Finding a Bit of Wisconsin in France

When my older sister studied abroad in Madrid, she got to live with a host family. While she said it was sometimes challenging to fit in with them and abide by their rules, it pushed her language skills and showed her how the Spanish really live. I had been hoping to have a similar experience and live with a French family, but, unfortunately, the University of Limoges only offers dorms to its students.

 

To make up for this, there is a program called Familles d’Accueil de Limoges, wherein French families volunteer to adopt international students during their stays. The group was poorly advertised, and I showed up to the first meeting, a matching event for students to pair with families, with very little information. It was unorganized and chaotic. We were supposed to mingle and find French people that we hit it off with, pairing ourselves off with little help. It felt like speed dating, and I was very conscious of how boring and unintelligent I probably sounded in my mediocre French.

 

Fortunately, I met an older couple who were specifically hoping to pair with an American student. Monique and Lucien are in their late sixties and have friends who live in Wisconsin, only about 40 minutes down the road from where I grew up! They have visited Wisconsin several times, and we instantly bonded, chatting about the Milwaukee Art Museum and the University of Wisconsin. While most French people couldn’t find Wisconsin on a map, I’d found people who personally knew the place I call home.

 

We spent several days together over the course of the semester. On my favorite adventure, we drove to the countryside outside Limoges to an old stone cottage that had belonged to Lucien’s parents. We picked apples and walnuts from their orchard, filling old milk crates to the brim, and walked along a path lined with golden-orange trees that lead down to a chateau on the river. We spoke exclusively in French, which was quite a struggle while driving out to the property, the radio on and the windows rolled down. By the end of the day I felt like I’d been pushed to my limit linguistically, and I went home exhausted but smiling.

 

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A Week in Florence and Rome

Besides France, Italy has always been on the top of my travel bucket list. We had a weeklong break from classes at the end of October, so I decided to get out of the country! One of my best friends from OU, Riley (another Global Engagement Fellow!), was studying abroad in Spain, and he also had a few days off. Our breaks didn’t line up exactly, so I had to choose between only traveling for a few days with him, or going somewhere by myself first. While my parents were nervous at the prospect of me traveling alone, and I found it a little daunting, I knew I’d regret it if I had the chance to explore more of Italy and didn’t take it.

 

My least favorite part about traveling is having to figure out transportation. I hate the confusion of train stations and airports and the stress of worrying about missing connections or getting lost. Fortunately, my arrangements to get to Florence went off without a hitch. I took a bus from Limoges to Paris, shared a cab with some old Italian women to the airport, and caught my flight with plenty of time to spare.

 

My first morning in Florence was overwhelming. I had been so stressed about the logistics of getting there that I hadn’t really planned out anything else. Fortunately, Florence is a small enough city that all the main tourist sites are close together and easily accessible. I spent an hour sitting outside at a cafe, watching a mix of tourists and locals stream across Ponte Vecchio, using the free wifi to figure out where everything I wanted to see was and when it was open.

 

I managed to fit quite a bit into my long weekend there. I saw “The Birth of Venus” at the Uffizi (and waited in line for three hours to do so), greeted Michelangelo’s “David,” climbed to the top of the Duomo, spent a leisurely afternoon in the Boboli gardens, went to the oldest food market in Florence, and attended a prayer service in gregorian chant at a monastery high above the city.

 

Traveling alone was both more challenging and satisfying than I’d expected. I loved getting to make my own schedule, spend as long as I wanted in the museums, and linger in front of street musicians without feeling like I was holding anyone up. It was nice to sit alone with my thoughts and take in the beautiful surroundings, not having to worry about making conversation. But it was also exhausting to have to make every decision alone, especially when my plans didn’t work out and I was scrambling to figure out how to salvage the day.

 

By the time I got to Rome (after taking a brief pit-stop in Pisa!), I was ecstatic to see a friendly face. Florence had been the perfect city for solo travel– small, clean, and safe, I’d never felt too intimidated. It was a good thing I had a buddy in Rome. The city is huge, the metro is confusing, and there’s an overwhelming amount of fabulous things to see, far too many to be fit into five days.

