Reflections from Non-traditional Students
Dear prospective student,
My name is Jonathan Simpson and I studied abroad for a summer in France. France was simply marvelous! I spent six weeks in Chambéry, which is in the heart of the Alps in southern part of the country, and three weeks performing research at the Bibliothéque Nationale de France (BNF) in Paris. I was able to travel a little as well, visiting Omaha Beach, Normandy, Lyon, Geneva, and Madrid to name a just a few.
I had always dreamed of going abroad, and the older I got, the less I thought that it might be possible. I was thirty-nine years old, married, a father of two, and had numerous responsibilities at home, which made me think that my family and I couldn’t afford it. Yet, when I began exploring studying in France for a summer, I found that there were plenty of funding resources available and a “lucky” student could manage to fund over half of the trip. I was one of those lucky ones and the list of scholarships and grants that I was awarded which paid for most of my travels and learning experiences is long and prestigious. I can’t stress enough the importance of applying with your best foot forward. I never would have imagined being so successful, and you won’t know how you’ll fare until you try.
My adventure began on a nice day in late May. My wife and daughter drove me to Chicago to see me off. Sitting in the car on the way there I was torn between excitement and sadness. I was on my way to Europe, but I had to leave my family behind. My nerves were pushed further when we found that the restaurants were only accessible inside the terminals and there was no place for us to sit and have lunch. We spent the last few minutes together in an emotional storm, and said our goodbyes. As I watched them leave I wondered if I had made the right choice. I looked down at the ticket in my left hand, turned and headed to the security checkpoint. The boarding call came relatively quickly, and I was off to Boston, where I would connect to my flight for Madrid, Spain.
Flying to Madrid, required some explaining to the folks who approve the expenses in the grant process. I had been researching flights, and in February it was already close to 1700 dollars to fly from Chicago to Lyon or Paris. I found a flight to Madrid for a grand, and figured even if I took the train I would be saving money. After convincing the grant office it was cheaper, I bought a rail pass. I really think that seeing continental Europe by train is an experience everyone should do. It took me two days to travel from Madrid to Chambéry, and I totally winged it, which led to me sleeping in front of the train station in Montpelier for a few hours. What an experience of fear, excitement and anticipation!
All of Europe is interconnected by the train, and the experience was delightful. To travel seeing the countryside through my window gave me the opportunity to familiarize myself with the landscape, and being close to the passengers allowed me to get acquainted with the culture. I call it the easing in period, and I feel the time observing aided me in acclimating at my destination.
I arrived in Chambéry at around 10:30 AM on Friday June 1. It had been an interesting night and a large cup of Joe was nowhere in sight. As I emerged from the loading deck, I saw a coffee shop on the right and the entourage awaiting me on the left. My need for caffeine won out, and heck, I figured they didn’t know who they were looking for, so I walked right past them to get my third Café au Lait of the morning.(A French coffee and a very small one at that. I am used to three or four cups of coffee in the morning. I don’t think I ever got enough coffee in the morning my whole time abroad.) Coffee in hand, I walked over and greeted the activities director, who escorted me to my residence. Once there they handed me a key, told me about the office, and said see you tomorrow for the tour. I entered my room to a mess of empty spaghetti sauce jars in two large shopping bags, the broom and mop in the hall way and a half cleaned kitchen. It was strange, but I went into my room where everything was acceptable, unpacked and took a much needed nap. That night in the park right down the street there was a concert with some amazing French and African music. At the end of the day, I knew I had made the right decision. What a marvelous place, I thought as I fell to sleep.
The next morning I began to meet my classmates and we went to the Saturday open air market. Chambéry’s market was not the largest I’d see in Europe, but it sure was 100 times bigger than the markets in the Iowa City area. The vendors had everything from live chickens to clothing. Simply amazing! We would return to this market often, buying picnic supplies and enjoying the lazy-Saturdays of summer. That afternoon I got a chance to tell the director about the condition of my room. Seemingly unaware that I would have a roommate, they said to clean it out, so I did. As the days wore on I thought more and more that I might have a roommate and finally tried to open the other door. It was unlocked and low and behold full of someone’s stuff. I quickly wrote a note of explanation and when he finally returned he turned out to be one of my better friends from Chambéry.
All in all, I made great friends in Chambéry, learned a lot of French and visited many places, including a Fromagerie, a castle, museums, took a cruise on France’s largest lake and visited many other places during the program. The classes and exposure to the language aided me in fulfilling the second year language requirement for my degree. The teachers were simply awesome, and the classes were fun. We played games, tasted foods and chocolates as well as acted out skits. I feel that the learning environment abroad was engaging and exciting. We also learned about culture in the classroom and from attending national holidays such as Bastille Day. Overall, I feel that it was worth the money, time, and separation from my family.
In addition, during the spring of 2012 I began my senior thesis and I performed research while abroad for three weeks after my language program ended. I am a history major and I study decolonization, specifically I am interested in the cultural, political and social interactions within colonial and social institutions and their influence during the decolonization of French-Algeria during the 1950s and 1960s. Closing my summer with this time in the archives at the BNF, was a great experience that exposed me to archival research abroad as well as aided me in preparing for future research at the graduate level.
Paris was as beautiful as everyone had described. It was a city like non-other, a sense of history and tradition, a remarkable sight bustling along at a ferocious but yet mellow pace. My time there was enriched by visits from many of my new friends from Chambéry. I think I am lucky to have met all those good people, and for the opportunity to host several of them at my apartment in Paris before they returned home. The last three weeks tied the whole trip together. Connecting the first moment of solitude you feel boarding the plane to that feeling of immense gratitude, sadness, happiness and understanding that comes as you exit the plane at home where your family is waiting for you. In the end, my adventure was just amazing and I look back often with the hopes of one day meeting with my friends in France once again.
You can’t live vicariously through my experience forever…take the first step, each one after gets easier and easier and before you know it, it’s time to come home.