At 7:30 a.m. the day before my flight to France, I registered for six classes that I was ecstatic about. My host university, SciencesPo, boasts prestigious alumni and small class sizes, which make it one of the most well-known universities in France. I was so excited to have been accepted into the program and looked forward to studying “the French way.”
On the other hand, the university was in Reims (pronounced rahnz), which is a smaller city about forty-five minutes outside of Paris by train. I had heard rumors of cold weather, unwelcoming people, and lack of things to do. But weighing the pros and cons, I decided that the school was worth the lackluster location. Now, halfway through the semester, reality has shown the reverse of my expectations.
“I experienced snowfall for the first time in my life a month ago. The entire town turned into a fairytale land while I sat in class staring out the window, wanting to make snowmen.”
Starting with SciencesPo, I must admit I am disappointed. France is a particular country, with rules and regulations for everything. From choosing the perfect wine to filling out forms to writing a presentation, there is a right and wrong way. At my university, the methodology is called the “SciencesPo Method,” which entails a strict outline students must follow. Although the administration informed the exchange students that this is necessary in all classes, about half of my professors follow it and the other half ask students to choose their own method.
This discrepancy is just one of the nuances I have found.
Unlike SDSU, where a clear outline of a class is given on the syllabus, French professors do not always provide a class plan. For example, my French language class posts the homework online after the class and my French Civilization class often does not post the readings until a few days before class. As a planner, I am struggling to make enough time for assignments and am hesitant to book trips in case I have another class rescheduled for a Saturday (yes, a precious Saturday).
Another difference I am not fond of is the lack of assessments. My grade in most classes is determined by three things: an oral presentation, a midterm and a final. At first I thought I would like this, as I could have more time to engage with the content without worrying about grades, but it has been the opposite. Because each class is only two hours per week, I find myself not learning much because I cannot figure out what to focus on. While a lot of tests at SDSU may be stressful, they act as checks on knowledge that I think are necessary to reinforce ideas and facilitate learning.
With all this said, I do enjoy being a student at SciencesPo. Each week the campus follows a specific theme, such as sustainability or feminism. During the week, almost every day or night has a cultural event or a student get together. For such a small school, there is always something to do and the students are very involved.
In the cafeteria, the three-euro lunch always hits the spot and the friendly atmosphere makes it possible to sit with a different group of friends each day. In my exchange semester, there are one hundred other exchangers from across the world (although North Americans do comprise the majority). Most of my classes are with these students, so our sense of community is very strong. Compared to SDSU, where I sometimes feel lost in a crowd, it is much easier to make friends here.
Outside of school, my expectation of a dull city has been proven wrong. I wanted a more local experience, and Reims is the perfect place for this. I love taking the city bus every morning, passing the cathedral whose beauty rivals the Notre-Dame de Paris, and willing myself not to buy a pain au chocolate from the two boulangeries I pass before entering school. I love the markets, of which there are two each day, and their deal of three euros for dix avocats (ten avocados). I love the city’s multitude of events from concerts to plays almost every weekend.
In the most surprising reversal of all, I also do not mind the weather. I experienced snowfall for the first time in my life a month ago. The entire town turned into a fairytale land while I sat in class staring out the window, wanting to make snowmen. Even the cold days are not that bad. I love the calming walk home from a night out on the freshly rained on streets, seeing my breath in front of me.
People here have been nothing but friendly to me, especially in my attempts to speak French that usually turn into a mix of French and English, nicknamed Franglais. One of the best experiences I have had was the one morning conversation with my bus driver about the differences between California and France. This city seems personal. Possibly, my experience is tainted by my Californian pedigree (Ah Californie? C’est cool, non?) but nevertheless I have had nothing but friendly interactions.
The last point I will make in the case for Reims is its proximity to Paris. A one hour train ride gets me from my apartment to CDG Airport, which is quicker than some commutes inside Paris itself. I’ve been able to save money in living expenses, but I am still close enough to travel conveniently.
Despite the university not living up to my hopes, I am sure that I made the right choice in choosing SciencesPo-Reims. Every student I have talked to has had different experiences. For example, another SDSU student, Zoe Campbell, enjoys the learning style much better than home as her classes are discussion focused.
When choosing a program, it is a good idea to talk to students who have been where you want to go, but it is also important not to take any word as truth, even mine. Experiences are unique to everyone, so it is best to come abroad with an open mind and an open heart.
Sarah Karver is a comparative international studies sophomore with a minor in French. She is studying spring semester in Reims, France.
Comment on this post