a nightmare and a dream February 10, 2017

By (Amherst College) - abroad from 09/01/2016 to 12/16/2016 with

Middlebury Schools Abroad: Middlebury in Bordeaux

What did you gain/learn from your experience abroad? Was it worthwhile?
I gained a richer French vocabulary, especially in terms of how the native French speak. I also learned to be much more independent and bold.

Personal Information

How much international exposure did you have prior to this program? 1 month - 6 months

Review Your Program

* Overall educational experience

Academic rigor, intensity, resources, etc.

The greatest disappointment of the semester was the university system. Most of my courses were very impersonal, poorly organized, long, and unengaging. This unfortunately is characteristic of the public university system in France--large lectures for 2-3 hours doesn't exactly lend itself to passionate learning. Additionally, the syllabus isn't a well-established concept in France, so students rarely know what to expect--professors can add major assignments with little notice. Courses could be incredibly tough, but in a more demoralizing rather than challenging way. This was especially true for my math course and French literature course, where I spent quite a bit of time studying only to achieve dismal results with little useful feedback. I also took issue with the fact that we were to be evaluated like French students, especially as I watched the Erasmus students (EU exchange program) scot away with less-rigorous work. Academics are incredibly important to me, but this policy interfered with my ability to engage in linguistic and cultural exchange. Rather than take advantage of my study abroad experience, I often found myself holed up in my room over work. I actually felt as if my French improved the most in the final two weeks I was in France, after the program had ended when I was traveling on my own. This was incredibly disappointing since I had selected Middlebury for its language rigor, only to be unable to practice French organically due to the academic workload. Middlebury, however, hired extremely helpful tutors, which was a huge plus. Working with a math tutor made me less panicky in class when I didn't understand, and working with a language tutor helped improve my conversation skills.

* Host Country Program Administration

On-site administration of your program

Our director traveled between the 3 Middlebury sites in France. He was very helpful, though he could come off as cold at times. The on-site admin was helpful and accessible. The housing coordinator was especially kind and responsive, which made sorting out an issue with my host family much smoother.

* Housing:

How satisfied were you with your living arrangements?

I agree with a previous reviewer--host families really should be vetted more closely and more frequently. I really felt as if my host family was with the program for my money, not for the cultural exchange. Furthermore, there was a newborn baby which I wasn't notified of until a month before my arrival (the family had kept hush-hush about it), and a cat even when I had said I didn't want to live with animals. Since the family had two small children, I was never invited to go out with them. The meals weren't always well-balanced either. They offered me helpful information every now and then, but our relationship was pretty distant. I also recommend that Middlebury clarify policies on missing meals/vacations. My host family tried to tell me that if I missed a meal because I was out of town, they weren't obligated to make it up to me. This was especially unfair when I left for a week-long trip at the end of the program. I had discussed with my family at the beginning of the month how we'd make them up, and was assured that we'd find a solution. When I reminded them later, however, I was given ambiguous responses. When I reminded them as I was leaving, I was told that there was nothing they could do. I was incredibly upset, as I was paying them the same amount of money to not use their utilities and not eat their food--to not even be there! And rent isn't cheap--I paid about $570/month for breakfast and 3 dinners a week. Things would've been much easier if Middlebury had a clearer vacation policy. I was grateful, however, to the housing coordinator for helping me sort things out. She spoke with the family herself, taking the stress off of me.

* Food:

The food in Bordeaux is diverse and rich. As a flexitarian, I was initially worried about finding my usual health foods, but the open-air markets and organic stores had me covered. Things can be a bit pricey, however, especially if you eat out.

* Social & Cultural Integration:

How integrated did you feel with the local culture?

It was difficult to make friends on-campus since the same community culture doesn't exist--people go to class and leave. I, however, found a few good friends through simply chatting with classmates and taking initiative to make planes. I also joined a community orchestra (the university-affiliated one was not well-developed), which helped me spend more time with locals.

* Health Care:

How well were health issues addressed during the program?

We glossed over healthcare in orientation. I never had to use the system for an illness, but I would've felt unprepared has something arisen. I did see the university doctor for half marathon clearance, which was free and went smoothly. This was all, however, information that I found on my own, and not via the program.

* Safety:

Bordeaux is generally very safe. I went running downtown at night often and never felt uneasy. There, however, was one instance where I was followed home in the suburbs of Bordeaux. Luckily I was able to shake the person, and I never saw him again, but I would've liked more information from the program on what to do if such a thing happened. We spent orientation addressing broader topics like drugs and terror attacks.

If you could do it all over again would you choose the same program? Yes

Despite my difficulties, I would choose this program again for the language component. I would be much more enthusiastic about the program, however, if academic and host family policies were reformed.

Finances

* Money: How easily were you able to live on a student's budget?

(1 = not very easy/$200+ on food & personal expenses/week, 2.5 = $100/week, 5 = very easily/minimal cost)

Not including program expenses, about how much money did you spend on food and other expenses each week? 65 euros/week
Do you have any general money-saving tips for future study abroad participants? --Get student discount cards at supermarkets like Casino --Don't exchange all your money at once; shop for good rates --Use Lycamobile for phone service; 5 euros cheaper/month than major retailers like Orange, and you don't have to pay 10 euros for the sim card --Buy groceries at open-air markets

Language

* Did your program have a foreign language component? Yes
How much did the program encourage you to use the language?

0 = No encouragement, 5 = frequent encouragement to use the language

We pledged to speak French at all times, even with our fellow program students. (obviously we could speak English with friends and family at home, though we were encouraged to do that infrequently)

How would you rate your language skills at the beginning of the program? Advanced
How would you rate your language skills at the end of the program? Advanced
What was the highest level language course you had completed prior to departure? 300-level French seminars
How many hours per day did you use the language? 10+
Do you have any tips/advice on the best ways to practice the language for future study abroad participants? Ask people to correct you if you make mistakes, ask for clarification if you don't understand a term someone's used, and ask if you don't know how to say something.

Other Program Information

* Where did you live?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family
* Who did you live with?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family
* Who did you take classes with?

Select all that apply

  • Local Students
  • Americans
  • International Students
  • Other
About how many local friends did you make that you will likely keep in touch with?

A Look Back

* What did you like most about the program?
  • The willingness to hire tutors to help you succeed
  • The dedication to the language pledge
* What could be improved?
  • Academic policies--the intensity prevents students from seeking real opportunities to practice French, the very reason most students choose this program!
  • Host family vetting
* What do you know now that you wish you knew before going on this program? I wish I had been more familiar with the French school system. A lot of students say study abroad is a breeze academically, but that was not at all the case for this program.