 

Riley and I hit all the major sites I had wanted to see, including the Trevi fountain, the Spanish steps, the Forum, the Colosseum, the Vatican, and the catacombs. We also spent a lot of time just wandering around the city. Riley was an ideal travel companion because he shares my affinity for old churches, Renaissance art, and cheap food. On our last night, we went to an old bohemian neighborhood known for its authentic restaurants and splurged on a four-course meal. It was surreal to be with a friend from home in such a wonderful, foreign place. The combination of incredible pasta and lovely company made it one of the nicest evenings of my time abroad.

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Befriending the British Gals

While things academically were kind of a mess, I fortunately made some lovely friends. The international student community is very tight, and it didn’t take me long to meet people I knew I could become close with. A few days after I arrived in Limoges, we had an official welcome meeting at the university. Nayyifa (the other student from OU) and I walked in together and sat behind a group of three girls. Hearing us speak English, they excitedly turned around and asked in the sweetest British accents where we were from. I’m so grateful we sat together by chance, because becoming friends with them was the highlight of my semester.

 

A few days later, Annelise, Megan, and Charlotte (or the British Gals, as I began calling them) and I went out for dinner at a cute Italian restaurant in the center of town. We sat at a table outside and split a bottle of wine, and, unlike with a lot of the other students I’d met in the last few days, we had no problem making conversation.

 

Annelise and Megan initially intimidated me– they seemed untouchably beautiful and confident, and they regaled our table with wild stories about the boys they’d dated and trips they’d been on. Charlotte seemed more like me. She was quieter and more proper, and we bonded when she told me that she was majoring in literature. In the following months, my initial impressions of them were complicated. Annelise is brash and loud and distinctly less polished than I’d thought, in the best way. She usually wore men’s jeans and huge hoop earrings and told the funniest stories. While Megan usually looked glamorous and seemed too fun to be substantive, she turned out to be incredibly considerate and protective. The four of us spent dozens of nights at her apartment, stuffed onto the couch in our pajamas, watching Harry Potter and having tea and cookies.  

 

While I will always remember the exciting parts of studying abroad– exploring new cities and countries, seeing beautiful art and monuments, speaking another language–I will treasure even more the people who enabled me to feel at home in France.

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Adjusting to the French Educational System

*This post was actually written back in October. Some technology troubles prevented me from posting it then.

 

I’ve just finished my fifth week of classes here, and it’s hard to believe how the time is flying by. When I first got to campus, I was very disoriented. I received mixed information on when I should arrive, and I ended up getting here a week before classes started, and four days before the welcome meeting. That meant that for the first week I basically had nothing to do, campus was completely empty, and I didn’t know anyone. I had done a fair amount of research into the university before I arrived, and thought there were about 20,000 students. What I didn’t realize, however, is that each college has its own campus, and the campus I’m at has only about 2,000 students. There are a couple dorms, one dining hall, a tiny library, and only one academic building. Coming from the University of Oklahoma’s huge, beautiful campus with 30,000 people, I had a hard time adjusting.

 

Unlike at OU, where you enroll for courses months ahead of time, here in Limoges students enroll just before classes begin. As international students, we were encouraged to try out a bunch of different courses during the first couple weeks, see what we like, and then officially enroll.  Here, there are no published course descriptions, and the only way to figure out when and where a class meets is to look it up on a single computer in the academic building. This made planning my schedule a nightmare. All the courses have very vague titles, and there’s no way to actually discern what they’re about without attending. That meant my first weeks of classes were total chaos; I attended a mix of French as a Foreign Language classes, courses taught in English, and actual French courses. While I have a pretty high level of French, I found the classes for regular French students to be overwhelming; in a two hour history lecture, most of it went over my head. After lots of trial and error, I finally settled on a combination of the French as Foreign Language classes and two courses taught in English.

