This past year I studied abroad at Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France for two semesters, a total of 8 months, through a program from my American university, Mount Holyoke College. During my time at UPV I went through a lot of ups and downs. I made conclusions, had them challenged and came to new and different conclusions in a continuous cycle before leaving with a more nuanced perspective on universities in France and Europe and – surprisingly – in the United States too.
Initially there was a lot of culture shock at my university, but surprisingly it was due to it being a large institution and not necessarily a French one. My American college, Mount Holyoke, has only about 2,300 students and in contrast, Paul Valéry has over 20,000 students. At times I was disappointed by the lack of in-depth discussions and close knit classes which I was used to and this made me both appreciate Mount Holyoke more and realize that size of an institution has a significant impact on a student’s experience.
Initially I perceived the French students in my classes to be less invested or less serious in their studies than I was. Many students didn’t attend all the courses and even if they did some would talk constantly, ignoring the professor. However, it wasn’t as simple as that because the students were almost extremely formal with professors when addressing them. Eventually I realized that while these differences could be due in part to the size, they were primarily due to the different expectations and education system as a whole.
A primary example is that professors weren’t expected give resources to students, like the syllabus with important course information which American students expect on the first day of the semester. Instead, it was up to students to pay attention in class and to take the initiative when asking for help. The lack of constant homework, projects and readings to do for class allowed students to pursue personal projects, and while some spent this time having fun with friends, others arrived at the library as soon as it opened and worked through the whole day.
As I spent more time at UPV I met students who were focused and really cared about what they were studying. They made me realize that I had seriously misjudged the university and its students and while at times it was still challenging to study in such a different environment, I felt far less superior and judgemental of it and the differences.
In general I have stopped seeing the differences as something either “good” or “bad” or as proof that one system is superior to the other, and instead accepted them as examples of the different philosophies, cultures and histories behind each system. One of the reasons why I probably found the French system confusing or different is because I didn’t go high school or even middle school in France. The French university system builds on skills and expectations from pre-secondary school, just like the American one. This manifests itself in smaller things such as how French students fill out their written exams (pro tip: leave a margin!) to how they construct an argument in an essay to their rapport with professors. To enter into this system without any important context clearly would lead to confusion and frustration.
During the American college process most students, while trying to decide between universities, eventually realize that there is no one “perfect” university. Though there are some which may be a better fit for you personally or have better amenities than others, in reality there are many places where one could have a positive and fulfilling experience. And in the same way, I believe there is no one “perfect” higher education system. Coming to understand this and to appreciate a different system while studying abroad was incredibly rewarding. My time in Montpellier showed me that while I love my small, American college, I can also be happy and fulfilled student at a large, French university.
An intern at the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, Elisabeth Lee is a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College double majoring in History and French. The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the EducationUSA Advising Center or of the U.S. Department of State.