Study Abroad: French vs. American University System

study abroad french university system
For the 2016-2017 academic year, I'm studying abroad in Europe. This semester, I tackle life in Bordeaux, France. Here begins a series of my reflections on this uprooting experience.

They said school abroad would be a breeze--I instead got a hurricane. 

The proof? Let's look at last week in numbers:

Times I cried in front of my profs--2
Whopping grade I got on my math midterm--8.5/20 (somehow still a passing grade in France)
How done I am with the French university system--unmeasurable

As a student at a rigorous American liberal arts college, I'm well-versed in academic intensity. And so I believed them--I believed the general notion that school abroad is stress-free. But the French university system is a wild world of its own. The shock was twofold: both the academic culture and structure are stark contrasts. 

To help make the transition smoother for future study abroad students (and to attempt to voice my unrest diplomatically), I've compiled a list of the most striking differences between the two academic systems. 

Here's what I've noted about the French system:

1. Organisation is nearly nonexistent

Syllabi are a foreign concept in France--for instance, in lit courses, you're very lucky to get a sheet detailing which works you'll study and when. Most times, you'll get a list of the novels (called une bibliographie), and you're expected to pace yourself throughout the semester. There will by no means be specific page numbers to read for each class meeting.

Since the syllabus doesn't exist, it's also very possible to get a surprise major assignment at any point--for instance, my French lit prof added a paper worth 25% of our grade to the agenda with only 3 weeks left in the semester. 

This lack of structure also manifests itself in class location and meeting times--my math course randomly changed locations throughout the semester, and additional meetings were added with little notice. From what I've heard, scheduling courses administratively is a nightmare, since there's often a shortage of classrooms. Of course scheduling courses from a student perspective is no jaunt through the park either--because courses for majors (la licence) are very predetermined, the French students often have little choice, so course options might be released as little as a few days before the semester begins. 


2. Courses are long
My shortest course here was 1.5 hours, while in the US, my longest course is 1.5 hours. And my longest course in France was a 3 hour math recitation (travaux dirgés/TDs--more about these later), which is unheard of in the US. 

The majority of my courses were about 2 hours--and for 2 of my 5 courses, that was the only meeting we had each week. When class time was 2+ hours, we often got a short break, but not all my profs were that generous. 

The French philosophy is really to keep students in class longer (my literature and math counterparts had 25+ hours a week!), but to assign less homework. Which brings me to my next point...

3. What homework? 
In my literature classes, I had at most 3 grades for the entire semester--one presentation, one paper, and one final. In most cases, I only had a presentation and final. That didn't make things easier. One: there was still the steady stream of work such as regular readings (harder to keep up with because lack of course structure). And two: because there were so few grades, the pressure to do well could be suffocating--these projects were sometimes 50% of our grade.

In my French math course, I had only a midterm and final, and there was no formal assigned homework, which was unthinkable compared to my weekly problem sets in the US. No homework sounds like a dream, but it was actually a nightmare. Instead, we zipped through exercises in the recitations/TDs, leaving me totally lost--I usually spend several hours wrestling with proofs on my own and in office hours, so the rushed nature of the in-course exercises made it difficult for me to grasp the concepts.


4. "Put name cards on your desks, please."
Speaking of office hours, forget about those--they don't exist in France. The system overall is much less personal, especially from a liberal arts standpoint. We had little contact with profs outside of class, and also, sadly, in-class--I felt as if we were being talked at most of the time, rather than discussing. 

Of course, the class sizes weren't much help--my lectures (cours magistral/CM) were over 100 people, and my discussions/TDs had often 30+ students. Near the end of the semester, my lit TD prof still didn't know most of our names, asking us to make name cards for our desks. And that was actually a laudable effort--other profs didn't even try to call us by name. 

But, the depersonalization is mutual--students rarely call profs by name, instead opting for "monsieur" or "madame," wheras in the US, it's considered rude to call a teacher just "teacher" or "professor."

5. Vibrant social life happens off-campus
One of the things I miss most about the US is my college community. I miss lounging (okay more like frantically studying) in the dorm common rooms, working out on-campus, heading to the library at nearly any hour of the day, chatting with friends in the dining hall

In France, most students go to class and leave--few students live in university dorms, and even then, the housing is peripheral to central campus. There's really no reason to stay: for one, there are fewer university groups, especially when it comes to music. I tried a university-affiliated orchestra at the beginning of the semester, but it was extremely small and not extraordinarily advanced. Additionally, facilities have shorter hours and aren't as well-equipped: the libraries often close around 5pm and dining halls are open only for lunch. Gyms were an even sadder story: the fitness center at Bordeaux Montaigne, a university with an enrollment of 15,500, paled in comparison to my gym at Amherst College, with an enrollment of 1800. 