 

I’ve been surprised by how different higher education is here in France than at home in the United States. On the first day of class at OU, professors always introduce themselves and hand out a syllabus. While syllabi vary in their level of detail, they always include due dates for major assignments and exams, as well as some outline of the course content. Here, hardly any professors even introduced themselves, and no one had a syllabus. I won’t even know the date of my final exams (which in some courses are worth 100% of my grade) until a couple weeks beforehand. Each course is worth between two and four credits, and students take 24 to 30 credits a semester, so that amounts to a lot of classes! While I usually took five classes a semester at OU, I’m enrolled in nine classes here. Fortunately, the workload is pretty light. While courses at American universities typically meet two or three times a week, all classes here are only once a week, usually for two hours. Oddly, there’s very little homework. Even for an upper-level history course that I’m taking, there’s no reading assigned outside of class.

 

I’m enjoying my classes here, but I miss the rigor of OU. I feel like my professors at home have high expectations, whereas here, students talk loudly throughout the lectures, and I’m unsure if anyone is learning much of anything. I’m grateful that I can spend my semester enjoying living in France, not stressing out about studying, but I think by the end of December, I’ll be excited to hit the books again at OU!

 

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My First Few Weeks Abroad

Bonjour from Limoges! I left home on August 24th, so I’ve been in Europe for just short of a month. Before coming to France, I spent a week traveling with my best friend (another Global Engagement Fellow!), Hennessey. We flew into Amsterdam together and made the best of four rainy days eating lots of good food and going museum hopping. During a brief period of sunshine, we rented bikes and rode around the canals, an experience that left Henn with a sizeable thigh bruise from a minor collision.

From Amsterdam, we took a train to Brussels, where we stayed in a very cheap (and highly flawed) AirBnB. On our first night out, we were surprised to find that almost no restaurants served food on weeknights. When I went into one establishment and asked if they were serving dinner, the host said yes, “but no food, only beer.” Our few days in Brussels were marked by many struggles with finding food and using public transportation. We never ate dinner before 9 pm, and I was averaging about 20,000 steps a day. Still, we saw some wonderful things, including the Palais du Justice, which made Hennessey cry, and the Royal Museums of art.

The highlight of our time in Belgium was a day trip to Bruges, a city that seems to just be famous for being cute. We spent most of the day wandering the streets, looking at the beautiful architecture and eating chocolate. The weather was perfect, and I think I’ll remember the day forever.

After that, Hennessey and I went our separate ways– I got a train to Germany to visit some relatives, and she boarded a plane to Amaan, Jordan, where she is studying for the semester. I spent three lovely days with my Aunts Marita and Marlies and Uncle Werner in Aachen. We had only met once previously, but I could tell that we were family. My Aunt Marita reminds me so much of my mom, and we even look alike (rosy cheeks run in the family!).

Finally, I took a 15 hour bus ride from Aachen to Limoges, where I arrived on September 4th. The first couple weeks have been both more difficult and happier than I expected them to be, but I think this is the start of a wonderful semester!

 

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Conversations Between American and French Students

As I’ve previously written about, I spent a month last summer studying in Clermont-Ferrand, a small town in France. Norman and Clermont-Ferrand are sister cities, meaning university exchange is incredibly easy. This semester, there were several French students studying at OU. The College of Arts and Sciences Leadership Scholars program hosts a trip for its new members every year to Clermont, so the advisor for our organization invited the French students to come to an informal meeting to meet some of us and tell us about where they’re from.

I will not be going to Clermont again this summer, but I enjoyed chatting with the students about my favorite memories from my time abroad. While I got to know the town itself pretty well, my program was taught by OU professors, so I didn’t really get to see what being a student at the university there was like. I was most interested to hear about the different culture surrounding higher education. The French students said they were surprised by how the college experience in America includes not only taking classes but joining sororities or sports teams or other organizations. For us, the education one receives at a university is only a part of the experience. In France, university life is more simple, and there is much less emphasis on extracurriculars and involvement.

