Sparknotes for American Students in France

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Anyone who studied abroad in France and attended a public French university would agree with me when I say that French universities are so different from U.S. colleges, they might as well be on Mars.

Class was confusing—shouldn’t everyone being taking notes on laptops? Aren’t I being graded for participation? (No, and no.) Studying was near impossible: Is there a student center? Can I park here nursing a grande mocha for seven hours? (No, and no.) If other study-abroad students are anything like me and found the French education system to be, for lack of a better word, foreign, I’ve got Sparknotes for you:

French Problem #1: No academic support

Professor office hours are a staple of American universities, and French universities don’t have them. This left some of us with, ahem, a few questions about the essay prompt. There also aren’t study groups, academic clubs, review sessions or professors’ personal emails.

American Fix: Chase your professor down after class. When everyone begins to pack their bags, zero in on your professor. You have about 30 seconds to get to her and ask a question while she packs up her things. If it’s the whole subject that’s giving your trouble, go to the university’s bulletin boards, where you’ll find ads for tutors. If you don’t have money to spare, offer to tutor them in a topic you know about.

French Problem #2: No study spaces

In America, we have 24-hour student centers, rooms of wall-to-wall whiteboards, and cafés like Starbucks that are students’ study home away from home. France has none of those things. French cafés consist of people sitting still, facing out toward the street, sipping an espresso, and contemplating Voltaire. God forbid you open your laptop. Woe betide he who requests a Wifi password.

American Fix (Paris only): The aptly-named Anti-Café is a stellar solution for anyone struggling to find a study nook in Paris. (Really it’s an anti-French-café café, and a pro-American-café café.) Instead of paying by beverage, you pay by time, and then have unlimited access to café drinks and snacks. While studying, you can munch on complimentary madeleines, toast with Nutella, fruit, salads, and chips. There are worn wooden work tables, comfy chairs, printers, outlets, and Wifi. Students and members get a discount (so sign up) and the final price ends up being about 3€75 per hour (though as someone who has used it, I swear that it’s cheaper.)

French Problem #3: No university social life

In the US, students’ social life hinges totally and completely on making friends at college because they aren’t near their high school friends. At my Parisian university, everyone I met at university was from Paris or just outside Paris. They had their friends from high school and their majors (licenses) and did not need new ones.

American Fix:  Join an Erasmus (the all-encompassing word for any exchange student) Facebook group. They host regular events and meet-ups in the city for foreign students looking to do something and make friends. Sit in the same seat in class every day. Everyone else is mostly sitting in the same place every day as well, and eventually, you’ll talk to whoever you’re sitting next to, either because you have a question about the essay question, or because they want to know if you’ve ever been to New York City or Miami. You can also try Meetup to meet other people with common interests. To find the Americans in your class, you just have to pay attention on the first day of class when the professor says something about Erasmus students not having to do oral projects (or some other exception). Look around the room for people whispering to each other excitedly. Those are your fellow English speakers. Find them after class, or remember their faces and sit by them during the next class.

French Problem #4: Different school supplies

I can hear the whispers now: “American school supplies? How is it different in France?” French notebooks have many more horizontal and vertical lines and look more like graph paper. French folders cannot be used without fully opening them: you have to unhook an elastic band from two of the corners to open it. (Don’t expect to put anything away quickly.)

American Fix: BYOSS (Bring Your Own School Supplies). Honestly, I wish I’d brought my own notebooks and folders. Two notebooks and folders for four classes would be plenty. It’s the simple comforts in life, right?

French Problem #5: Wandering into the men’s restroom on the first day of class

Did anyone else have this problem? No? Oh.

American Fix: Never mind, pretend like I didn’t say anything.

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