A popular option for French students, however, was to take a regular university-organized fitness class for extra credit. This didn't apply to me, so I instead joined a private gym and community orchestra. 



6. Grades and exams are stringent
As you might've noted in the rundown of my disastrous week, grades--even for major exams--are always out of 20. These grades don't convert directly to American percentages. There's a French saying that "14 is a good grade, 16 is for the best student, 18 is for the professor, and 20 is for God." It's incredibly difficult to get high scores, especially in quantitative classes. For instance, several of my math classmates were getting 4s and 5s in their Topology class--while scores that low aren't the norm (the average is usually 10), it's very possible to have some comically dismal results. 

The culprit? Partial credit isn't really a thing. On my sad math midterm, I miswrote a formula that I later had to use on 20% of the exam. I got no points for those problems because I got a wrong answer using the wrong formula, even though I used the right steps and methods. In the US, grading is much more generous--errors don't tend to follow you unless they make future problems much easier. And even then, it's very difficult to get no points for a problem you attempted and finished. 

As for exams, the process is intensely official--for a simple midterm, I had to write my date and place of birth on the cover page and sign my name. For finals, we have the added luxury of assigned seats and anonymous codes. Even better, you might not be automatically registered for the final as an international student, and have to go on a wild goose chase with the administration to even take the final. Content-wise, exams are also ambiguous--profs normally won't tell you what to study, and you might be tested on things you skimmed over in-class.

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The transition from the American to French system was disorienting for me, especially as a liberal arts student. My academic experience has been mostly negative, but I've definitely learned to be more independent and flexible; you really have no choice when profs are less accessible and syllabi don't exist. And ultimately, my goal this semester wasn't to master the French university system--my focus was language and cultural immersion. 

Regardless of any stuggle, remember why you're doing what you're doing and why you are where you are--let's refocus and push on.

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Paris, Days 2 and 3: The Louvre, Eiffel Tower, and Sacré-Coeur

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plaid blanket scarf outfit
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musee d'orsay at sunset
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"20 euros, 20 euros!"

My program friend and I peered quickly at the prices listed on the front of the bike carriage. It was sunset--fierce shades of gold and salmon waltzed across the serene blue canvas. We were looking for the Musée d'Orsay metro stop, but instead became distracted by the touristy bike carriages lining the Seine. 

The driver (rider?) of this particular one was animated and insistent. The "non, merci" we offered after scanning the expensive prices didn't appease him. As we kept walking, he shouted: "15 euros! 15 euros! 10 euros!"

My friend turned to me with wide eyes. "He said 10 euros!"

We couldn't pass up such a deal, so we scurried back, soon finding ourselves weaving through Parisian traffic in the back fo a bike carriage. My stomach began to drop as we drew closer to our destination of the Eiffel tower, and it wasn't the exhilirating ride. Damnit Lily, you forgot to clarify if it was 10 euros a person, or 10 euros total. The last thing I wanted was to be taken for an easily-scammed tourist. 

It was worse than I expected. Upon arrival, we cheerily handed the driver 5 euros each, as agreed upon. Instead, he showed us the price list taped to his bike, the very one that had caused us to keep walking.

"But no girls--you see the price here. It's 20 euros a person!"

I was fuming. "But you said it was 10 euros!'

"There's nothing I can do--it's my boss who makes the prices."

"But you said it was 10 euros!"

Two can play this game, I thought. "I only have this much money in cash," I declared as nonchalantly as possible. Defiance inevitably edged into my voice.

My friend, the virtuous peacemaker, reluctantly pulled out another 20 euros. The driver reluctantly settled for 30 euros in total. I promptly paid my friend back after the conniving man disappeared.

As we walked away, I couldn't help but wish the scene had played out differently. Man Lily, you could've said we both only have this much money in cash. Or you could've just walked away--what could he have done, chased after? Or you could've asked if the price was for both people. Or you could've never taken the stupid bike carriage.

The unfortunate encounter dampened the mood a bit, but I tried my best to remain empathetic. I had no idea what financial situation the driver was in--maybe he was struggling to feed a family. Maybe not. I just hoped that he didn't enjoy scamming people, and I wished he knew how profound an emotional impact one dishonest encounter could have.

So PSA: don't take the enticing Parisian bike carriages, and remain a healthy dose of skeptical when doing business.

And above all, learn and keep living fully despite negative circumstances. As I drank in the twinkling Parisian lights atop the Eiffel tower later that night, my thoughts were no longer tinged with anger and remorse. Instead, I thought of how vast the world was, how arbitrary human relationships can be, how ephemeral our time was (I was on a basic philosophical streak, okay?), and how determined I was to make the most of my study abroad experience.

I smiled, took one last glance, and began the long stairway descent, back to real life. 

