Don’t Blame the French

Maybe it’s not the Parisians who are stuck up.

With just under 300,000 American students studying abroad each year, these students are expected to gain cultural and linguistic knowledge, interact with historical sites, learn about new academic systems and challenge themselves. Encouraged to study abroad, students are often presented with a fairy-tale view of travel. Unfortunately, the dream does not always materialize into the reality they envision.

Deadlines, confusing paperwork, long lines, loneliness, anxiety, depression, complicated tasks and discomfort is the more honest side of study abroad. However, it is these factors that ultimately shape and influence students the most as long as they choose to accept the situation and challenge themselves daily.

For students, the reward of rising to the occasion of studying abroad is increased inner-strength, cultural comprehension and augmented skills for being a fully functional adult. Despite this, it appears that many students deteriorate under any type of pressure. Put twelve jet-lagged Americans in a hot environment, trying to find a café after not having eaten for twelve hours, and the moment a waiter turns up his nose or a fellow student makes a snide remark, everything falls apart.

Many students have not yet encountered actual pressurizing events that can cause students to return home or to break down. It would also be a lie to state that study abroad is not about adaptation. In fact, this is one of the most important and uncomfortable lessons a student can possibly learn while in a foreign country. Sink or swim is a concept that is key to a successful study abroad.

For example, students have an overwhelmingly large amount of paperwork to complete before arriving. Upon entry, students must set up bank accounts in another language, go to visa appointments, decode a new university system, submit registration forms, open cell phone accounts and complete all housing documentation. It is shocking how few students are comfortable completing even a portion of these tasks. If students have any serious problems or a medical emergency, this involves more foreign and confusing processes, for which most students are not prepared.

Additionally, students go through a lengthy adjustment with being alone and having to make an entirely new group of friends. Tensions with other exchange students can quickly dissipate as the group realizes that they must all work together, rely on shared information and become fast friends.

Some of these cycles are normal in the development of students into adults. An experience like study abroad is invaluable for goals such as cultural awareness and improved language skills. However, some basic skills and situations cause students to panic when forced to learn or handle small tasks concerning those skills and situations. This is attributed to the number of parents who attend every need of their grown children, including paying for their tuition, opening bank accounts for them, or accompanying them to the doctor and handling all billing. This is not to assert that students do not need the support of their parents, financial and emotional. However, when students are coddled their entire lives, they come to believe that their needs are the general concern of everyone, and they should not have to handle situations that push, cause discomfort or frighten.

In this sense, I have personally watched countless students either panic and return home early or be in extreme emotional distress. Even simple situations, like sleeping in a hostel to save money, shock some students, as they have never had to consider the high cost of a hotel.

All students are welcome on study abroad in nearly any country of their choosing. This is a beautiful gift, but not one that is freely given. Students must work in order to unlock the potential of their host country, as well as their individual potential.

So maybe it is not quite fair to blame the French with rudeness; perhaps American students are just scared off too easily because France is not Disneyland or Burger King. You cannot “have it your way.”