travels!

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

3 thoughts

  1. Great points on your year abroad. I really think that they pertain to any vacation or trip abroad. From the feeling of returning home to the opportunity to try new things. You also had the chance to stay in France for some of the world’s best food. Would you go again?

  2. It is surprising what you can explore during a year abroad. And also that you still can learn a lot from the language, as this is an ongoing process. There is no better place than to use language in the native environment for some time.

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