This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to study abroad in Grenoble, France, for six weeks, take classes in French and live with a French family. Considering my prospects for internships after my sophomore year were low, I thought it would be something to do. I spent the last three summers working in a restaurant in my hometown, and I knew I couldn’t do that for another summer. This seemed like a compromise: Yeah, I’d have to take classes, but at least I wouldn’t be home for the whole summer, and — as an added bonus — I’d be in France.
Little did I know how much this “compromise” would change my life.
Upon arriving in Grenoble, the transition felt shocking. Born in Belgium, and as a citizen of the United Kingdom, I grew up moving around the world. I was used to being a foreigner and addressing home as somewhere far away. However, being completely alone in a foreign place seemed odd and out of place. I hadn’t slept very well on the plane and hadn’t had a proper meal in more than 12 hours. Fatigue was setting in and now I was required to speak to a family I’d never met before in a language I hadn’t spoken since fall semester.
The first few weeks went by, and the language started to settle in more naturally. Rather than thinking and rehearsing everything I was going to say beforehand, the words started to roll off my tongue and my comprehension of everyday language rose dramatically. Instead of feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed about every social interaction, I started to become at ease. I was learning every day, and watching my own progress was inspiring; I knew I had to be brave, initiate conversation and accept the fact that sometimes I would mess up. With this realization, and some practice under my belt, I began to fall in love with the French culture. A cheese plate every day after dinner? Sign me up.
The six weeks flew by, and the program ended before I was ready for it to be over. After taking classes in French, I was ready for a break from homework and studying. However, leaving France and returning to Michigan left me feeling sad. This great adventure I embarked on had gone by so quickly. I was learning so much every day, and now that was over and I’d be returning to my normal life. I love my life in Ann Arbor, but closing one chapter and starting another made me feel a small and tugging sense of grief.
As I sit here writing in Ann Arbor, I’m aware of how constantly I think of the differences in culture, the things I learned, and I notice the ways that I’ve changed. Grenoble surprised me, as I found myself outside of my comfort zone in a really cool way. Going abroad not only allowed me to gain insight on a new way of life, but it also gave me a lens through which I could observe my own culture. I am appreciating things about Michigan that I never noticed before. For example, we will strike up a conversation in any setting with any person. In the grocery store and picking up a certain brand of orange juice? Some nice lady next to you will probably tell you that’s her favorite too. We like to connect and communicate, which is something unique to American culture I never really noticed before.
If you have the opportunity to study abroad, do it. No questions asked — just do it. It’s expensive and difficult to squeeze in, but find a way to make it work. In our busy lives, we rarely take the moments to expand our understanding of the world and experience it in a different way. We are so focused on school, working, getting good grades, staying active, eating healthy, socializing, maintaining acceptable levels of social media presence — all while trying to stay sane. Studying abroad is scary, and that’s awesome. It gives you the chance to put your routine on pause and see how you can cope in a foreign setting. And finding out that you can is powerful and motivating. As I move on to my junior year after Grenoble, I feel so blessed to have had this opportunity to grow and learn more about the person I strive to be.