During our orientation week we had a session about the ways in which the French and US education systems differ. We learned all about the different paths students take to get into their chosen universities and how the academic programs are divided. It was eluded to us how different the structure of the classes and the expectations for the students would be. And we even got a taste of what campus life would be like during a tour of the University of Nanterre. But none of that could have prepared us for what the next few weeks would bring.
For the first two weeks we underwent a selection process during which we attended as many classes as we could fit into a day in order to get a feel for what courses we would want to follow. The APA staff worked tirelessly to help us locate classrooms, pinpoint start times, and navigate the academic hierarchy. And yet, the real challenges rested in the slowly dawning realisation of the true differences between the university systems we are so accustomed to and those of which we had just been thrown into.
Going to college here costs next to nothing. For a few hundrerd euro a year, you have rooms with chairs, whiteboards, sometimes even projectors; you get access to dining services and well-stocked libraries; you may even choose to join the campus gym or a student club. And for a few hundrerd euros, your class may have so many students, you have to sit on the floor; there may be “pro-revolution” grafiti on the classroom walls; the class may start 45 mins late each day; or the professor may decide not to show up at all. It really makes you realize that what we US college students pay for is assurance: assurance that we will have a certain number of contact hours with our professors; assurance that we will be able to take our desired classes; assurance that we will become part of a broader campus/ alumni community; and assurance that even if we go into a ton of debt by the time we graduate, we will have had the “college” experience our older siblings or parents nostalgically wax on about.
As APA students, one of the greatests benefits is that we have the opportunity to take classes at more than one university in Paris. Not only does this open the range of possible courses we could take, but it also allows us to get a taste for the ways inwhich these campus cultures differ. For example, the University of Nanterre (Paris 10) resembles a liberal arts campus in the US: open green spaces surrounded by a cluster of small buildings, secluded from the outside world. While the University of Saint-Denis (Paris 8) is more like the vibe of an abandoned airport: one huge cement structure with hallways decorated with big arows to direct student traffic. And again, the Sorbonne (Paris 4) has campuses all over the city ranging from academic buildings on the outskirts of the city to the iconic stone-engraved buildings guarded by police and surrounded by chique cafes and libraries.
The commute is sometimes exhausting and keeping track of when and where all my classes are has been a real test. But now that the firsts are over, no longer do I have to arrive 45 mins before classes was intended to start in order to track down the elusive correct building/ room combination, and now I am begining to get a feel for what this semester will truly have to offer.
The final important aspect to note as I reflect on the beginnings of my semester studying in Paris is the language. After having taken french language classes for so many years, you have a certain association between learning french and sitting at a desk. But when you find yourself entering a massive lecture hall full of the hum of students speaking to each other in french or you are sitting amongst a small circle of students discusses french literature…in french…it begins to dawn on you that your relationship with the french language has moved beyond the bounds of studying grammar and editing essays. You have to focus, sometimes for an obsene number of hours, not on the individual words (because there is never going to be time to check wordreference for all the vocab about french colonization being thown at you) but rather on the big ideas. You realise that you have to take your notes in french cause sometimes the powerpoint has words you cant transalte into English… translating into English would just take too much time anyway. You realise that when you go to the library to get a book on the topic you’re studying, you have to read it in french. And you realise that if you want to add something to a class discussion, you have to be ready to formulate your thoughts in another language you speak so limitedly while maintaining the depth reflective of a college-level student.
Sometimes, at the end of a day of classes, my brain is numb and my motivation is drained. Not because of some feeling of failure, on the contrary; I feel numb because I am working, in a way, harder than I have ever done while sitting at a desk. And the thought that I can follow a class in another language, albeit difficultly, and tackle assignments like analyzing a research paper in french or doing a short presentation on the portrayal of nature in french art in front of a class of native french speakers makes me feel like a superhero(ine).
P.S. here is a pic (I took from the internet) of the “french rule” paper…when you figure out which lines to use, let me know 🙂