When I started at Warwick back in 2006 as a fresher in French Studies with Italian, my year abroad seemed a lifetime away. Back then trying to remember everyone’s name and attempting to cook anything vaguely edible seemed much more important than wondering how I’d cope by myself in a different country… Then, all of a sudden, on a rainy day in August last year I was being dropped off at Heathrow, ready to embark on a nine-month trip to France.
I chose to go to Université Stendhal in Grenoble: the so-called ‘capital of the Alps’. It’s also well situated for travelling, only a couple of hours away from Switzerland and Italy on the TGV and three hours from Paris and the south coast. During our year abroad meetings we had been warned that the first week of looking for private accommodation may well be ‘the most stressful week of our lives’.
Oh joy. This option, however, had seemed preferable to living in French halls. Much more basic than halls in England, we were informed that French halls tend to have no oven or fridge in the kitchen, no Internet connection and that tramps occasionally used the showers. Yikes.
Our first day of house-hunting was slightly stressful. We saw three flats – the first had no windows, the ceiling of the second was so low we had to stoop everywhere and the third hosted an extremely scary landlady; we went back to the youth hostel rather demoralised. The next day, however, we got lucky and found a nice flat straight away. A few weeks later and we were feeling pretty settled in. We had been joined in our flat by two French students, which has been great for practising French.
So what’s it like being a student at a foreign university? I’ve found it really interesting comparing Grenoble University with those in England.
Firstly, there’s not so much emphasis on the social side. Most French students live at home and go to their nearest university, as there isn’t really a league table system like in England. Never fear though, this doesn’t mean the students are really antisocial! You just have to put a bit of an effort in to try and meet them. There’s different societies, sports clubs etc, that you can get involved in which is a great way to make French friends.
Lessons here start at 8:30 in the morning (slightly painful after a night out…) and last for two hours. I decided to mix courses specifically for foreigners with lessons for French students. At first it was tiring listening to French all the time, but you get used to it fairly quickly. I guess one of the main differences between French and English universities is is that French students sure do love to strike. Since my arrival there have been a number of demonstrations in the town; last week fifty students occupied one of the buildings, bringing sleeping bags with them, planning to stay there for as long as possible. A lecturer came running into my class telling our teacher we all had to be ‘evacuated’ so the striking students could be stopped! Last year apparently there were no lessons for five weeks because of students barricading the uni. I can’t imagine that happening at Warwick… Then again French university is pretty much free, so perhaps the students think they have nothing to lose!
There are people in my lessons from all over the world. It’s really interesting finding out about life in a country so different from your own. Outside of lessons, we’ve just been trying to get as immersed into French life as possible: travelling, attending traditional French festivals and this term I’m doing some work experience, volunteering, skiing and snowboarding. It’s kind of like the gap year I never had.
Admittedly sometimes it has been hard being away from friends and family, but I think you have to just try and make the most of what can be a really amazing year. Spending a year abroad really improves your CV and can increase your confidence so much. I would recommend it to anyone.