Study Abroad in Retrospect

Studying abroad is full of clichés. I can laugh about how pretentious I must sounds when I recall the best cheese I ate along the Seine and the sigh from my friends as I begin yet another sentence with, when I was in Paris. Many of these clichés take the form of expectations. When I was deciding to apply to study abroad in Paris, I heard countless times how it would be the best few months of my life. I would form lifelong friendships. My language skills would rapidly improve.

I am proud to admit that these hopes did come true and (here’s yet another cliché) I truly did have the most transformational experiences that I know will affect me for the rest of my life. The one thing though that no one really talks about is that studying abroad is hard. The word difficult has too negative of a connotation, so it is best to say that my experience was challenging. The most obvious challenge I faced was the language barrier. Although I could express my basic needs, I could not always represent my feelings or my personally the way I could in English. There were also the normal adjustments of moving to a new place: having to commute on the metro, getting lost constantly, and having to make new friends. The last challenge I had been warned about by every study abroad officer I had met with, but didn’t fully came to terms with until I got to Paris, but I also experiences culture shock.

Over the course of four months, I experienced the cultural differences between France and the United States that are impossible to fully comprehend as a tourist. For example, the culture of being a college student is completely different. In France, the best universities are public ones and tuition is covered by the State. However, college is also meant to weed students out of the system and the idea of liberal arts does not exist.

Overall, I have returned back to Penn as a more independent and open-minded person. My last cliché is this: through my exposure to French culture, I have not only seen ways our country can improve, but I also have a deeper appreciation of American culture that I took for granted before.     

-Hannah F. '17

Uende Ng’ambo | Go Abroad

I never had a serious thought process of weighing the pros and cons for spending a semester studying abroad. As an African Studies major I had taken Swahili for my first two years at Penn so the chance to spend the entire semester in Tanzania totally immersed in this language that I had spent so many late nights in Van Pelt trying to learn seemed like the natural thing to do. I wanted total language immersion and that’s exactly what I’ve gotten.

The College’s language programs and classes are phenomenal, but there is something about language that you never really can grasp with only grammar charts, dialogues, and in-class essays. Being able to go to country or part of the world where your language is spoken and get real practice on the streets is invaluable. Haggling with shopkeepers in the main market of my host community of Iringa or trying to explain where I was trying to get to when I was hopelessly lost during my month-long home-stay in the rural village of Ikanga has taught me more about the subtleties and intricacies of Swahili than I ever could have learned in a classroom at Penn.

Being able to wittily deflect aggressive and frequent marriage proposals from random strangers (yes, this happens and, yes, it’s bizarre) has cemented my ability to think and produce the language quickly. While negotiating prices for some colorful Tanzanian cloth (that my sister basically wants brought home more than me at this point) has honed the way I use certain vocab, progressively getting more direct and harsh as the rounds of bargaining go on.

All in all, what this semester has taught me most is that having the opportunity to study abroad is not an alternative to Penn, but a natural continuation, in my opinion a requirement, for anyone trying to solidify their proficiency in a foreign language. As a junior I’ve spent two years memorizing vocabulary and learning verb conjugations, but five months of getting to put that knowledge into use has been amazing and, if given the chance, I’d do it all again if I could.

If you’re trying to master your language and thinking of going abroad, as Professor Mshomba, Penn’s Swahili instructor, told me last year “Uende Ng’ambo!” “Go Abroad!” and put those language skills to the test. 

-David Scollan '17

Learning to Speak a New Culture

The fact that I had to change the language back into English in order to type this is a testament to my attempt to truly integrate myself into the French culture and language while I’m abroad in Paris. Although my computer may be set to French, it is still a daily struggle to communicate with my professors and host family, although I do notice my language skills improving. Writing my papers in French and trying to take notes in lecture is more difficult than I could have anticipated, but one of my favorite things about my abroad experience has been learning outside of the physical classroom.

One of my courses “Nineteenth Century French Painting” has a component where students meet once a week at the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay to interpret the paintings we learn about in class in person. I aspire to work in a museum one day, so the ability to be in front of the works while discussing them is not only a great cultural experience, but also it is also helping me in developing my skills of visual analysis.

Another one of my classes called “Castles and Gardens” also has an excursion component, and each week we spend half of the seminar in lecture and the other half going off into the city to tour the historical buildings and landscapes we have learned.

Being able to explore museums, galleries, and historic buildings in Paris both as part of my classes and on my own has been one of the most valuable parts of studying abroad for me. Although I am used to living in a major city like Philadelphia, I too rarely take the time to wander and get lost when I am so busy at Penn. 

-Hannah Fagin