Study abroad is a life-changing experience for anyone, some in more ways that others. Still, for a particular few of us who have fallen too much in love with our host city that we can’t bring ourselves to return to our normal lives (or maybe just as an unconventional means of avoiding the dreaded reverse culture shock), the effects of study abroad contribute to a quite literal change in our lives on the long term, and this change is accompanied by a whole other set of experiences that differ from your time with ISA.
First of all, you’re much more alone now than before. Of course, the ISA staff are always willing to help you if you’re completely lost (and they also won’t mind if you stop in for a visit every once in a while), but in general, the first thing you realize is how much assistance you were getting from your study abroad program. You’ll inevitably have to renew your visa, and you won’t have the handy slideshow to walk you through the French websites or a team of experts sending you the exact documents that you need and making all your appointments for you. Unless you choose to live in a student residence, you’ll have to find housing, which means dealing with foreign landlords and housing contracts and finances to pay rent and utilities, which used to be completely handled by the ISA staff. Your study abroad office won’t be emailing you to warn you about the fact that your metro is delayed or that there’s a strike happening in your arrondissement. And you should beware of falling down the (very!) slippery slope of staying home all day and watching Netflix when you don’t have school or ISA activities to keep your schedule busy. Plus, while being abroad for a semester or even two might have not felt like a long time away from your parents and other family members or close friends, you may start to recognize the distance more once you have been away for a more significant period of time.
Quick tip: If you’re having trouble with anything that ISA may not be familiar with, try to find an organisation in your host city designed for people like you not tied to a study abroad program. Specifically in Paris, the Accueil des Étudiants Internationaux was indispensable for me in renewing my visa.
Furthermore, there will a dramatic shift in your friend circle once all your friends who are studying abroad board head back home and you start to realize that most of the people you were close to were study abroad students, too. I was lucky, in some ways, as Paris is such a beloved city, that a few people, like me, decided to stay after study abroad. (I can count four people including me who stayed as well as at least two who plan on coming back after they finish their studies in the States.) It’s definitely nice to have a friend in your host city after everyone leaves, especially one who shares the common experience of study abroad with you. I’m still guilty, however, of commenting on every single Facebook post of my friends visiting Paris (even if only for a couple of days) and asking them if they need advice or want to meet up or just to remind them that that’s where I live. And I still get overly excited every time I hear someone speaking English on the metro.
A good aspect to this, however, is that you’re forced now–much more than when you were tied to a study abroad program–to make friends who are natives of the country, especially if you’re like me and joined a school that is not designed primarily for international students.
Going to a school entirely taught in a language which is not your own is one of the greater adventures when studying abroad. While the school I was attending through ISA was taught entirely in French with the goal of teaching the language to those from foreign countries, it was taught with the mindset that all students did not speak French as their native language. Although I learned a lot, I do feel like the type of progression I had at that school is very different from the type of progression that I’ve had this academic year. After learning and interacting with students in a true local environment, you will see a significant increase in your listening and speaking skills and vocabulary, as well as your confidence when speaking with native speakers. So much so, in fact, that you may start noticing your brain preferring the foreign language to your mother tongue. (Seriously, this blog post as been super hard to write so far, because I want to use words/phrases in French and can’t quite figure out what they would mean in English.) You could even go really hard-core (*cough* *cough* me) to the point where your friends and family back home now think that you speak with a French accent.
Don’t be fooled, though, into thinking that any of this is an easy journey. You will feel frustrated, lost, and confused at times, and you will very likely embarrass yourself much more now that you’re in an environment without your English-speaking friends or ISA safety net. This embarrassment, at least for me, is a daily occurrence, including but certainly not limited to :
- pronouncing things so wrong when talking to strangers that they don’t know what you’re saying at all,
- trying to explain a math or science concept (multiple times) to your class and hearing a bewildered “what?!” from the back of the room because you have no idea what is the right vocabulary to use,
- getting locked in your school after hours and having to call your Chemistry teacher on Facebook in a panic because you didn’t know that most French buildings include an emergency exit so that it’s nearly impossible to be locked from the inside. (Yes, this really happened. No, I don’t want to talk about it.)
Still, choosing to stay in my host city after the end of my study abroad was the best decision I have made in my life. I think the best advice that anyone could give anyone would be to find what makes them happy, and I have found that I am happiest where I am right now. Here I am, a year and a half into living in a city that was supposed to be just a fun location to spend a gap year before college, and I have surrounded myself with the best people in the best environment, continuing to learn and grow from what I consider the best city.
Moving permanently or semi-permanently to your host city after study abroad is not the easiest decision. After all the logistical pros and cons, what’s most important to understand is that after study abroad, you are no longer just visiting, and your time in your host city is no longer a step outside of your ‘normal’ life. That being said, for those who have made that decision, it can be one of the best — and most life changing — opportunities that I would highly recommend.
The world awaits…discover it.