What I Have Learned From a Semester in France

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Marché de Noël (Christmas Market) event in campus

Indonesia Mengglobal’s Contributor, Vida Hardjono, hadn’t thought about becoming an exchange student until her second year in university. Little did she know that a semester in France at INSA Toulouse would bring so much impact to her life.

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Being enrolled in the regular program at Universitas Indonesia, I was expected to complete the whole mandatory 4 years of bachelor’s degree in Indonesia (although 3.5 years is also up for grabs for those who are highly motivated). I wasn’t aware that an exchange program abroad was even a choice for non-international program students like myself.

I grew up never living far from my family, except for a 45-minute train ride separating home and college. My decision to temporarily move far out for a semester was a metaphorical leap of faith for me, as a transitioning young adult freshly graduated from my teenage years. I guess everyone who has been through living away from home knows what it’s like — the perfect blend of melancholy that you’re away from home but equally, or perhaps, more than that, the excitement for what may lie in front of you in such a foreign place.

For those craving that excitement, here are the several snippets of things I have learnt that might serve you as a guide to surviving studies overseas.

1. Expect a lot of paperwork

It wasn’t until my arrival that I realized how much paperwork my parents had taken care of (thanks mom and dad!) so that I won’t have to… until I had to do it all by myself. Immigration papers, government aid claims, housing, college administration, social security, insurance claims, bank account, etc. Apparently the French has such an appetite for a wide range of permits (or in French, attestation), just as exquisite as their cuisine.

My advice: even if you’re not the planner-type-personality, always go by lists! Complete with deadlines, supporting documents and important contacts. List. Them. All. Down.

2. Know who to ask for help

Several Members of Indonesian Student Association (PPI) Toulouse
Several members of Indonesian Student Association (PPI) Toulouse

When I applied for the program, I came in not knowing that some of my classes are going to be in French. I guess since French wasn’t a prerequisite for exchange students and that the college website was available in English meant that I would probably be okay using English there, right? Wrong. However, I got lucky since around the summer before my departure, I had help from Kak Danya, who studied (now graduated!) French literature, whom I crossed paths with at a college event. She was the one who taught me French right from how to frenchify my pronunciation of words that I had apprehended in English, up into the cultural “verlan” or French slang. She, as well as my PPI Toulouse friends, made me believe that the right people will get you to the right places.

My advice: Always ask when in doubt. Never hesitate to look out for support from people around you. Get in touch with your respective PPI before departure. They’ve been an immense help for me since day one. Ask for help when necessary. Trust me—more often than not, you need it more than you’d love to admit.

3. Learn the local language

This is perhaps by far the most important point. I knew language was essential from the very start. But despite that, it doesn’t save me from being flustered and frustrated most times at the beginning. I’m sure most of us have all been there; feeling all jerked up in front of a native, afraid of their judgement, for not being able to make a fully forming, simple, 3-word sentence.

This is why many of my PPI friends opt for a 7-month language preparatory program. Since this wasn’t an option for me— I knew I had to be creative in my ways. Here are the things I did:

  1. Changing my phone language to French
  2. Listening to the announcers on FranceInter Radio while running errands (even back then when, trust me, all I understood is that if the announcer laugh, it meant someone said something funny)
  3. Taking a short summer language preparatory program
  4. Moving out from a studio room to sharing a flat with my 2 French friends from the same university.

I could not reinforce enough how important learning the local language is in a non-English speaking country. In my case, it was essential to ensure I could survive my classes, make friends, able to converse during a meet out, not getting lost, consult with my doctor, communicate with my professors, make the most out of my museum visits, and most importantly, enable me to order baguette and croissant at a boulangerie.

4. Socialize with locals

My roommate’s 21st Birthday Dinner at our Apartment
My roommate’s 21st birthday dinner at our apartment

I believe that befriending locals is the key to integrating in new environments. Living with French roommates in a shared flat was perhaps one of the best decisions I made last semester. Every other week, we would always host a soirée or a casual dinner/get together with friends from college at our apartment. Adaptation of studying in a college as a new entrant (even if it is just temporary) is easier when you have friends you socialize after school hours who invite you over for after-campus events and social gatherings. To put it briefly, my roommates were my home away from home.

My advice: If a living arrangement like this isn’t a choice, I highly suggest you sign up for the Erasmus Buddy program (only for countries within the EU) https://buddysystem.eu/ . Much like how Tinder works, you will be “matched” with a local student based on your common interests.

 

For those of you who need to hear it, being admitted to local universities isn’t a defining statement to not be able to study abroad. Get in touch with your college International Office and look up scholarship links. Create your own opportunities because they don’t just arrive at your doorstep by fate. If no one you know had undertaken this before, don’t be afraid to be a trailblazer. I assure you, for what it’s worth, my semester abroad has changed my outlook on life in more ways than I expected, if at all. I could only imagine it happening to you as well, as long as you take the chance.

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Photos provided by author

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Vida Hardjono
Vida is a bachelor degree student at the Department of Chemical Engineering, Universitas Indonesia. She is currently in the search for her niche as a budding engineer. Aside from academia, she has loved writing ever since she was little. She had once written a letter to Santa from the Northpole via email in 4th grade. Unfortunately, he didn’t reply. Feel free to connect with her through LinkedIn (and she will try her best to reply!).