For many people, attending university abroad is a daunting task to say the least. To bury yourself in a whole different culture for a massive span of time, well it’s just not something people consider. I happen to be the exception to this rule, so here is why I, an American, am deciding to take a leap of faith and attend university in Paris.
I come from Oklahoma, and with its many ups and downs that it may have, something worth noting about it is that the vast majority of the people who live here have always lived here. I don’t mean individuals that never moved away, I mean families whose entire lineage, as far as anyone can remember, comes from Oklahoma. My family is one of those families.
When I first began to show interest in learning French, I had a lot of people, both in my family and out of it, asking very candidly why I would be doing that. There was never an intention to be rude, but they genuinely wanted to know what function French might have in life. In Oklahoma, the only other language that is even occasionally spoken is Spanish, and practically every Spanish speaker also speaks some level of English. Even further, if you’re going to travel somewhere from Oklahoma, the odds are much greater that you’ll be going somewhere that speaks Spanish than French. Truly, in Oklahoma, there isn’t much practicality in learning a language like French, but still I learned it.
The thing I noticed as I began to learn French was that the world was so much bigger than I realized it to be. Sure, I’d taken geography like everyone else, but I had never really grasped the concept that people on the other side of the earth would be leading different, but no less interesting, lives of their own. The more I learned about the culture surrounding the French language, things like the value of art and of treating food with care, the more I fell deeply in love with not just French or European culture, but rather this idea that the world is perceived differently by every individual on it. No culture has it right or wrong, but each different society is equally intricate and equally beautiful.
So as I learned about France, about its rich history of art and literature, of science and architecture, and even eventually got to spend some time there. As I did, I felt more and more like an archaeologist realizing that they’ve uncovered an ancient version of a being that exists to this day. I realized that the culture I had grown up in was adapted from the European culture that I could see across the ocean. I could recognize the pieces and trace their history, like recognizing a bone that exists in two species that look completely different. I could see that American religion, and even the specific southern forms of this that we see so commonly, were not that different from the European versions of Catholicism and Christianity, but that they had adapted to fit the landscape and the needs the people faced in the US. I could even look at American grocery stores and draw comparisons to their French counterparts, but also seeing that they are different for very practical reasons. My view on the entire society I lived in shifted, and I realized that just about 5,000 miles away from me was not some sort of archaic ancestor of the culture mine had come from, but rather a culture that shared a common ancestor, who had adapted to resolve its own set of trials. So just as if you found out you’d had a long lost sibling you’d never heard of, I immediately began to figure out how I was going to get over there, to meet this sister culture, to experience the things that it had that my own did not.
Now certainly Europe is not one contiguous culture or society. They don’t share the same delicacies, the same burdens, or even the same interests. That being said, something resonated to me within France. To me, there is a sort of intercultural exposure that France has seen especially in the last century and a half. Looking at great American and British authors, at the great painters of the world, at the architecture of my own country’s capital, it was clear to me that France, and more specifically Paris, had something within it that was important to the human experience, so important that it inspired greatness (or at least added to it). I don’t yet know what that is, but I plan on figuring it out.
The other piece of the puzzle I had to figure out was how to not just visit France, but live there. There is a difference between being a tourist and being a resident. Being a tourist is great sometimes, and broadening our global perspective through travel is important, but I want to know what it’s like to live somewhere. Being a resident of somewhere is the only way to submerge yourself in a truly different worldview, and if only for a moment, adopt it and see what it’s like.
I looked at loads of different options as to how I would make my voyage, which were received by my parents with understandably variable amounts of enthusiasm and support. I looked into going to a local university and spending my second year abroad, but I truly wasn’t sure I could wait a whole year. I looked into spending a semester with a host family through an exchange program, but that didn’t promise any real level of the flexibility that I desired. I even looked into taking a gap year and straight up moving to France with absolutely no safety net, but that was shot down for what I now recognize as obvious reasons.
Eventually I found the American University of Paris, which immediately caught my full attention and admiration. I had looked at a few French universities, but I also promised myself to never take classes in French until I could consider myself fluent, because the last thing I would want is to fail a course because I couldn’t understand what the instructor was saying. The beauty of AUP is that all of the classes (with the obvious exception being French) are in English, meaning no language barrier to deal with. Not to mention that AUP offers a supremely diverse student body, possibly one of the most diverse in the world. Out of its roughly 1,100 students, 108 nationalities are represented. AUP wasn’t just going to offer me the opportunity to get educated in my favorite city in the world, but it was going to give me the chance to do it with a highly diverse student body that represented cultures from all over the world. I’m definitely not trying to sell anyone on the idea of going to AUP. Choosing a university is a complicated enough process, and my voice trying to convince people wouldn’t make anything better. I’m simply saying that AUP offers me an extremely enticing opportunity that I’m not willing to waste.
That doesn’t mean that it was some sort of easy decision to go to Paris for university. In fact, I’ve been quizzed and drilled about my choice by almost every adult in my life about it. Usually when I mention that I’m going to France for college, I first hear a reaction of congratulations, followed immediately by a host of technical questions relating to whether or not the education will be equivalent (it is), whether or not it will be vastly more expensive than college in the US (it is not), etc. As clear as it was that no one was as confident in my decision as I was, there was certainly a sort of reinforcement to my reasoning.
See, global citizenship is the thing I’m striving for in going to France. The purpose to me is to open my mind up to different cultures, to different ways of thinking and different ideologies. The big looming question, however, was whether or not that is a practical skill set. Sure, it’s fun to go around Europe as a teenager, but what does it really offer for a job, for a career?
The truth is that the world is global now. We don’t just live in our villages or our towns anymore, but rather through a vast platform of international citizens. Almost every major business deals with international commerce and trade, and that’s where I fit in. This world needs people who understand how to delicately navigate the global stage without overwhelming it with too much of one culture. And so with every adult bombarding me with questions, it made me that much more confident that the world needs a global perspective more than it ever has before.
Ultimately, I know that my decision to go abroad for college is risky. I know that it’s not normal, and I know that I’m jumping a bit into the deep end on this one. However, I also know that the decision to expand my worldview to encompass more of the world is one that affects everyone around me, and it’s the best way I can leave my mark on the world.
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