University of Paris 7-Denis Diderot
"Too beautiful to seem real"that was Saara's first impression of Smith College. But once she arrived on campus, she wasn't so certain. Saara was a bit hesitant about attending a women's college at first, but now that she's had the experience, she can say that it's not as bad as she thought. "What's really hard for me is something else," Saara says.
Saara attends the University of Paris 7-Denis Diderot in the heart of Francea cultural and social epicenter. So while many of us who come from rural areas think the traffic on Main Street is bad and the coffee downtown is good, Saara isn't exactly on the same page. "Even the hot chocolate isn't hot chocolate," she says. Saara craves a city that movesNew York and Boston are more her speed. But without Smith's AMS Diploma Program, she says, it would never have been possible for her to spend a whole year in the States. Saara is very grateful for the opportunity that Smith has given her. Nevertheless, she says adjusting has been "very, very hard" for her, but worthwhile. Saara is working on her master's thesis in anthropology with a concentration in intercultural relations; she knows all about culture clashes and how to handle them, and is beginning to welcome the social differences that a small American town has to offer.
Academically Saara much prefers Smith's approach to her experience in Paris. "In France," she says, "professors are professors and students are students." According to Saara, classrooms in France have a much stricter demeanor, and professors are far less approachable. She likes the fact that professors here make themselves available to students and the ease that comes with discussing things one-on-one with an instructor at Smith. What also surprised her about Smith's curriculum was the limit on the number of courses taken per semester. It frustrates her to browse the course catalog, and find that there are so many courses she would love to take, if only she had more time to take thema problem that keeps many Smith students up at night.
The troubling part of studying abroad, however, is learning not only to communicate effectively, but also to read textbooks, and follow discussions, and parse concentrated literary articles all in a foreign language. Saara was raised in Paris by Tunisian parents, who spoke both French and Arabic. She is fluent in both languages, and from what I can tell, very strong in English as well. But she says learning and reading dense literature in English is a different story. So, studying in a non-native language isn't easy, but Saara embraces the challenge. It's a lot of work, but she understands the value in broadening her intercultural experiences, and is eager to meet new people and learn new things. "We learn by experiencing new cultures and by mixing," she says. And while mixing is what Saara has come here to do, at times she feels as though she fits right in. American culture is so infused into many parts of the world that Saara feels as though she's "always been looking at it" when she walks through New York City, taking in the music and the art. She saw it in the movies, in magazines and on TV all throughout her childhood. She has a hard time deciding whether or not she likes the culture here, because she feels like she's grown up in it herself. On the other hand, the differences are unmistakable. "Americans are really individuals," she says. So while our pop culture may be all pervading, our own individualism isn't something that is immediately obvious to people from other parts of the world.
Another part of American culture that took her by surprise is our lack of discretion in communicating with new people. Here in America, we take our freedom of speech seriouslywe will share anything, with anyone, at anytime, but to Saara, that level of privacy isn't something you share on the 'first date.' People in France are much more exclusive about sharing personal matters. "Here I've heard some life stories when I just met the people ten minutes ago!" Saara adds with laugh, "but it's cool because I can learn from it." And that's really what the idea of cultural mixing is about: learning about diverse lifestyles and social norms that are anything but 'normal.'
By Chelsea Villareal '14, Global STRIDE Fellow
As part of the Global STRIDE fellowship, the fellows interviewed and profiled international students in the college's graduate program in American Studies, to help familiarize them with people who have made cultural transitions.