Imagine, if you will, that you’re a 19- or 20-year-old college student preparing, for the first time, to embark on a semester or year of overseas study in a foreign city — perhaps a place like Aix-en-Provence, the charming, picturesque little city here in the south of France and just 20 minutes north of Marseille.
The town (population around 140,000), with its lush tree-lined streets, sidewalk cafés and restaurants, art galleries and fountains isn’t particularly foreboding. Still, you’re far away from home and need to find a place to live. You’re learning to manage your money and open up an overseas bank account. You don’t yet have any local friends, don’t know your way around the city, and you’re living among people who only speak the native language. You haven’t yet registered for your courses, and when you eventually get through the scheduling process and arrive at your first class of 500 students, you wait — and wait some more — for your professor to share with you the all-telling course syllabus so you can properly anticipate your workload as well as your teacher’s expectations about attendance, grading, exams and classroom decorum. But strangely the syllabus never arrives. Maybe you muster up the courage to approach your new professor to ask if he or she would mind if you send some questions over email, to which the teachers responds flatly and without so much as a pause, “No … but I have office hours.”
Of course, that’s a gross generalization of overseas study, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that every place students choose to travel internationally is unique. Still, listening Friday morning to a group of IU students who have immersed themselves in study abroad here in France for the past year share their stories and talk openly about the various challenges they’ve overcome — both in the classroom and in their living communities — provided a pretty insightful picture of what it means to be a college student studying abroad. Their remembrances also highlighted the remarkable rewards overseas study can offer and the life-changing effect it almost always has.
The 10 students with whom IU President Michael McRobbie, Vice President David Zaret and their colleagues enjoyed breakfast coffee and croissants are just wrapping up a year spent in the Aix-en-Provence Program, which IU shares along with its partner and program founder, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As members of the 55-year-old program, which IU has helped manage since 1997, students have the opportunity to deeply immerse themselves in, among numerous subject areas, French language, civilization, culture, history and social science. The students take courses, all of which are all taught in French, at Sciences Po Aix, a political institute in France, or Aix-Marseille Université, the country’s largest university with around 70,000 students. When not in school, they live in a French household or apartment where French is also most commonly spoken.
Despite the early hour and fact that most of them were preparing to leave France within the week (one young woman was preparing to depart tomorrow), the students who shared with us their stories today were remarkably poised, passionate and articulate about their time here in their adopted home of Aix. With their program director Aliko Songolo, a professor of French and African cultural studies at UW-Madison, proudly looking on, they thoughtfully expressed their feelings about and experiences with, among other issues, navigating the substantial differences between the U.S. and French university systems; integrating themselves into — and frequently disrupting — a college culture that demands strict specialization and self-oriented learning; figuring out how to meet their teachers’ expectations when those expectations weren’t always made known; finding connections with the people who live here and only speak the native language; traveling to other major European cities; and assimilating themselves into an entirely new culture and customs.
As much as I’d like to share what every student told us because each was so impressive in his or her own right, the following represents a few select highlights of the conversation.
- Two young men, both of whom were childhood friends from Columbus, Ind., — one studying French in IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences and international studies at the IU School of Global and International Studies; the other a French and neurosciences major — said that they and their fellow classmates initially struggled with some of the expectations placed upon them by their professors and the cultural differences with their French-resident classmates. Eventually, they said, by working hard to be more adaptable, culturally accepting and empathetic, they managed to “find” and successfully integrate themselves into their new surroundings, succeed in the classroom and meet new friends.
- A young woman who is an English major and is also participating in IU’s Liberal Arts Management Program talked openly about the overall mental fatigue she faced early on in the program and, more specifically, only understanding about 30 percent of the French language being used by faculty in her classes. By the end of the last semester, her understanding was up to 80 percent.
- Another young woman talked about how she learned valuable lessons about independence, self-motivation, cultural translation and the need to pay closer attention to detail. “There’s not a lot of hand-holding here,” she said. “Here in France, if a professor mentions an author or specific book as part of class, it’s up to you to then go seek out that author or book and read.”
- Among the last to speak was Rachel Rosenstock, a journalism student in IU’s new Media School and French major who admitted that this last year — her seventh studying French– was truly a “make it or break it point” for reaching her goal of becoming fluent in reading, writing, speaking and comprehending the language. Fortunately, she made it. “I really gave it my all, but I really needed to push to not just fall back on my native tongue,” said Rosenstock, who wrote a wonderfully descriptive series of columns for the Indiana Daily Student newspaper last year chronicling her time in Aix-en-Provence. Over more than a dozen reports, she shared what it felt like to leave her family and friends in August to spend the next 10 months in France; her attempts to capture the various “rhythms” of French living, including settling into a new home and managing routine chores like grocery shopping; and the progress she’d made in her first semester in the program toward meeting her goal of mastering the language; and her frequent travels from Aix to other parts of France, as well as Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Norway.
