Alumni Spotlight: Rachel Cowan

Rachel Cowan is a UNR graduate with a dual degree in Psychology and French. After her study abroad experience in Lyon through USAC, she received her TEFL certifications and now works as an assistant teacher in France through TAPIF.

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Why did you choose this program?

There had always been buzz of a great abroad program at UNR. You would meet people who would speak of it with pride, not even having participated in the program themselves.

My older cousin had previously studied abroad with USAC in Pau, France and every time we would meet at family gatherings she would look me in the eyes and say, "Go," and I would fantasize for hours afterward.

After her time abroad, she began working for Patagonia, where she traveled to French-speaking countries on behalf of their products. The USAC program felt like an open door to the world.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

USAC assisted me with everything. They have pre-departure meetings, pamphlets, advisors, FAQs, an easy to use and thorough website, departure and packing checklists, as well as an office at my university.

My dad is very much a dad meme. He needed to know everything and be a part of everything. He asked the same question multiple times in different ways, and always with the classic finisher: "But will she be safe?" Not only did my USAC advisors answer all my emails, they answered my dad's emails and phone calls as well. They worked with us through everything.

Having worked with several different organizations and employers now as a young adult, I realize this is very much a luxury I don't always receive. Even to this day, I feel comfortable shooting my old advisors an email or a text to ask a question.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Pack light. Be okay with being a foreigner. Go to the group events. Be kind to yourself when you're afraid.

If you feel frustrated and uncomfortable in a different culture, that's a good thing. If you feel misunderstood and isolated, you are being pushed to experience a different reality, and it's a challenge not met by many.

You are going to upset your normal rhythm, and when you do that, you realize your "normal" is everything and anything you want it to be. That was a very freeing thing to realize. Things open up after that.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Students participating in this program will have a class schedule during the weekdays. Before and after class is your time; some students choose to spend that time with their host family, exploring the city or other nearby cities (alone or with a group), practicing their French, trying new cuisine, etc.

On the weekends, there are sometimes organized field trips with the USAC group. These include various activities: skiing in the Alps, wine tasting in Beaujolais, visiting the mediterranean sea in Marseille, etc. If not, it's always fun to search for cheap plane or bus tickets and book a flight to another country for a weekend, whether it be a solo trip or with other USAC students.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I was terrified to speak the language. In any given situation, I know how to convey my thoughts. Am I scared? I know how to present that. Do I want to make a joke in front of my friends? Yes, I know the perfect 90's phrase to use ironically and in what tone. Doesn't go over well? I'll steal the joke from a Netflix standup I watched earlier this month. But in French, I have no clue how to convey any of that.

My host mother forced me out of the house one day to ask if the construction worker wanted a coffee. She would say, "Go! Go practice your French!" It was painful when he asked me questions and all I could do was stare and repeat the phrase he had said over and over in my head, searching for any part of the sentence that sounded familiar.

You have to look dumb a lot. But those are the words you remember most, the ones that you fail to comprehend the first time around. I remember talking to a jazz musician in line to the bathroom on a boat in Lyon, recognizing every word she spoke, and talking fluidly in French. Those are the moments that make it all worth it -- all the embarrassment and misunderstanding. When you can finally connect with a portion of the world that was closed off to you before.

Do you have a favorite story you'd like to share?

My favorite stories are always bathroom stories. Paris makes you pay to use a public restroom, so invite your Dad and watch him dance while searching for a Euro when all he has are quarters.

I learned what the phrase "groundhogging" meant after running down the streets of London with a friend while frantically searching for a pub with a bathroom. It was a great pleasure to experience "the claw," or someone else's hand enter your stall asking, "Sorry, but... do you have any toilet paper?" in a proper English accent.

Even better fun is to eat the local cuisine, be "bloquée" for a week, and to clog your boyfriend's parent's bathroom when meeting them for the first time. I'm pretty sure she asked "what died in there?" afterward, but I didn't catch all the words, they were in French.