I appreciated hearing this perspective ahead of my semester abroad in France. The opportunities I have had outside of my coursework at OU have been wonderful. They’ve given me great real-world experience and helped me to make friends. However, doing so much can be exhausting, and I’ve always wondered what it would be like to focus more intently on classes without juggling so many other commitments. It looks like this fall I’ll find out!

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Bridging the Gap Between Student Government and the International Community

Besides the Global Engagement Program, the Student Government Association is the group on campus that has been most meaningful to me. As a freshman, I was a member of Sooner Freshman Council, a group for 30 freshmen who want to get more involved in student government as well as on campus in general. Through SFC I learned tons about SGA and, more importantly, made close friends and was mentored by older students. This year, I had the privilege of serving as one of the co-chairs for SFC and got to recruit 30 new freshmen and plan a year of meetings and activities for them. Overall, it was a wonderful experience. Many of my friends are involved in other parts of SGA like congress or the president’s cabinet.

Recently, an international student who was in SFC and congress pointed out that SGA doesn’t communicate very well with the international community at OU, as evidence by how few international students get involved in SGA or even know what SGA does. The head of the communications committee in congress decided to organize a mixer between SGA members and the International Advisory Committee.

The mixer provided an opportunity for international students to hear more about how to join the Student Government Association if it interested them and also to give feedback to SGA and make their voices heard. There were pizza and chips and queso for everyone to snack on, and we began the evening by just doing icebreaker games and chatting, trying to learn everyone’s names. Then the heads of different branches of SGA gave short, informal presentations about what exactly they do and how one can get more information or join.

My co-chair Daniel gave our presentation. SFC is unique in that only freshmen can join, and applications are only open for the first couple weeks of the school year. Unfortunately, that meant that none of the international students at the mixer were eligible to join SFC. However, we asked them to reach out to students whom they knew were coming to OU in the fall, and give them information about SFC and encourage them to apply.

I think the SGA/IAC mixer was an important step in making student government at OU more inclusive. SGA is such a tight-knit community that it can appear intimidating to outsiders, when SGA’s whole purpose is to hear the concerns of and represent the university community. International students make up a significant portion of the student body, and they have unique perspectives and ideas. It would be a mistake not to include them in the conversation.

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Updates on ESL Tutoring

This semester, I have continued to work as an English as a Second Language tutor through the Norman Public Library. I am still with the same student, Maria, so we have been working together for close to 18 months! While we met pretty consistently last semester for two hours a week, we have struggled a bit more in the last few months to make our schedules work. We have only managed to meet a couple times a month, but our time together is still valuable.

I was surprised last semester about the depth of our conversations; that has only continued. Her life, like that of many immigrants, can be very difficult, and I get the impression that she looks forward to our lessons as not only a time to practice her English but also to vent and talk through problems. Her mother-in-law recently passed away, and her son has been struggling in school, so there is no shortage of things to talk about. I am glad to be her sounding board and her friend as well as a tutor.

While I think the quality of our conversations is ever-increasing, I worry that her vocab is building while her grammatical abilities are not. She knows enough words to express her thoughts on myriad issues, but I find myself pointing out the same grammar mistakes over and over. I have also started to realize that her listening comprehension is fairly weak in comparison to her speaking abilities. When I talk to her, she smiles and reacts appropriately, so I think she is understanding me, until I ask a direct question and she is unable to respond.

A few months ago, as we sat having our lesson at OU’s Union, a few of my friends walked by. I called them over to say hello, and when I introduced her, she completely clammed up. They asked her very simple questions that I knew she was able to answer, but she just apologized and said her English was very poor. I am glad she’s comfortable talking to me so frankly, but she has to be able to communicate with strangers, too!

In these situations, it is hard for me not to become frustrated. I have invested so much time into these lessons, and I know how desperately she wants to learn the language. Sometimes I worry that her own timidity and quest for perfection are insurmountable roadblocks to learning English, and I get upset with myself for not being able to help her more effectively. I have to remind myself that I, like her, cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, and some progress is better than none at all.

