One Saturday in mid-June, after months of begging, I found myself standing in the security line at San Francisco International Airport, clutching my passport and a boarding pass for a flight to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. I had an orientation in Paris the next day for my month-long summer abroad course and more books than were entirely necessary stuffed into my backpack.
A planned double major in English and History, I don’t have time to do a whole semester abroad and none of the Berkeley summer abroad programs appealed to me, largely because none of the ones in Paris really fit what I wanted and I knew I wanted to go to Paris. Luckily, a friend mentioned a UC Davis program to me and I found a summer abroad course that seemed perfect for me called “Americans in Paris,” a combination of American writing and Parisian life.
Many of my family and friends expressed doubt about the program and the trip itself — not only because of the attacks in November but because of my inability to speak French and the fact that I’ve always been a little slow to make lasting friendships and I didn’t know anyone going. I assured each of them that I would be safe, the language barrier would be inconvenient but manageable and added, “I’m not going to Paris to make friends, I’m going to Paris to see Paris.” A month later, I got off the plane in the same airport with way more books than I left with and hundreds of pictures and texts from my friends asking if I had made it home okay. Despite my bold words to the contrary, the friends I made through my program ended up making the experience so much more than it would’ve been without them.
Exploring the museums and sights of Paris by myself would’ve been fine — my sheer excitement to actually be there counteracting any loneliness. But instead I got to walk through the Paris boulevards with anywhere from one to 15 other people, discuss paintings in ways I wouldn’t have been able to alone and follow others to sights I may not have explored by myself. While I’m still not sure how I became so close to the people in the program so fast, I am inexpressibly grateful that I did because it made what would’ve been a good experience into what was possibly the best month of my life.
Others have and will continue to tout the glories of being immersed in a different culture or the learning benefits of studying somewhere other than your home campus. For me, the most valuable learning experience was interacting with the others in my program. Two friends from my program are also studying Literature and English, but are much more advanced in the topic with different focuses than me, and the conversations we had facilitated my learning in the subject and opened my eyes to literature that I hadn’t really looked at before. Sure, walking around Paris discussing literature is possibly the most pretentious thing in the world, but who cares?
Another was returning to Paris for the third or fourth time and led us to random restaurants and beautiful back-alley locations that she had explored before, helping me to learn the city in more ways than just the obvious tourist locations. Another friend interacted with almost every person we met, a perpetual smile on his face. Between this and his penchant for noticing interesting aspects of Parisian life, I felt that I could understand the people a little better, despite the linguistic barrier.
A fifth is a STEM major, but the conversations we had about literature, science and basically everything else made me forget that I kind of hate science. Every single person on the trip added something to it, so much so that I could (and have) go on for hours about each of my fellow students, all of whom I consider friends.
Looking back at the trip, I’m astounded by how much I would have missed out on without the people who were with me. I have pictures from going to watch the Euro Cup final, something I would never have done alone, and a map from the Centre Pompidou, a modern art museum I didn’t even know existed. My suitcase was completely full (and overweight) with things I bought in Paris, including books recommended to me by the others and incredibly amazing and thoughtful birthday presents from them, even though we had only known each other for two and a half weeks at the time.
Study abroad. Even if you can only do a one-month program, go. If you can manage it, enroll in a program that seems right for you, regardless of if it’s through Berkeley or not. Pack light and grab your passport. Go in with an open mind and a friendly smile, and travel alone. The fact that I didn’t know anyone in the program wasn’t detrimental — instead, it enabled me to go in with absolutely zero expectations and get swept off my feet by the wonderful people I met.
You’ll learn things in your classes, you’ll learn things from the location around you, but if you’re lucky (and I was lucky) you’ll also learn from the people with you. And even though I was traveling to my favorite city in the world for the first time as an adult, even though I had been daydreaming of places like the Louvre and the Boulevard St. Michel and the Seine for years, even though I would’ve sold my right arm to see the Eiffel Tower and the Luxembourg Gardens, none of that ended up being what made the trip worth it. In the end, the people in the program were the best part of Paris.
Contact Taylor Follett at [email protected].