International student studying Business in Marseille, France

Host country: France
Host city: Marseille
Home country: United Kingdom
Department/faculty: Business
Program type: Exchange year
Level of degree: Bachelor
Program length: 12 months
Program finished: 2016-05-01

Personal challenges

Without doubt the hardest part of my year abroad was integrating into a French social group. Given that my main aim for the year was to become much better at French, I was incredibly lucky to find an apartment with 4 French guys studying at the same university. However, I quickly realised that my level of French was lacking, especially in large social environments like a party – of which there were many! So, my challenge was to involve myself in these social interactions – whether they were parties or simply sitting at home chatting with friends – while often not understanding the majority of what was being said! I wouldn’t call myself shy, but I am certainly a quiet person by nature so it was a real challenge to be more outgoing and work my way into conversations.

Personal takeaways

I know I was hugely fortunate to find the flat I did and to be living with 4 friendly, sociable flatmates. However, I also know that I put a lot of effort into being sociable with my flatmates and their friend group, and I know I really benefitted from that. Although I had thought my French was decent before going out to France, I was quickly aware that my listening was where I especially struggled. Group conversations in a noisy environment like a flat party were almost impossible. Yet, through persistence and a crash course on French slang from my flatmates, I slowly but surely began to understand more. Of course, there were times where I really couldn’t face the challenge of awkwardly trying to make conversation with a houseful of French people I didn’t know, but I could always go and find some of the exchange students who I would be able to relax with and talk to in English! But I’m happy that I can look back on the year and confidently say I threw myself into the challenge. My French did dramatically improve, and although it’s always hard to notice how much you improve, the comments my French friends made towards the end of the year really showed me how far I had come. I think one of the most valuable things I learnt during my year abroad was to push myself out of my comfort zone. It’s hard at first but after a while you look back and notice how what was once terrifying is now just normal, and seeing that personal progression is one of the most satisfying things possible!

Academic challenges

It didn’t take long for me to realise that the standard of work expected by my host institution wasn’t as high as it is at Edinburgh, nor did a lot of the students take the work as seriously. There was a strong focus on group work, which I completely understand and agree that it’s an important part of education, but when other students in your work group are not bothered about getting anything better than the lowest pass possible, it becomes much more of a challenge than it needs to be! During my very first group assignment, one of the French students in my group explained to me that it wasn’t a problem that his part was completely copied and pasted (he hadn’t even changed the font so that it matched the rest of our document!), because the teacher didn’t mind! In the same class but a different assignment, another group member didn’t contribute anything to our 5000-word report, and then couldn’t comprehend why I removed her name from the document. I know most students normally mark each other well in peer marking, even if effort is sub-par, but I refused to let someone get away with doing absolutely nothing and let myself get a worse mark because of it. Although the required standards were lower at my host university, dealing with this in a group was a bit of a challenge, and I had to accept that a lot of the work I would hand in during the year would be a pretty poor standard!

Academic takeaways

The impact these challenges had on my academic year were minimal – the copy and paste was indeed accepted without complaint and we did well enough in our other assignment even though there were missing parts of the work. I suppose I had to go through the experience to realise quite how much we could get away with at my year abroad, which in turn allowed me to make the most of the other sides to the year out experience – namely partying and exploring the area! I guess it depends what you want to get out of your year abroad. I went to France knowing I’d be happy to come back having scraped a pass, as long as my French was much better and I’d had an incredible year. I think it’s useful to have this clearly in your mind from the beginning as it allows you to focus on the things that are going to make your year a success. Things often move very fast at the start of the year so if you’re ready to throw yourself in right away, you’ll benefit. I came to the conclusion that beyond improving my French, I was willing to sacrifice my academic improvement in favour of more “personal improvement” and enjoying myself. And I don’t regret that at all.

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