I knew I had to study abroad to prepare me for the rest of life, which sounds kind of corny, but is true when I think about the level of confidence in myself I gained by living in France. But having made that decision, using French never became a critical part of my career. It is critical in my life as a journalist though, since now working in a small-town newspaper, I can read the online editions of French papers, exposing me to a whole new angle of the news. Knowing I can survive in France gives me the confidence to be able to travel, should that ever become part of my career, and I hope it does. Even options like the Peace Corps are much more attractive having already broken out of the United States.
I began taking French in eighth grade, mostly because that was the only language available at that grade level. Later I realized that I was much more interested in French history than Spanish or Latin American history, so that kind of cemented my decision to keep on with the French in high school. That and the small problem of not being able to roll an “R” to save my life. Later I took an extra year of college for nine months of study abroad with the Council on International Educational Exchange in Rennes, France from September 2007 to June 2008.
My first experience traveling outside the United States was with FR 438 Cultural and Artistic Heritage of Europe, an summer course in the French Program at NMU, which consisted of two weeks on-campus lectures and then two weeks of travel through the Netherlands, Belgium and France, bien sûr. This class made the biggest impact on my life, I think, because it introduced me to the city of Paris.
Being from Marquette, my experience with big cities was limited at best, but the short introduction to Paris that I had during that FR 438 course was enough not only to teach me how to ride le Métro or to orient myself in the city that surrounds Notre Dame, but also to have the confidence to know that I could get where I wanted given a map and enough time, that being in a strange place didn’t necessarily mean I had to panic.
So at the end of my journalism and history classes (my majors), I decided to add a French major and another year to my college career and go abroad again. I knew France was where I wanted to go, and although I loved Paris, that the largest city in the country might not be the best place to learn the language.
I decided to travel with a program for American students because I knew my French wasn’t yet good enough to survive direct enrollment in a French university without suffering a major breakdown. I picked CIEE because they provided on-site advisors and various activities and trips while in the host country, and although they were a bit more expensive than other programs, I feel like the cost was well worth it.
Rennes is in “la Bretagne,” a region in western France, near Normandy and kind of underneath England, which is how I usually describe it to people who have no idea what I’m talking about. Bretagne is a fairly unique region because up until fairly late (the early 1500s) it was its own country. So within the regular French culture, I also got to experience Breton life, with its history full of megaliths, dancing, dukes and the sea. Bretagne has the longest coastline of any French region and you can tell it, even when standing in the middle of Rennes, which is a 45-minute car ride from the nearest beach.
When you enroll in a CIEE program, you are set up with a host family within the country, and in my particular program, you take classes at a language center at the local university. My classes were designed for people who wanted to learn French as a second language, and although the Americans had the largest numbers as a group, they were joined by students from all over Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. My host family consisted of my host parents and their two daughters, ages 6 and 8 while I was living with them. They were the best part of my experience. No, sorry, they were THE BEST part of my experience. I was the seventh student they had hosted (but the first who stayed for a full academic year), but they still made sure to show me around their world. Sundays especially were our time to pile into the car with a couple baguettes sticking out of a backpack and wander through towns or hike along the ocean or through Brocéliande, the forest that gave birth to the King Arthur legend. And that’s not to say there weren’t some awkward moments or points where the girls made me hole up in my room in frustration. But they became like another branch of my American family and I miss them tremendously.
I think one important part of my attending NMU, in terms of study abroad, was that I had no trouble scheduling an entire academic year of study in France. Other Americans I met in France were trying to cram their entire experience in France into one semester, purely because their various schools wouldn’t let them take any more classes abroad. I am beyond thankful to NMU for not putting that sort of pressure on me. Truly you don’t start feeling remotely comfortable in a foreign country until at least the third month, which meant that most of the American students had to leave just when they were hitting their stride.
Everything they say about studying a language through study abroad is true: it is the most wonderful, frustrating, embarrassing, exhilarating, heart-wrenching, happiest experience, depending on the day. Do it, and do it for as long as you can. You will never regret it.