This post was contributed by Katelyn Eisenmann
I recently studied abroad in France for two semesters. That’s right, 9 months living life en français. I’d always been fascinated by the language and culture, and it seemed like the right move.
You love French, you go to France, simple.
I knew to expect to face some challenges and to grow as a person and “find myself” and all the wonderful clichés I’d read about studying abroad. But what I wasn’t ready (AT ALL) to face were questions to my identity as someone from the U.S.
It’s been…interesting in the US the past few years, to say the least. Divisive politics and the ever increased presence of literally anyone’s opinion with the rise of social media had honestly made me zone out a bit. I wasn’t paying much attention to politics and world news, in a world where Flint, MI still doesn’t have clean water and gun rights have taken over the conversation, I felt like ignorance was bliss. I didn’t know and, honestly, didn’t want to know anything about current events (typical of someone from the U.S., right?)
All of that changed when I moved to France.
What your often perky and a little-frazzled study abroad adviser probably won’t tell you about your new adventure is that you’ve basically applied to be an ambassador for your country.
You’re a diplomat, press agent, translator, cultural consultant, travel planner, AND a full-time student! Stick THAT on your resume, am I right? When you arrive in a foreign country, ready to dip into the luxurious world of hostel stays and long bus rides, you will find yourself acting as a spokesperson quite often. The beautiful thing about travel is the sharing of cultures. You’ll always hear some inspiring and intriguing stories from the new friends you’ve made. But you won’t get through story time without some fessing up about your own country’s dirty laundry.
“Do you really need that big of a military, and what’s with all the guns?”
“What’s the deal with health care in the US?”
“What exactly happened with the election, was it rigged?”
“Why is college so expensive in the US, don’t you guys care about education?”
I got every single one of these questions and more. It was overwhelming. I’d never felt like the kid in the back of the class who had no idea what was going on until I went abroad (#REALITYCHECK)!
Everyone tells you it takes a very smart and very brave person to study in a new country on their own, but I didn’t feel very smart or very brave… unless each country has their own standards of “smart” and “brave.” How was I supposed to show my new friends how wonderful the U.S.A. could be when I didn’t have the answers to their questions? Would I come off as fake if I only talked about the good parts? Would they think I was dumb if I couldn’t answer questions about economy and law? There was way TOO much going on.
Not to mention how passionate the French are about local politics.
The number of days I woke up and had no class because there was another student-led protest happening. While I was in France there was a lot of debate happening over the Loi Vidal, a law concerning the function and funding of higher education in France. The students really took charge, organizing demonstrations and closing down the campus in revolt. The rumors you’ve heard are true, the French definitely know how to make themselves heard! It was at once inspiring and paralyzing, I’d seen protests at my midwestern university, but never at this scale. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to support the causes I care about, let alone know enough to properly support any cause.
The first two or three months of my study abroad experience was a really jarring period of internal conflict. I loved my new life in France, and my new friends, for the most part, it was all sunshine and chateaux.
I just couldn’t shake this feeling that I was doing myself a discredit by not being more informed on my own country.
I remember I was sitting in my tiny studio apartment, eating camembert with a baguette (très français, non?) when I decided I was done moping. The only way to quit feeling uneducated was to educate myself. Duh! I realized that I won’t know anything about politics or economics or foreign relations if I don’t start learning; this is clearly a given, but sometimes you’ve just got to slap yourself until you wake up.
Just like learning a language, all it takes is a few minutes a day. In the past few months, I’ve really dedicated myself to being more in tune with what’s going on in the world. I’ve turned to podcasts, newspapers, and conversations among friends and coworkers to keep myself sharp. I’m feeling like I’ve earned this well-traveled and intelligent persona I’m perceived as, and I owe it all to my experience in France. Believe it or not, by living the French life I became a better global citizen (cheesy but so damn true)! I care more now, I invest myself in causes and civic engagement. I understand our role in the global scheme a little better, and living away for a while helped me gain a new perspective. I have a fresh outlook not only on the USA but on myself as well, and how I can contribute here at home.
Sometimes the best way to be a better person is to leave, not only so that you can remember all the reasons you love home, but so you can make your country better when you return. But hey, isn’t this the whole point of studying abroad?
Katelyn is a senior in college finishing out a degree in French with a minor in linguistics. She recently spent a year living in France during which she visited 11 countries, and can’t wait to explore even more of the world (once her minimum wage job catches up to her wanderlust). She enjoys improv comedy, French wine, and pretending she’s an author while in coffee shops. Keep up with her on IG.
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