It’s been a challenging year. For myself and, perhaps even more, for my ever-supportive friends and family. Since I missed experiencing a junior year abroad, in the autumn of 2017 I signed up for a three-year BA program in Art History at the historical and prestigious French University, La Sorbonne. To say that I was not fully prepared for the change in system (French vs. Irish), subject (art vs. music) or language (French vs. English) would be an understatement.
“I’m going to fail.” “The lectures are impossible to follow.” “This makes no sense at all.” “You’re stupid – you aren’t good enough!” “But what is a problématique?” “Why does tidiness count?” “I can’t!”
“But I studied so hard – how did I not pass? This is not fair!”
I arrived the first day of class determined to silence the negative thoughts that had accompanied me all summer. After all, I reasoned with myself, I had taken one of the required language exams for entry by non-Francophone applicants, the TCF. I had written proof in black and white that my French was at B2/C1 level, the minimum requirement for a non-Francophone to enter into a bachelor’s degree program. Surely, the school had accepted me because I could handle it.
What a shock I had that first day! The teachers spoke too quickly. If I managed to write semi-comprehensible notes, then I wasn’t able to follow the flow of the lecture. My friends, who endured my imagined fears leading up to the start of the course, were now treated to my sheer panic at the scope of my chosen challenge. How would I manage to learn under this different, more traditional teaching style?
Understanding what’s wrong
Fortunately, I had the sense to humble myself to my fellow students. I found that they were eager to help out, either with notes or with explaining the coursework material. A few showed me on our first day the Facebook page that had been created for our degree. Here, foreign students and native speakers who had missed a class were able to request notes. This was a solidarity that I had not been open to or thought of seeking out during my Irish equivalent of le bac, or later doing my music degree.
So far, so good, but I had not yet been put to the test, as it were. My first examination was an essay for my Impressionist class. We were to be presented with a painting and an accompanying question. While I was nervous about writing in French under test-taking conditions, I felt reasonably prepared as I had studied the class notes. Despite a growing headache upon completion, I felt satisfied that I had scraped a pass.
Imagine my surprise when I re-entered that same classroom two weeks later to receive my first ever failing grade: 6/20. I held back my tears as I approached my professor for an explanation. To me, her comments at the time seemed proof that I had entered a strange new academic system that prized only tidiness and focused arguments. She pointed out to me that I had no problématique, or, in English, a “research question”. On a positive note, she did acknowledge that I had clearly studied as my essay was rich in content.
I don’t know how I got home that evening; it seemed I cried all the way back. By dinner time I had calmed down, but not before conferring with my mother and giving myself a stern talking to. I could either sit in my room feeling sorry for myself, quit or I could take a pro-active approach. I decided that the first step to improvement was to meet with a friend who knew the French system well.
Sitting down with cups of tea and my test before us, Michele proceeded to indicate and describe each component of an academic French essay. Now, I felt like I had passed my first milestone; I had done my crying and then sought out a practical solution.
Getting it right
The professor allowed all students who had failed to redo the test. I felt this time that I was well-prepared, studying both my research notes and the essay format. I finished the exam not feeling like I had done my best, but thinking that I had at least improved my mark, and I was right! I received my test back to discover that I had earned a 9/20. Yes, I had technically still failed, but the teacher was pleased with my improvement. I went home glowing.
Looking back on this past year, a particular conversation that I had with my friend Michele comes to mind. She had invited me to lunch at her place after my last exam. She asked me, “So how do you feel now that you successfully passed this year? Do you remember how you were before you started?”
Many of our previous conversations and those with other friends came hurtling to the forefront of my mind. I remember the sheer panic I felt approaching my school year abroad and how I feared it was too much for me to take on – a new subject, language, system. These paralyzing thoughts had dominated my waking and sleeping hours.
Yet by the second semester, I seem to have learned how to keep them at bay. I made sure to have at least one night a week where I would relax and join friends at a pub. And when I lost inspiration halfway through an assignment, I would go for a walk and leave it for another day.
I started working in the library with a friend — something that changed things drastically for me. Before, I worked in my room at my desk. In this new environment, I felt my head clear. My room was now a place of sanctuary to watch Netflix and relax; the library was where I hunkered down to work. Working alongside a friend helped, especially when I would feel like I had hit an insurmountable brick wall. I took pressure off, made time for myself and noticed that my grades improved as a result.
Taking breaks, often with friends, gave me the necessary time off to be able to tackle my assignments head on. I learned a lot of valuable lessons during my year at the Sorbonne — lessons that I remind myself of whenever new challenges present themselves.
Is French university for you?
Do I recommend studying at a French university? My answer is OUI, yes to people willing to put in the extra effort; it is not for the faint of heart! Even without the language barrier, there are many contact hours, many assignments and much more of a sink-or-swim atmosphere.
For me, this is a good thing as I feel you should earn your degree by working smart and hard. Many of the younger teachers, in particular, were happy to provide help, while others not so much.
To anyone considering it, I would recommend focusing very much on developing your compréhension orale (I know, usually the easiest part of a French exam!) and compréhension écrite (under test-taking conditions). Learning how to correctly listen and understand what to write would have better prepared me for my year abroad in a French university.
Have any of you studied at a French university? I would love to hear your thoughts!