Jess en France: Reflections on the Last Day of Class

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a student at Sciences Po for over three months now. All the people that I’ve met, countries I’ve gone to, ideas I’ve critically engaged with, and self-reflections I’ve had have brought me to a different person than the one that stepped foot in this country not too long ago.

I’m sure this won’t be the last reflection post I’ll write before I leave France, but in light of my last day of pedagogical instruction here, I thought I’d reflect on my impressions of what studying abroad is like.

Although it always depends on the person or the places or universities you go to, studying abroad, very simply, is hard. I came into it thinking there would be a lot of opportunities to party or have a disproportionate amount of fun in an “exotic” and exciting city (although these weren’t necessarily my own personal goals). But, this is quite the romantic conception of going abroad that I hope to address in a more realistic capacity. Not that having fun isn’t a part of the equation, but study abroad has its equally prevalent challenges. It can often be difficult to assimilate into a new society unless you know the culture and language. That’s normal. In Paris especially, strangers aren’t generally friendly to each other, and I came to realize that I had to redefine my ideas about interpersonal interaction quite drastically. That was by far the most challenging aspect of moving abroad, because I had to find a way to make the city comfortable for me without expecting anyone else welcoming me into it. You learn to grow thick skin, and for a sensitive person like me, this is an important lesson to learn.

Studying abroad isn’t just hard because you have to adjust to a new culture, but it’s also challenging personally. Being abroad puts you in a position where, initially, you can no longer rely on your community or familiar cultural standards to tell you who you are, reference points with which we are used to defining ourselves. For me, my sense of familiarity had to be recreated. So when you don’t have the people or the ideas or the culture to reflect back onto you your conception of self, you find yourself in a tabula-rasa-like state where you are faced with the question of how to define yourself and the things you value (and the things you don’t). That’s a part of the reason why culture shock is often slow to arrive—the things you are familiar with, like the kind of clothes you wear or the way you address the cashier at the store, all things that reaffirm you sense of self in a community, have changed. It’s realized only gradually because getting to know a new place is a gradual process.

Alright, that was a bit complicated, but looking at being abroad as an identity-forming experience helped me finally understand what people mean by “finding oneself” in another country. Particularly in countries that are entirely different culturally, we’re given the chance of having a blank slate (although not entirely) to rebuild our identities. Being abroad has shown me a new array of values and ideas by which people in other societies define themselves. It offered me the occasion to reflect on what ideas, behaviors, or even mannerisms I value and which ones I don’t. I’m not saying that going abroad gives you the chance to go shopping for a new person, but, for me, at least, I grew as an individual from the opportunity to engage more critically with the person I am and how the cultures I’ve lived in have played roles in defining that sense of self.

I’ll reflect some more on the adventure itself of studying abroad and some lessons that I’ve learned in the weeks to come,  but I thought I’d share some thoughts on the personal journey today as my schooling (but not my learning) is coming to an end. I’m going to Granada next weekend, so I’ll be sure to cover that in my next post. It’s still beach weather there (whereas, in Paris, we had our first snow last night).

Updates to come!

Jess

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