Alumni Spotlight: Andrew Richardson

Andrew is a junior International Business and French double major at the Catholic University of America. He participated in IES Study Abroad Paris, France program in the fall semester of 2017.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose the Paris BIA program because I was an international business major with a minor in French. I wanted to expand my ability to speak French and learn what it was like to live in a completely foreign environment.

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

The university assistant was pretty static in the process of study abroad application. I was given a list of things to do with due dates and was sent on my way.

It was stressful at times however, it was a small taste of what it's like to study abroad -- being responsible and being your own self. You are alone when you are abroad and it is expected of you to make the right decisions in a given situation.

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

It all depends. If you are student looking to improve his or her language speaking skills and understanding of French culture, then IES is the program for you. If you are looking to party to the break of dawn, then Barcelona or Madrid might be a better fit.

I am not saying that studying abroad in Spain is a waste of an experience, I am saying that studying abroad in France demands more of you as an individual. You need to know how to say hello and goodbye properly, how to eat foods, how to order foods, how to act on the metro, how to shake someone's hand, the list goes on and on. Although this seems like a negative perspective on what it takes to assimilate into French cultural structures, it's actually not.

Once you start to get the hang of being French, it's actually very fun. You almost feel like you're undercover. The best advice that I can give to someone studying abroad in Paris is to absorb as much as you can, stay confident when speaking or interacting with the French, and focus on how their culture is changing you as an individual.

By the end of the semester, you will see a new, more mature version of yourself. Someone capable of planning their own itinerary for a trip to Croatia or taking the metro every day to a class on the other side of the city (my commute was 45 minutes but my metro was on the 6th line right next to the Eiffel Tower -- what a sunrise view that was).

Paris will be challenging, but it will be one of the most important challenges of your life.

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

My typical day started with waking up for class and getting ready to take the metro. I lived in the 16th arrondissement of Paris by Trocadero and my classes were in the 8th arrondissement. The commute was roughly 45 minutes so I had to prepare in advance when I would leave my homestay.

My classes were not too long and I usually ate lunch next to my school during the day. Mondays through Wednesday I ate dinner with my host family. Sometimes I liked the food and other times I did not, c'est la vie. The bread and cheese was always incredible. After dinner, I would either do homework, meet with some friends to go out or hang with a few people by the Eiffel Tower.

Nightlife was a big aspect of studying abroad in Paris however, it was a nightlife that varied significantly in comparison to nightlife in Barcelona or Madrid. For instance, a typical night in Paris, with respect to the large group of friends I hung out with, started off drinking wine at the Seine, going to a bar, meeting French people, and, if your up for the challenge, going to a nightclub/bar (bit of a strange atmosphere).

Some nights you may find yourself at a wine bar drinking 4 different types of Bordeaux. Other nights you may find yourself on an art gallery tour with each gallery providing an open bar and finger foods. Every experience with nightlife in Paris is different.

For the most part, at least from what I heard, nightlife in countries like Spain is pretty streamlined. Go out, go to a club, get drunk, go home. Once again, if that is what you are looking for then, by all means, take your shot.

Beyond the work week, people usually planned trips to other countries in Europe. I did not plan ahead so I chose some random but pretty cool locations to visit. While I was in Europe, I visited Munich for Oktoberfest (insane), Croatia, Switzerland, Champagne, and Manchester where I was able to see my favorite team play, Manchester United. I did not travel every weekend. Some weekends I stayed in Paris and enjoyed the city for all that it gave to me. No week is average.

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 had no fears going into study abroad. I developed fears when I arrived at my homestay. These fears included, "how can I speak French to my host mom if she does not know French? Will I ever learn French like the other more advanced students? Will I have enough money to make it through the semester?"

My fears piled quickly. The only way I got over my fears was by facing them head-on. With French, I studied before my host family dinners to talk about my day and about things I was going to do the following weekend.

For my money, I did my best not to spend on stupid things. Money is a pretty difficult thing to overcome/prepare. Basically just do your best to budget and accept that you're going to be spending a pretty decent amount of money. I suppose the best way to overcome these fears is to take a step back and literally say, "screw it, what do I have to lose?"

So what you make a mistake speaking French. Ask your host family to correct you and move on. The more mistakes you make the better. The less mistakes you make speaking French the more likely you are to not learn the language.

You are in a completely different country with completely different people. Jump head-on into the fray and learn everything you can while you are there. For me, it felt like jumping off a cliff. But once you jump, you see things that other more timid people don't see. Always take the risk to learn something new and make a mistake. Just don't put yourself or others at risk.

What was it first like meeting/interacting with your host family?

The first true interaction that I had with my host family beyond greetings was at my first dinner. The whole family was there and they were all asking questions and speaking French. I was only a beginner in French at the time and knew almost nothing about conversation.

After we were done eating dinner I decided I was going to try to say that I was full in French. So I said, "Je suis pleine." Although I did not know, I had just told my family that I was pregnant. Their reaction was priceless and I realized, after they explained to me what I actually said, that it was going to take more than a couple of weeks to learn French.

Rather than becoming discouraged, I picked myself up and kept trying. Studying before dinner helped a lot. Eventually, I got the hang of French. Once I got the hang of it, I was able to build up my speaking capabilities to a near-fluent strength. I actually started to like speaking French more than English towards the end of the program. At this point, I realized that I needed to take my passion for French beyond a minor. So, I decided to take up a double major in French and Business.

In the near future, I will be applying to a 2-year program to teach French children English in France. No one prepared me for this type of transformation. From being afraid to speak French to majoring in French and applying for teaching jobs in France. I couldn't be happier with where my life is going. Without a semester abroad under my belt, none of this would have happened.