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Cozy Fall: Blanket Scarf Outfit + FashionMia Review

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Coat, FashionMia (sold out; similar cut, similar vibe) | Scarf, H&M | Sweater, Mom's | Skirt, China | Boots, China
In exchange for an honest review, I received this coat free of charge from FashionMia. All opinions are my own.

It was war.

The battleground? One large suitcase and four vacuum bags, crinkly from the violent fight.  

It was me versus them--me against my belongings in my quixotic endeavor to fit a year of my existence into one fifty-pound suitcase. 

I lost.

After countless maneuveurs and coaxing from my parents, I surrendered. I would grit my teeth and pay to check a second suitcase. 

But the struggle nonetheless continued. I resolved to bring only a carry-on size as my second suitcase, *just in case* I could somehow pare down the field to its larger counterpart on my return trip (the struggle of musicians--had I not brought my violin, that suitcase could've been my carry-on...) The second suitcase ended up being nearly as heavy as the larger one, and I still abandoned several items at home, one being a polished mint peacoat.

I felt a little ridiculous sporting my heavy winter coat when fall began to make its subtle entrance in Bordeaux. But luckily, FashionMia asked me to collaborate, and I happily selected this patched camel coat. 

Here's the verdict on this versatile jacket:

Appearance: 5/5
I usually shy away from hooded jackets because they feel less refined, but practicality won this battle--I wanted a hood just in case the weather turned sour. This coat balanced appearance and mechanics nearly seamlessly--the classic colors and faux zipper pockets ooze "I am in control of my life" (I am not), and the fluffily-lined hood shields me from the frequent Bordeaux drizzles.

Sizing: 4/5
I ordered a small, and when unzipped, the jacket fits just right. Zipped, however, and I look and feel like a marshmallow. With a sweater underneath, the jacket is just a little too snug. Even funkier, the zipper ends several inches well before the coat hem, leaving some body-hugging flaps. Luckily, I rarely zip my jackets anyways.

Quality: 3.5/5
The zippers are a bit reluctant, and the hemming isn't perfect, particularly in the pockets. I would've also liked to see softer material--at times, the coat feels a bit stiff and not particularly durable.

Shipping: 4/5
This package took about 3 weeks to ship internationally, which is slightly longer than the norm for Asian retail companies (in my experience, the average is 2 weeks). For shipments to the US, the cheapest option is about $7, expected in 5-12 days. With orders over $80, shipping is free. The coat came sufficiently-protected in a large plastic mailing pouch.

Value: 3.5/5
For a under $30 at regular price, the jacket is by no means an investment luxury item. I'd say it stands in the ranks with peacoats I've purchased at Forever 21 or H&M--they can give off a refined vibe, but are missing just that touch of comfort. Including shipping, the cost would've have less justified, but the jacket still doesn't break the wallet.

Overall: 4/5
FashionMia has a plethora of trendy items at affordable prices, with corresponding quality. I would've appreciated truer sizing and speedier shipping, but the jacket is overall a versatile addition to my humble study-abroad closet.

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Paris, Day 1: Versailles + Tough Reflections

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marie antoinette's house

My words will most definitely not match my photos today, and that's okay.

Just over a week ago, I was waltzing around Paris. 

Today, I not only found out that a vile man would become the next US president, but that my mom voted for him. 

My mom voted for Donald Trump. 

I would write the same sentence a million times if the numbing repetition would make the nightmare disappear. But even acknowledging the fact once makes me shudder with horror and boil in shame. 

I want to believe that the media painted Trump as a misogynist, racist psychopath, and that he's actually a very nice man qualified to lead our country. But that would be horribly naive.

I want to believe that checks and balances will prevent the imminent damage of Trump's proclaimed foreign and domestic policy. But we thought that he would never make it through the primary, and most definitely never reach the White House. And he did. 

When I told my parents to vote on November 8th, I didn't realize I should've specified. 

I'm speechless that half the country and even part of my family selected someone so starkly against America's founding ideals of equality, freedom, and happiness. I'm in shock, and I want to understand.

I'm usually reticent about politics, and I'm not sure why--maybe because it doesn't feel tasteful to discuss such polarized topics, maybe because I'm afraid of offending others. Or maybe because I'm terrified of discovering what those close to me believe.

My mother's vote, if anything, has shown me that it's time to start a dialogue. Yes, the democratic party didn't handle the primaries well. Yes, our choices weren't ideal this election, but are they ever? America chose a man who embodies the opposite of love and progress to become our president, and I want to know how and why. My mother, an educated middle-class minority woman, chose Donald Trump to be president, and I want to know how and why. 

I'm hurting. America is hurting. I feel betrayed and ashamed of my country, and my family. 

But we must look ahead. Groupthink, propaganda, corruption, polarization, lack of education, fear, blindess, hate--something led to this result. Whatever it was, I want to fix it. 

Whatever it was, let's fix it together.

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