Dijon: A study of studying abroad
Some of the beautiful fall foliage in a scenic orchard in Bourgogne, France, where Lucy Wilhelms '12 is studying abroad.
Almost two weeks ago, despite my optimism and my general cheeriness, despite (or perhaps because of) my high expectations, I found myself dispirited and disappointed with my study abroad program. It had been almost two months since the Colby in Dijon program had started and I felt that I was not as fluent in French as I’d hoped to become and that the program was not at all what I had been expecting. It was hard to see freshmen learning to drink, it was difficult to find classes that would count toward either of my majors and it was tough trying to fit in with my host family. However, instead of moping for my final six weeks in Europe, I decided to spend two weeks visiting friends in other abroad programs in hopes of coming to terms with Colby in Dijon and renewing my excitement and pleasure to be living in France.
Before I left Dijon, I briefly addressed my major concern—fluency in my chosen language—by having my host brother look over the first paragraph of a literature paper. Although I had made a few mistakes, those mistakes were merely the result of thoughtlessness rather than of ignorance, representing a big step forward for me. Roughly three days later, I arrived in Germany and asked a friend studying there about his program. Without any prompting, my friend told me about his own difficulties with spoken fluency and his frustration with his group’s (understandable) desire to speak English while together. My relief was almost palpable; I had honestly thought that mine was the only group facing this problem.
Another friend—studying in Greece—told me (without any encouragement) about the relationship between the third-years on her trip and alcohol. According to my friend, these juniors drink as though just learning how; they have no concept of personal limits, similar to some of the first-years in Dijon. While the first-years have the excuses of genuine ignorance, a desire to find friends and the need to fit in, the third years on my friend’s program who over-indulged have no such readily apparent extenuating circumstances. While most students do drink responsibly, it appears that, no matter which program I had chosen, there would be students who choose to drink to get drunk.
Sometime during the second week of my stay in Dijon, I took a closer look at the requirements for my French major and realized that none of the classes offered directly by the Colby in Dijon program would count toward either of my majors (I had completed all the 200-level classes permitted for the French major). The realization that I had just spent nearly 50 grand on a semester in which none of my classes would count toward my degrees gave me a panic attack, as you can imagine. Finding classes that would count toward my majors was more stressful than I might have hoped, but it ultimately worked out. I just wish that any of the three people who knew the major requirements and the classes I’d already taken had warned me of this possibility before I left. In Switzerland, a third friend told me of her markedly similar experiences and her struggle to find professors who would permit her to take their classes for a shortened semester (she’s leaving in December and the semester ends in January). As unfortunate and difficult as the situation is and was, I’m grateful to know that the third-years in Dijon were not alone in their struggles to find classes.
My final obstacle—my flailing attempts to fit in with my host family—are, as of yet, not totally resolved. My host brother has been wonderful, friendly and very sympathetic. However, I barely know my host father, and my host mother and I are... working things out. I’m hopeful that by mid-December, I will be at a point where I’ll be horrified at the prospect of leaving them, but I’m not there yet.
In short, studying abroad is more difficult than you’d think and hard in ways you wouldn’t expect. However,my experiences during the excursions to the Loire River Valley and the Côte d’Azure, to Germany and Greece and to Switzerland and England are simply unbeatable. There aren’t words for the grandeur of what I’ve seen, nor expressions for what I’ve lived. Europe’s majesty, living history and multifaceted culture set it apart from any other place on earth; in spite of everything (or perhaps because of it), I know that I will always look back on these four months in France this semester as some of the best months of my life.
-Lucy Wilhelms ’12