5 Lessons From Studying High School Abroad in France

Kate Evans

Kate is a freelance writer currently based in San Jose, California. She has a BA with Honors from Davidson College and has studied, lived, traveled, and worked throughout Europe and Africa.

Shakespeare and Company in Paris

Whether you’re in France for a week or a lifetime, you'll be forever changed. You'll never again be satisfied with sub-par bread. You'll find that you love sipping coffee at a café, watching the world go by. However, if you're one of the lucky few who have gotten to attend high school in France, the influence of your experience won't stop at all the delicious French foods and drinks you tried. No, you'll have learned far more.

Your time in France will broaden your horizons and put art, music, culture, love, and pastries right at your fingertips.

Studying abroad in France has been a rite of passage for generations, but studying in France as a high schooler is especially influential. You’re at the perfect age to discover the world and to begin to learn your place in it.

So why not study abroad now? After all, it's a time to challenge yourself and to be outside of your comfort zone. It will give you a chance to become self-reliant, to develop leadership skills, and to practice or study French abroad. And of course, your time in France will broaden your horizons and put art, music, culture, love, and pastries right at your fingertips. Take it from my personal experience, and read on to discover our favorite real life lessons you'll learn on a high school exchange in France:

1. No, The French Aren’t Rude

Forget all of the stereotypes you’ve heard about France and French people. If you’re imagining a land where beret-wearing men ride around on bicycles with baguettes in their front basket, you’ll be disappointed. (I mean, you might see one or two, but not all French people wear berets). Not only that, but the French do wear deodorant. And the French aren’t rude.

There are plenty of stereotypes, including ones that make visitors think that everything in France is perfect, that it is a kind of paradise. Remember that France is a place just like home where you will have good days and bad days, frustrations and moments of joy and excitement. Forget everything you’ve heard about what France will be like. Be open-minded and try not to make your experience match your expectations. Ultimately, you’ll find your time abroad will be richer and more fulfilling, and you'll come away with a more honest understanding of French culture.

2. How Not to Be an "Ugly American"

Lost tourist in Paris, France

The French believe in good manners, but for those who have experienced a rude waiter in Paris, this might be hard to believe. Unfortunately, it's usually that the foreigner has unwittingly been rude to the French person first. As a high school exchange student, you'll eventually know better and learn the ins and outs of French etiquette.

For example, when you enter a shop, greet the shopkeeper and thank him/her when you leave. Before asking for help or directions from someone, greet them first. Use Madame, Mademoiselle, and Monsieur. Don’t yell at someone across a room, and don't leave the house still wearing your PJs.

This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your “American-ness” and become French, but it does mean paying attention to cultural norms while you're there and being a participant in a new culture. While this is all common courtesy, remembering your French etiquette will go a long way in avoiding rudeness and help to smooth the path when making new friends during this new cultural experience.

3. How to Save Your Euros

France is a paradise for a penny-pinching (or centime-pinching) student on a budget. France loves its young students and there is a real belief in the value of culture as part of your education, so France does everything it can to make museums, transportation, and even restaurants affordable and accessible to youth. This means that even if you’re on a strict budget (and hey, most students are) you'll be able to take advantage of a wide range of exciting and interesting opportunities.

Even if there is nothing posted about a student discount, don’t be afraid to ask for one -– you might be surprised at how much you can save.

You’ll be able to attend concerts and plays for free, go to museums for free, eat at restaurants at deep discounts and get cheap train tickets all because you’re a student! SNCF, for example, the major train company, has special cards for those 12-17 years old and 18-27 years old. It will allow you to get reduced fares and special deals. Carry that student ID around with you and you’ll be amazed at how many deals and discounts you can get!

Even if there is nothing posted about a student discount, don’t be afraid to ask for one -– you might be surprised at how much you can save. So don’t let budget concerns keep you inside. Be creative, do your research (personally, we love Flip Flop France's list of student discounts), and enjoy all that France has to offer its young students!

4. You Can Absorb French Culture Everywhere, Not Just the Louvre

Students in France

France is an extraordinary place and while the museums and monuments are spectacular and well worth a visit, there are plenty of ways to learn about French culture. Get out and explore the weekly market or go to the movies. Go for a walk, go to the local theatre, or just people-watch. But most of all, accept invitations. If a teacher at school invites you all to her house for dinner, by all means go. Even if they serve you cow tongue (yep, that happened), you’ll learn so much and it will be an experience you’ll remember. If there is a local event and neighbors invite you to go along, go!

It will be tempting to just hang out with your friends from home. It makes sense – you know them, you speak the same language, you’re experiencing the same new place together. But remember that making French friends can really enrich your experience and give you insight into your host culture that you might not otherwise get.

So remember, a trip to the Louvre with thirty classmates won’t teach you as much about the French as an afternoon sipping coffee with a real live French person. Be friendly and open minded and you’ll find the French to be welcoming and eager to show off the best that their country has to offer.

5. The Meaning of the Word: Profitez!

You will always remember these days, weeks, months spent in France. The newness and excitement, the relaxed drinking age, the bridges over the Seine, the ease of train travel, the croissants, the smell of freshly baked croissants, the buttery-ness of croissants… it’s all wonderful. There might be hard times as you adjust to a new culture. In fact, there will definitely be moments of frustration and confusion. Culture shock is a normal part of study abroad. But then, so is embracing and immersing yourself in your host culture!

A trip to the Louvre with thirty classmates won’t teach you as much about the French as an afternoon sipping coffee with a real live French person.

So, while studying high school abroad in France, be sure to remember that this is a special time in your life and it goes by so quickly. As the French say, “Profitez!” and take advantage of every opportunity. Enjoy each experience. Relish each croissant. But most importantly, allow your worldview to evolve and incorporate new ideas (such as this!). After all, that's the whole point of studying abroad, n'est pas?

Get Packing!

This is one of the most exciting times in your young life. Studying abroad in high school, and especially France, is an opportunity that many only dream of. Sure there are plenty of practical reasons to study in France -- it looks undeniably great on a college application -- but this experience is also the kind that will forever change you and how you look at the world. Just so long as you let it.

So take our advice. While you're there, it’ll be easy to rely on stereotypes, hang out with your friends, and think you can’t afford opportunities. But you’re an adventurer and that means that you’ll take every advantage to profitez!

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Photo Credits: Shakespeare & Company, Lost Tourist in Paris and Faces in Places Runner Up, Clarissa Bryant.