When and where did you study abroad?
In Lyon, France from September, 2009 until June, 2010.
What made you want to study abroad?
I love to travel and I jump at any excuse to go abroad. I strongly believe in learning through traveling, and what better way than to study in a different language and culture?
How did you search for programs? What made you select your program?
I randomly stumbled upon an exchange program for students from my university. In the province of Ontario (where I did my undergrad), there are exchange agreements with different regions of the world (in countries such as France, Germany, and China). I saw a poster in a building one day and went in to talk to the exchange coordinator, and that's all it took to get me hooked. The best part about my exchange: I received and automatic $2,500 bursary from the province of Ontario, no additional application required (and regardless of your financial situation). I was able to take classes at the university in Lyon that could transfer to my program at the University of Waterloo without adding on another semester or year, pay regular tuition to the University of Waterloo, receive this $2,500 bursary and live in France!
Do you have any tips on writing applications and preparing for a study abroad term? What was your application process like?
The application process went very smoothly - I just had to submit my resume, a short blurb about why I wanted to study abroad and my grades. The toughest part was getting professors to write reference letters. My advice: ask them early and continue to follow up, follow up, follow up and follow up again. One thing that greatly helped me was getting in touch with a French student studying at my school who could help translate meanings from the French university’s documents into a North American context (for example, a bachelor’s degree is a “license” in France). Learning some of the lingo was very helpful!
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
Waiting times. My first day, I waited for two hours just to talk to the international exchange coordinator. Then I waited over an hour to get my residence keys. The next day I had to wait over two hours to register myself at the university (included getting my student card), over an hour to get my transit pass, and quite a while at the bank and when buying a cell phone. Not to mention line-ups at the post office (never under half an hour), bakery, etc. Be patient!
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
I played on my university's ultimate Frisbee team and participated in some of the international student events. A note on playing sports in France: it isn't common for people to walk around in athletic clothing (at least not from my experience). While I'm used to going to practice in gym clothes and coming home in gym clothes to shower, the rest of the team would walk in with their street clothes on, change, and then change again after playing. I got quite a few looks (and many comments) when I would take public transit to ultimate Frisbee practice. It didn't really bother me, but I definitely felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb. Other than that though, I felt that playing sports was a great way to make friends in a local context. It turned into people I could go grab a bite to eat with, friends I had in some of my classes, and familiar faces I would recognize on the street. Attending international student events was also a great way to make international friends, and I found that visiting students are more likely to go out on a random night of the week or travel with you. Finding a good balance between the two is key!
What made your study abroad experience abroad a success?
My openness and desire to try new things. I tried so many new foods that I’ve lost count; on an afternoon when class would be cancelled, I would try walking home a different way and checking out new streets, museums, shops, etc. so that I would get to know the city a bit more. In the end I was able to give directions to locals and tourists alike, and I feel like I made the most out of my experience, both in Lyon and traveling around Europe
What international career skills did you develop?
Communication skills, interpersonal skills, adaptability, confidence, motivation, time management skills, organizational skills.
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
I tried to integrate myself into the culture as much as possible, while keeping in mind which values were important to me and that I would not compromise. This included joining sports teams, volunteering, trying new foods, making new friends, traveling, going to museums and reading about my new home. It was not always easy, but the best way to look at things is to think “it's not weird, it's different”. You cannot compare things from home and your exchange location. There is no better/worst, good/bad. You can just learn best practice, fine tune different skills and take everything one day at a time! Keeping in touch with people from home also helped, as did listening to my local radio station every once in a while.
What was the most important thing you learned about cross-cultural communication while you were studying abroad?
Sometimes the same word does not have the same meaning. I am French-Canadian, yet many words that are common in Canadian French have become obsolete in France. There are also many other words that have completely different meanings! My best example is that the word for “running shoe” in Canada means “straw sandal” in France - so when I told someone to pack “espadrilles” and they showed up with beach sandals! While it is easy to lose your temper, it’s worth it to talk things through and perhaps take an extra moment to ensure you have fully understood each other.
What was your return like?
My return was much harder than I anticipated, especially considering the fact that I didn't want to leave Lyon. From not wanting to eat dinner at 5pm (in France I had gotten used to late suppers), to wanting to eat yogurt or cheese after every meal, it was difficult to adjust to being back with my family. Food habits were the worst. In France I had also learned to take a lot more time, enjoy a glass of wine, talk and sit through meals that lasted over an hour. At home, within 20 minutes we were cleaning up the kitchen! Pretty soon we learned to adapt together. One thing that really helped was getting my parents to read a part of MyWorldAbroad related to re-entry shock, so that they would understand a little bit of what I was going through. I will definitely go abroad again though – re-entry shock will never stop me!
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Go with an open mind. Read what you can about culture shock, both when you leave and when you come back, and have a good support group of people you can talk to during your up and down moments.
What did you miss most about home?
Tough one! I think winter. I'm used to a few days of -40 C in Ottawa and it never got even close to that cold in France. My second choice would be camping (especially canoe camping).
Do you have anything else to add?
I don't study abroad solely for the academic value of it. The schooling systems vary widely, as do methods of teaching, course content, and expectations. What you do learn, either in class or by simply being abroad (patience, adaptability, etc.) is definitely worth it. I would not hesitate to study abroad again.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I am currently studying abroad (again), this time in an Erasmus Mundus master's program. I am completing my MSc in Hydro-Informatics and Water Management, and it is a joint master's program between five universities (University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, Technical University of Catalonia, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus, and Newcastle University). Each semester, I will study in a different university. When I graduate in two years' time I think I will have many different options to choose from: either to complete a PhD (in Canada, Europe, or elsewhere), or work. I am interested in working with natural hazards adaptation and mitigation (specifically flooding), urban water management, and other environmental topics.
Sheila has a well-defined set of professional goals and she has taken the initiative to become involved in a master’s program with a significant cross-cultural component. Traveling to five schools over such a short period of time will allow her to do a lot of professional networking that could open up even more international opportunities. So far, her international experiences have primarily taken place in South America and Western Europe. We’d suggest that she consider taking a summer volunteer or internship position in Africa between terms or after graduating with her master’s. Because of her practical professional skills, she would surely be able to find a position with an NGO in a developing nation, which would further expand her international experience and challenge her cross-cultural communication skills. When spending time abroad, remember to take note of the professional norms in your host culture and think about how they compare and contrast with those in your home country.
- The North American Identity is a section containing five important articles geared towards helping North Americans think about their professional culture in an international context.
- Career-boosting Strategies While Studying Abroad discusses how to maximize the professional impact of your study abroad experience.
- All NGOs is a searchable resource list of thousands of NGOs, including almost 500 US-based NGOs, many of which send Americans overseas or field work. Use the filters to narrow your search.