Learning to Think in a New Way

by Fiona O¿Carroll
CIPA Peer Advisor and EDUCO Paris Program participant

In the hectic world of high-achieving pre-professional college students, anxiously preparing themselves for a daunting job market, it can be difficult to justify studying abroad. I studied abroad in Paris, France (twice, in fact), and so I know from personal experience that nagging worry of getting behind on internship applications, critical interviews, law school entrance exams, and a host of other milestones that loom large in a college student¿s mind. But for me, as for many others, studying abroad was well worth it. The stories we tell about our study abroad experiences upon coming back to campus highlight the deliciously exotic food and the opportunity to tour majestic monuments. But we know that studying abroad changed us beyond what we can convey in these anecdotes. My experiences abroad, ranging from the magical to the mundane, made me a more open-minded, self-reliant, and adaptable person.

The summer after my freshman year, I received a generous scholarship that enabled me to study abroad in Paris for the first time. My French language skills improved by leaps and bounds, and I discovered the thrill of understanding and being understood in a second language. A second world suddenly opens up to you: I dived into French films, novels, poetry, philosophy, comedy, newspapers, radio, politics, music. Learning a new language is also learning to think in a new way; there are now some things I can only express in French, which makes me wonder if I ever would have had those thoughts in the first place if I hadn't had the vocabulary to articulate them.

A year later, spending a full semester abroad in Paris allowed me to deepen my understanding of French culture and to develop my cross-cultural competency in general. Studying abroad enables you to participate, if only briefly, in another culture ¿ or cultures. ¿French culture¿ contains a diversity of different cultures within it, I discovered. The multiplicity of cultures within Paris alone is staggering: it depends on your occupation, your neighborhood, your generation, you first language, your native country, your politics. To be comfortable communicating across and navigating between these cultural boundaries is one of the benefits of studying abroad. You learn not only to tolerate these cultural differences but to enjoy them: to be amused by different ways of pronouncing the same word, delighted by markets full of unfamiliar spices and smells, moved by films in a language you don¿t speak.

As students in an increasingly global world, it behooves us to shed our parochial worldviews for a more expansive vision and a greater awareness of the places and people beyond our borders. It can be scary to venture outside of one¿s bubble, but the rewards are great. One of my best memories from my semester abroad is the evening when a friend and I journeyed out to the woods east of Paris to see our theater professor perform in a play. We were heading outside the city limits, into the notorious suburbs ¿ where, we had been warned, the inhabitants do not speak French and are likely to rob you. But we survived the journey and arrived at a magical place, a collection of old farm buildings converted into a theater complex, with colored lights strung between the trees and lively music reverberating through the misty November night.

Fiona with group
The lessons learned from studying abroad come as often from the mundane experiences as they do from the magical ones. Wherever you go, you will find the familiar in the midst of the foreign. It surprises you the way human nature and family dynamics can be the same even in faraway places. I loved babysitting my host mother's grandchildren on Friday evenings: from playing marbles in the narrow hallways to reading French bedtime stories, the cozy apartment strewn with toys became for me a little domestic haven in the middle of a foreign city. And who knew you could find hot yoga in corners all over Paris? I was delighted to discover a little yoga studio tucked away in a courtyard of some sturdy Haussmannian apartment buildings, a little jewel that was packed nightly with teens and mothers from the neighborhood. I enjoyed attending classes there on frosty December evenings ¿ and what a great way to learn the names for all the parts of the body in French!

The fact of venturing into unknown territory is an essential part of what makes study abroad an opportunity for personal growth. It is exploration and adventure. You can plan travel routes and buy tickets in advance, but before you go, you cannot know what you will encounter abroad. I didn't expect to meet the President of France, and yet Président François Hollande shook my hand in the street one day as I was waiting to tour the Elysée. Now, in my senior year, I am once again facing the unknown, struggling to find a map for the strange territory of life beyond graduation. But having explored strange territory before now, during my time abroad, gives me confidence. I ventured into the unknown, and emerged from the experience a braver and a better person.

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