I participated in a six-week study abroad language and cultural immersion program through IES Abroad. Through IES we went on several excursions in and around Paris, as well as exploring and travelling on our own time! I lived in a homestay with a local Parisian in the Bastille district in the 11th Arrondissement, just a 20-minute commute (via metro and walking) to the IES Center in Montparnasse, in the 14th Arrondissement. At the center I took two courses in French: 19th and 20th French Literature and Impressionism and Post-Impressionism Art History.
Studying abroad in Paris, was the first time I’d ever travelled anywhere entirely on my own. The gravity of this predicament really hit me when I landed at Charles de Gaulle International and realized I was in a foreign country where I wasn’t accustomed to the culture, where I had very little confidence in my ability to communicate in their language, where I had limited (basically none) cellular data, and where I knew no one.
It may seem silly to mention not having cellular data, but in this day and age it can have a frighteningly strong impact on how we conduct ourselves, and ever since I got my first iPhone I have been one of those people whose entire life revolves around my phone. However, during my time in Paris I had a pay-as-you-go disposable cell phone, with which I was able to communicate with the IES staff as well as my fellow students, as well as my iPhone. However, I was really only able to use my iPhone when I was connected to Wi-Fi; I primarily carried it with me to take photos.
Having extremely limited access to internet forced me to disengage with technology and find new ways to solve my problems. I learned to navigate my way around Paris, on the metro and by foot, without Google Maps. The lack of technology also helped my language skills; I was forced to communicate with people without having my phone as a crutch to translate with. I won’t go to say that I stayed off social media completely while abroad, but it wasn’t constantly present in my mind, and it didn’t distract me from all the amazing things around me. Within a few days, I already drifted away from technology without even knowing it. I was constantly exploring the city and the culture; the museums, parks, monuments, cafes, shops, foods, and people! There was always something new to experience.
I didn’t really notice the transformations as they were happening, but by the end of the program, I had a level of confidence both in my ability to be independent in a foreign city, as well as in the French language itself. When I first arrived in Paris I was terrified; terrified of being alone, terrified of not being able to communicate; terrified that my French wouldn’t improve while I was there; terrified that my life would be the plotline of the next ‘Taken’, and terrified that I’d get lost on the metro. I was scared of everything.
I absolutely butchered my first conversation with my host mom, and when we finally gave up trying to understand each other, she gave me a French-English dictionary. When I first purchased my burner phone I had to call into their automated service to load credit onto the phone and I couldn’t understand a word of the instructions. But somewhere along the lines, my host mom and I began having real conversations with one another, and at the end of my trip when I went to recharge my phone for the last time, I realized that it couldn’t have been clearer that the instructions were asking me to enter the code on my receipt and then press pound. It occurred to me that not only had my comprehension and communication skills improved significantly, I was confident in my abilities and I was comfortable in the city. I could walk into a cafe and order a coffee or an aperitif without being nervous or uncomfortable. I could carry on casual conversations with vendors and taxi drivers; I was so comfortable, Paris had even begun to feel like home away from home.
The true value of my experience far outshone my expectations. I enrolled in this program as a stepping-stone towards finishing my French minor and an opportunity to improve my language conversation skills. But my abroad experience not only improved my French language skills astronomically, but also led to significant personal growth. I was faced to numerous obstacles and fears, and was able to overcome each and every one. I feel confident in my independence and my capability to conquer whatever challenges lie in my future.