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Well hello there, everyone, it’s been a while!
On August 23rd, 2013, I boarded a plane headed for Brussels International Airport. It was one of the most exciting and terrifying moments of my life, knowing that the next 10 months would be spent in a French city that was entirely foreign to me. Nine hours later, we touched down on Belgian soil and began a very stressful 3-hour journey to our final destination, Lille, France.
Starting with that first train ride from the airport to Lille, there were many moments during my past year abroad when things did not go as planned. Over the course of those 10 months, a plethora of missed stops, misunderstood sentences, frustrating encounters, and worn-out shoes rattled hard on the boundaries that had previously contained my comfort zone.
My experience of living in a different country taught me countless things about myself and other people, but one of the most important lessons I now realize I learned was how to become comfortable with living uncomfortably. Now, of course, I don’t mean that my rented room was literally uncomfortable (I quite liked my 9-square-meter space). But, by default, existing in an environment where many things are out of your control and do not go as planned means that you will have those awkward encounters with strangers, those stressful conversations with the bank and immigration office, or perhaps the frustrating exchange with the residence office insisting that you have indeed already paid your rent for the past two months, thank you very much (true story). Personally, I had to learn to adjust my expectations and focus on goals as opposed to achieving them smoothly. Sometimes, you just have to walk in blindly with fingers crossed.
It would be impossible to write a summary of my year in Lille that would accurately express everything that I experienced and saw, but I can say that I am so entirely grateful for those moments of being uncomfortable. As individuals, we do not have power over how everything goes in our life. Sometimes, you have to fight for what you want in a language that you still aren’t 100% fluent in with someone who is treating you rudely when you’re exhausted. It happens. And you will get through it.
Ultimately, I couldn’t be happier that I was lucky enough to study abroad. All of those stressful moments were more than worth it, and I wouldn’t take back any of them for a second.
Being over halfway finished with my time in France, I know that I have grown an enormous amount. Not size-wise (thank God), but as a person and student. What I did not realize was that I was a horrible student before I left. I guess the biggest thing I learned about being a student is that one must work, and work HARD. College is not like high school where you can succeed by being a nice person. One must work far enough in advance to be able to retain the information for future use, not cram it all in the head the night before the exam – but this is easier said than done. I will give you an example: My second semester here in Lille I wanted to really test my ability to speak French. I wanted to challenge myself by taking some super difficult classes (physics, stats, and chemistry). I quickly learned that there was something I lacked, something that all of the other Frenchies could do: Simple math. Things like the rules for parentheses and exponents. Above all, I learned that if I want to succeed, it takes work and that I must apply myself for the long run. Professors are not up in front of a class just to hear their own voices, but they are presenting to us information that we really will use in the future. I don’t know if I am just a late-bloomer or not, but France surely helped me learn that. It’s better late than never right? It makes me wonder if I am the only student to figure out the meaning of college so late in my college career.
I recently attended a conference held by Juniata’s PACS department in Aix-en-Provence, France, where I listened to speakers talk about the environmental conflicts in the world. I learned that to speak intelligently about current issues, it is very important to have a background in almost all areas of study. Sounds difficult, right? I met some amazing people and saw some familiar Juniata faces, Dr. Skelly and Dr. Henderson. One day I aspire to be able to think with enough depth and have confidence in my public speaking skills to convey my thoughts in an intelligent manner like those mentioned above. On the way there, I was thinking about what I wanted to get out of the conference. I wanted to figure out how to gain the best job while making the most money and being the happiest. I was creating a “mid-college crises” for myself, trying to make plans for life much too far in advance. It made me feel vulnerable about the present stage in my life. I learned two things above all: The first being that I need to relax and let things happen because I still have a year of college after this, and the second, the importance of choosing the right pathways and taking advantage of every learning opportunity while using them to grow. Now as scheduling week is coming I can’t wait to take the course “The Art of Public Speaking”.
Okay, so I’ve told you about some of my learning epiphanies, but how about the fun times?! While I was in Aix-en-Provence I took a side trip to Marseille, a city right next to the Mediterranean Sea. It was a good change for me to see the sun, because Lille is a city that is always covered by clouds and scattered showers. In Marseille I stayed with my friend Cedric who lives in my residence in Lille. He is one of my favorite friends here because he doesn’t speak a word of English and he’s very shy, so I’m his number one friend at Lille, aside from his girlfriend. One of the happiest feelings while in Lille was when I realized that my dream was coming true, to speak fluently in another language. I realized this when Cedric was having his usual girl problems and needed some condolence. A small-town Wellsboro-boy like me was talking about girl problems in another language! It’s strange how a language sets into a person. For me, it came in defined levels. One day I couldn’t put together a sentence and the next, sentences were coming out of my mouth like a waterfall (still with an ugly American accent, but I’m working on it).
One of the few disadvantages that I saw myself potentially facing as a Juniata student was a lack of immersion with the French language and culture that I had come to love. As diverse as the Juniata student body was for its size, I did not expect to have much of a chance to experience the Francophone way of life, or meet French students, simply because of the location.
However, I have been proven 100% wrong.
A somewhat new initiative on campus, Juniata’s Global Village now offers language-specific housing for anyone hoping to kick their fluency level up a few notches and live with international roommates from areas of the world where the language is spoken. The Global Village is made up of two different entities:
1) The Intercultural Floor- Currently located in our dorm Terrace, the Intercultural Floor houses students who wish to experience living in a non-location-specific international community. I lived here during my freshman year and met people from all around the world. My roommate from that year is Jamaican, but I also got to know people from France, Nigeria, Japan, and Bulgaria, for example.
2) Language-Specific Houses- These ‘living and learning’ communities are set in campus-owned houses. We currently have a Spanish House (La Casa Hispánica), French House (Le Village Français), and the German House (Haus Wanderlust). I currently live in Le Village Français as the Event Program Coordinator, and choosing to apply to the house is the best decision I think I have made during my time here.
I could go on for hours and hours about how much I’ve loved living in Le Village Français and what I’ve learned from my housemates, but I will try to be somewhat concise. French student life, social patterns, cooking, and travel are only a few of the subjects that I’ve been able to hear so much of from students who have lived their whole lives in France. I have had the chance to become particularly close friends with 4 French students who all go to school in Lille. If you’ve read my profile, you know that I will be spending my next academic year in Lille, France. This means that when I arrive at the airport to start my whole year abroad, most likely exhausted and scared out of my mind, there will be friendly faces waiting for me as soon as I walk off of the plane. I cannot put into words how much I appreciate knowing that these people will be there to help me get on my feet. I have also gotten to know 3 of my housemates who are going to Lille with me next year, and they are the most wonderful people I could hope to set off on this experience with. To me, the friends that I have made because of living in this French House are invaluable, and I would not have gotten to know them if I had not lived in the Global Village.
If you take one thing from this, let it be that you will not be disappointed if you are willing to open your mind and heart to the international students that reside within the Juniata community. If you love a language, live with students who will speak it with you. I have made lifelong friends from all over the world during these past two years. And no matter what part of the world that they are from, these friends always inspire me to be my best, see the world, and make the most of this Earth we have been given.
(Which literally means “until we meet again.” Those French romantics!)