Studying Abroad in France: Is it Still a Good Idea?

Studying Abroad in France: Is it Still a Good Idea?

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American student Janée Green chose to study abroad in France during the pandemic. © Janée Green

In summer 2020, Janée Green was in Los Angeles working a job she no longer enjoyed. California was a few months into a stay-at-home order in what would become nearly a year-long pandemic grind. Green was frustrated with her life and with the world.

“I realized that I was not living the life that I wanted. The pandemic and lockdown really just clarified for me what mattered. And I knew it was not anything that I was doing,” said Green.

She remembered fondly a trip she took to Paris as part of a high school European Studies class. Walking around the city, she felt that somehow, she was more at home in Paris than in her hometown of Seattle.

That was when she decided to return to Paris. There are probably better times to go abroad than during a pandemic. And yet, life is always uncertain, there are never any guarantees. The question is why not now?

“Now is as good a time as any,” she said.

Paris is a favorite destination to study abroad. © Janée Green

She knew that international travel during Covid was going to be daunting and complicated. She recalled what she enjoyed most during that class trip to Paris as a teenager, and it was the long visits to museums. She had come full circle and would return to Paris as a student.

Green applied to the University of Kent Paris School of Arts and Culture to pursue a Master’s degree in Art History. While packing in December, she admitted that she was naively optimistic. “France was in its second lockdown, and I thought things would be better by the time I arrived,” she recalled. However, France retained many of its Covid restrictions when Green arrived in January 2021, including an 8pm curfew, closed borders, and most non-essential businesses shuttered.

Janée Green and fellow exchange students arrive in Paris to study during the Covid-19 pandemic. © Janée Green

A changed world

The field of study abroad has been deeply impacted by Covid-19, and no country has been spared the dramatic effects of the pandemic. According to APUAF, France is no different as nearly every American study abroad program was severely disrupted by the current crisis and they were forced to cancel, suspend, or modify their usual operations.

Green and her cohort were one of a small number of study abroad students in Paris during the academic year 2020-2021. They were also fortunate enough to have in-person instruction due to the program’s intimate class size. Classes took place at Reid Hall, nestled in the heart of the 6th arrondissement near Montparnasse, part of the extensive network of Columbia Global Centers and home to over a dozen American and British study abroad programs.

© University of Kent in Paris

“The health and mental well-being of our students have always been our top priority. That we could provide in-person classes safely at a time when most were offered only virtually meant that they got a chance to have as normal a university experience as possible,” says Lily Heise, administrator at the University of Kent in Paris.

With more than 300,000 international students coming every year, France is one of the most popular higher education destinations in the world. Despite the ongoing pandemic, France  is putting out the bienvenue mat for international students and researchers, offering timely resources on student visas, Covid guidelines, and how to enjoy life, even restricted, à la française.

Exchange students studying abroad at Brown University in Paris. © Brown University in France

A Transformative Year

A year of studying abroad can be one of life’s most transformative moments.

“It is a very personal transformation,” says Marie-Madeleine Charlier, administrative director at Smith College in Paris, “the students are far from home, everything familiar, and that allows them to see their lives at a distance. Everyone leaves here a changed person.”

Author Ann Mah, who is writing her book Jacqueline in Paris, on Jacqueline Kennedy Bouvier’s junior year abroad in Paris in 1949, says that overseas students often find themselves confronting stereotypes and fantastical myths of France and the French, as well as being asked to explain the position of their own country.

Mah explains, “When you’re overseas, you represent more than just yourself. I think students back then were quite courageous and independent – they had to navigate hospital stays, polio outbreaks, the start of the Korean war, and more without any parental advice. They mostly communicated with folks back home via post, which took at least two weeks!”

A commemorative plaque on a building in the 16th arrondissement where Jackie Kennedy lived as a student.

The study abroad experience offers a “temporary version of expatriation” for students, as they navigate the details of everyday life, cultural traditions, a new language, and the socio-political events in another country largely on their own, and likely for the first time.

“Paris has an aura for many students,” says Lisa Fleury of the Vassar Wesleyan Program in Paris, “and we encourage that to an extent. The city has a cultural and intellectual life that is wonderfully expansive and is the ideal setting for personal growth and independent thinking.”

Foreign students on campus in Paris. © Reid Hall/Columbus Center

Looking forward…

La rentrée this year will see a larger number of study abroad students, as many programs reopen and welcome students. However, with a 20% decrease in international student mobility in France in the past year, the future remains uncertain.

“Every program has a smaller group this fall,” says Erin Reeser, associate director at Brown University in Paris and an APUAF board member, “there is understandably still a lot of trepidation for international travel and study. Brown so far only has three students.”

However, Reeser and her colleagues say that the students coming this year are highly motivated, curious, and above all, grateful for the opportunity. “They have been through every hurdle, obstacle, and delay to be here, and that makes them a very determined group,” says Fleury of the Vassar Wesleyan program in Paris.

As with any unforeseen crisis, there was a real moment of fear for many in the field that study abroad was changed forever, possibly even remaining virtual. Despite the concerns, APUAF is “convinced that in the long run study abroad will continue to provide our students with an invaluable and irreplaceable experience.”

“You have to walk the streets to discover a city,” says Albert Galichon, director of New York University in Paris, “physical presence is our raison d’être in study abroad.”

© University of Kent Paris School of Arts and Culture

For Janée Green, she will be finishing her M.A. degree in art history in spring 2022. Already, she is planning on how to stay longer in Paris beyond her studies.

“This experience has changed me completely, I am no longer the same person a year ago,” says Green, “I am grateful to be finally living the life I want.” She has embraced her favorite French expression, c’est pas grave, which she has loosely translated into a life lesson: all will be well if you know what matters most to you.

Pauline Lemasson moved to Paris with her family in 2011 after having spent 11 years in Los Angeles. Before coming to France, Pauline was the executive director of the Chinese American Museum where she advanced the history and stories of the Chinese American experience in Southern California. She's been featured on KCET Departure Stories and written for other blogs including Untapped Paris and the American Library in Paris. She recently left her position as Strategic Partnerships Manager at the American Library to pursue long-overdue personal projects in writing and teaching, along with copious amounts of reading and idle strolling.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hello Pauline.
    I’ve read your fine article again and as I told you at the AAWE party, I’d love to send a copy of it to my dear friend, Sue Talbot, who was my roommate, first at Radcliffe and then in Paris where we spent our Junior year with the Sweet Briar group in 1950! Of course things were different then, but basically the challenges and the opportunities were the same as now. Neither of us has ever regretted our year abroad, and I, who ended up marrying the handsome medical student who lived in the building across the courtyard, have even stronger feelings about the experience!
    Best wishes to you and to Janée Green.

    • Thanks Sally, I remember this story about your friend Sue Talbot, and yours marrying the handsome med student across the courtyard! You should definitely forward the article to Sue, and see what memories come up for her on her study abroad year. It’s a transformative experience, then as now.

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