Studying in France is an exciting opportunity to experience a new language, culture – and educational system! It would be nice to be able to dive right in, and this can be done, but it might help to prepare a few things first. I will discuss some of the more practical things, such as getting documents in order, and then some of the more abstract things you can do to prepare yourself mentally.
A List of 10 Tips
Here is a list of ten good ways to prepare to study in France:
- Learn as much French as you can before studying in France. The educational system is tough enough for French students to navigate, and seems to always be going through reforms, so you’ll want to have some of the basics in French down before trying to get your classes and schedule together. In addition, you might have to transfer some documents from your French institution to your home institution or vice versa, so that is an added step that the French students will not be able to help you with.
Speaking of other students, they are generally helpful, and sometimes too helpful and will want to practice their own language skills on you, especially in a university environment, so be ready to fight these language battles – and win! The more you review French before going over to France, the more equipped you will be to press on in French, even when other students are determined to practice your language. If you speak a less widely-spoken language, you will need this preparation, since there won’t always be five people volunteering to provide a version in your language of whatever you are saying.
Get paperwork done as early as possible. France is the land of red tape, so it will help to find out all of the documents you will need for enrollment and start the ball rolling a year or at least six months in advance. It helps to find someone who is familiar with the process, such as an advisor at your home university or a responsable at the French institution with which you are affiliated.
Get in contact with a sponsor for any project, such as a thesis, by contacting the professor you would like to work with. It will be easier to push everything through if you have a sponsor and a project already in mind. Some professors who are used to dealing with international students can advise you about which office to visit and where to get something stamped (which is very important for French documents) when you are in the process of running around, getting everything in order to begin your program of study.
Have a letter ready from your university (your department, division, or study abroad program) introducing you and describing your purpose for studying in France. Have a stamp which, as mentioned above, the French love, or an official seal on your document. This will come in handy when you need access to resources, such as the national library, or need to provide documentation for those who can help you gain access to such resources.
Know which bank you would like to have as soon as possible and what the general policies are. Sometimes there are representatives that are sent to schools to promote themselves to students who study abroad. Don’t be shy about asking where other students, or even responsables do their banking.
Find out a bit about the town or city you will be staying in. Of course, you will really discover it once you are living there and experiencing it day by day, but it is nice to know what to expect in terms of transit, climate, and how formal or informal the general population is, e.g., whether you would show up anywhere besides the gym in a sweat suit.
Prepare to be autonomous. French students are followed a lot less at university than at American universities, for example, which are notorious for elaborate advising systems and counseling services. There is a bit more of this if you are at a Grande École than at a université, but it is nowhere near the level you would find at an American school. There are resources, such as medical consultations at places like the École normale supérieure in Paris, but you will need to look for them and they might refer you to a practitioner who is not affiliated with your school. The upside is that any medical visit will be affordable and you will probably be reimbursed for a lot of it, depending on which program you are part of while studying in France.
As for your academic life, you will be expected to keep track of due dates for assignments and exam dates on your own. Professors are likely to give you a bibliography consisting of useful works for the classes that they teach, but will not give you specific page numbers to read. You are expected to find what is relevant to your own work.
When you study in France, expect to not be so high on a professor’s radar. Professors in France have a reputation for being distant, and some are, but they are mostly just swamped and don’t have a lot of office space, which presents tighter schedules for meeting with students. Even very well-known professors share offices and have to coordinate with their colleagues, so their time with students needs to be scheduled accordingly. Some professors who have taught abroad – again, usually these well-known ones – are used to foreign students and pretty welcoming. They could be a great help to you if you are preparing a presentation, for instance. Even a 20-minute conversation will give you lots of information and some guidelines about what the expectations are for completing a presentation at a French university.
Be open to meeting different kinds of people while you study in France. University life might seem lonely compared to what you experience at universities in other countries. French students do not always live in dormitories and many people do not travel that far from home to attend university, so they already have an established social circle. You might meet other people studying abroad from around the world who are in the same position you are. This can be a great opportunity to learn about other cultures and to compare notes on your impressions of studying in France. Since you are at a French university, French will be your lingua franca and so you will be able to meet lots of French speakers from all over the world as well as from France.
Continue to pursue your outside interests. Whether you play basketball in the Jardin du Luxembourg or take classes at the Centre de Danse du Marais, you will have the opportunity to meet others who share your interests while becoming familiar with the French terms for the activities you love. These are contexts in which everyone communicates in French and is friendly – you tutoie most people in these contexts. You may also end up socializing with your fellow ball players and dancers beyond games and classes, since these provide rich topics for conversation and shared experiences.
Remember that your position as a student abroad is a unique opportunity to become integrated into life in France, to participate in the French educational system, and to experience the language and culture first hand, every day. Bonne continuation !
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