“We really admire all of you for taking such a substantial step in leaving your comfort zones,” said McRobbie, adding that such initiative is “always wonderful to see and exactly what we keep preaching at IU — that time studying abroad truly can be transformative.”
Thankfully, more and more IU students are hearing that message — many through their peers on campus — and responding to it in record numbers. As McRobbie and Vice President Zaret have proudly pointed out here in France and in our time earlier this week in Spain, almost 3,400 IU students currently study abroad, ranking the university 10th out of 1,200 U.S. colleges and universities and representing an over 60 percent rise in the number of students studying abroad in the decade in which McRobbie has served as a president. Furthermore, one in every four undergraduates at IU’s Bloomington campus now spend time working overseas toward their degrees and gaining the type of global literacy and experiences that many of our Hoosier friends back home acknowledge has never been more vital for our state to stay competitive in today’s increasingly interconnected global marketplace. As Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb recently commented in a one-on-one conversation with McRobbie at IU’s School of Global and International Studies, when it comes to dealing with business leaders who are seeking to recruit skilled new workers, study abroad can often be the “difference maker.”
Indeed, as the Aix program students gathered around the IU president for a group photo, one couldn’t help but feel proud that IU’s pathbreaking study abroad programs — in places like Aix, in Madrid, where we just celebrated a 50th anniversary, and in Bologna, Italy, where we were a year ago for another golden anniversary — are truly making a major impact in transforming lives and turning out a new generation of truly global citizens.
Pointing toward progress in Aix and marvelous Marseille
After wishing our students well, delegation members took a short walk from the study abroad offices to the center of the Aix campus of Aix-Marseille Université, pausing several times along the way to take notice of a number of major building projects (not unlike some of the extensive construction efforts at IU) that clearly reflect substantial change and renewal taking place across the university.
With more than 75,000 students, including some 10,000 international students, 8,000 staff, 19 academic departments, 130 research units and five large campuses, including the one here in Aix-en-Provence and another in the southern coastal city of Marseille, AMU is the largest university in the French-speaking world and one of the best in this region of the world.
As one faculty member neatly expressed, AMU is “very old” (its origins go back to the early 15th century when it was the University of Provence) and also “very new.” A merger five years ago with the University of the Mediterranean and Paul Cézanne University resulted in AMU’s creation and an energetic effort to enhance the university’s overall education, research and international engagement.
To this end, AMU’s Aix campus is building upon its widely respected array of teaching and research programs in the arts, languages (AMU teaches more than 50), humanities, social sciences, economics and management — all of which neatly align with IU’s strengths, a fact that Vice President Zaret and his respective counterpart at AMU, Vice President for International Relations Sylvie Daviet, were each quick and pleased to recognize as potential pathways to new student and faculty exchanges and meaningful collaborative research projects.
“I’m definitely hearing a lot of places where we have synergy and possible opportunities for overlap, particularly in the liberal arts and humanities, in the languages and in our professional schools that are extremely active in international engagement,” Zaret said.
From there, members of the delegation broke to board a bus that would transport them to AMU’s other main campus, located in France’s spectacular city by the sea, Marseille.
A cool breeze, bright sunshine and a sparkling Mediterranean Sea, upon which sailboats and other ships calmly bobbed, greeted IU delegation members as they descended upon the Côte d’Azur, known in English as the French Riviera.
Tempting as the surroundings were, there was more work to be done and more productive sessions to be had. At the campus’ scenic headquarters perched above the sea, Vice President Daviet was joined by leading faculty members representing AMU’s programs in science, research, engineering and medicine who presented their vision for applying university research to address the great societal challenges facing the European region and, in turn, took great interest attention in several recent developments at IU. In particular they wanted to learn more about IU’s investment in “Prepared for Environmental Change,” a major new initiative, which is funded through the university’s $300 million Grand Challenges Research Program, to protect the health, jobs and livelihoods of Hoosiers.
Before the bus ride back to AMU, there was one last bit of business to be completed, as McRobbie and AMU President Yvon Berland inked a renewed agreement between AMU and the School of Engineering and Technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis that has facilitated student exchanges between the two schools since 2002. It was a fitting end to a day that began and ended with our students and the potential for them to make themselves — and the world — better through the transformative power of a global education.