I am sad that our relationship will be coming to an end since I will be home for the summer and in France for the fall. However, I know that she is in good hands: she has signed up for a formal English course through a community college. I look forward to reuniting with her when I return to see how her English has improved, and also catch up on the gossip I’ve missed!

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Goals and Challenges of Studying Abroad

Since finding out that I’ve been accepted to study in France this fall, I’ve begun thinking more about what I hope to get out of the experience. My primary goal this fall is to improve my French skills. While I’ve been studying the language since high school and feel comfortable reading and writing it, I struggle to speak to and understand French natives. My language classes at OU have given me more opportunities to practice speaking, but I often feel like I’ve hit a plateau. Unless I’m surrounded by the language and forced to speak constantly, I worry that my abilities will remain merely conversational rather than fluent. While I’m abroad, I am determined to conquer my fear of engaging with native speakers. I would rather make mistakes and embarrass myself, but ultimately improve, than remain quiet and safe and never become fluent.

I am also hoping to spend time relaxing and exploring alone. I love the life I’ve made for myself at the University of Oklahoma, but I am constantly busy and surrounded by people. Sometimes, I feel like the exhaustion of attempting to do so much drains the joy from my favorite things. In France, I want to slow down and savor the incredible opportunity to live abroad for four months. This goal is fairly abstract, but I think I can achieve it by learning to say no to things, by budgeting time to spend by myself, and by journaling. I hope that I will gain a sense of independence and a knowledge of how best to make myself happy that I can bring back to Oklahoma with me.

While this is a wonderful opportunity, I know it won’t come without difficulties.

As I know from my brief trip abroad last summer, doing anything in a foreign country is harder than it would be at home, mostly because of the language barrier. Something as fun and simple as ordering a drink at a cafe became stressful, and already confusing tasks like navigating public transport bordered on overwhelming. I think the greatest challenge I will face will be remaining adventurous and outgoing, when in many respects it would be easier just to stay back in my dorm. I will be taking classes in English, however, so that will provide some respite. Otherwise, I will have to embrace the possibility of making mistakes, sounding silly, getting lost, and being frustrated because navigating life in a foreign language is hard. This will be daunting at first, but I know that as I spend more time in France, French will become easier.

Another challenge I expect to face is being homesick. I’m from Wisconsin, so I’m used to being far away from my family while I’m at school. In France, however, I will be far away from my family, my friends, and the unique comforts of home that I take for granted. I want to get to know the French and other international students, and I hope to speak in French as much as possible, but I also plan to stay connected to things back home. I will call my parents regularly, and keep up contact with all my friends in Norman. Their support will make dealing with the stress of being so far from home much easier, and it will help me transition more easily back to life in America.

 

 

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Exciting Life Updates Woohoo

Exciting life update! My wildest dreams are coming true: I’m actually studying abroad for a semester. When looking for a study abroad destination, I had a couple basic criteria in mind. As a French minor, my primary goal in studying abroad is to have an immersive language experience, so I had to study in a Francophone country. I also wanted to be sure that whatever courses I took abroad would give me credit toward my major once I returned to OU.  The opportunities that the university in Limoges provides far exceed these expectations. As a small town, Limoges will provide me with more opportunities for speaking French than larger cities would as many of the locals will likely not know English. The European Studies program the university offers will not only allow me to take classes that will contribute to my Letters major, it will expand upon some of my greatest areas of interest. Courses on European history, literature, and art are necessary for my degree, but they’re also exciting; I’m looking forward to studying European culture from the Europeans’ perspective. I acknowledge that I could be immersed in the language and take relevant courses through other study abroad programs OU offers in France. What makes Limoges the best option is its rural location. While many students might want the thrill of taking on a foreign metropolis like Paris, I want the exact opposite. I want to settle into normal French life and claim a small city as my own. I hope to know Limoges, from its university to its people, intimately by the time my trip is over.

 

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