My name is Shelby Leenhouts and I’m a senior majoring in marketing at Texas A&M University. This semester, I have the amazing opportunity to do my studies in Strasbourg, France at EM Strasbourg. I have been in Strasbourg for just under two weeks now and I’d like to share my initial impressions of the city and the university as well as the cultural differences that I’ve noticed so far.
Arriving in Strasbourg, you immediately feel as if you are in a fairytale. The architecture here is straight out of a storybook, with a charming European vibe that is so very beautiful. The buildings have a very noticeable German influence, which makes sense as Strasbourg is right near France’s border with Germany. In fact, you can take the tram right across the border. Or you can use the famous pedestrian bridge to cross the Rhine River. The city’s streets are paved with cobblestones, and there are plazas around town where you can see different markets and local shops selling cheese, wine, and bread. I’m still in awe that I get to be here for a full semester and call this city my home.
At the heart of the city is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg and it is one of the most impressive and picturesque buildings I have ever seen. The cathedral has been a meeting place for several events so far, so I’ve had the opportunity to see it up close and from the inside. The cathedral’s gothic architecture really gives you really a glimpse into the history of this city. One of the first things I did after arriving here was a boat tour along Strasbourg’s canals, giving me a unique perspective of the city and an overview of its culture. EM Strasbourg has done an amazing job at welcoming the exchange students. They have put on a full week of orientation meetings and fun activities that have not only helped me meet people from all over the world, but also get to know the city better. From the welcome ceremony at the European Parliament, to a city-wide scavenger hunt, and even a cheese tasting at the school, I have felt not just welcome but fully embraced by EM Strasbourg. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the semester holds!
During my time here so far, I have noticed differences between French culture and what I’m used to in the United States. For example, most restaurants charge for water, which is not something I am used to. Also, many restaurants here include the tip in the price. I have been pleased to find that many of the restaurants here have vegetarian-friendly options, which I don’t see as much in College Station. Another big difference I’ve found is that air conditioning is pretty rare here. While it isn’t as hot as Texas right now, the weather here in late August/early September is warm (80-90° Fahrenheit during the day), and can be overwhelming with the lack of widespread AC. I was surprised to find that most stores and restaurants are closed on Sundays here. This is important to note if you are planning to visit, because it is a good idea to have some food options stored up for Sundays. As for transportation, the primary ways of getting around are the tram system, buses, walking, and biking. I was intimidated when I heard that I would probably be taking the tram to and from school every day, however, it has been a pleasant surprise that they have such a great network of trams. The trams are clean, above ground, and I feel very safe on them. It might be obvious, but everyone here speaks to you in French. While I had several years of French in high school, I am now realizing how beneficial it would have been to review more in depth before arriving. My initial apartment tour was conducted exclusively in French, which was a challenge, but it just goes to show how immersed I will be in the language. I am genuinely looking forward to improving my French over the next 4 months.
Fashion-wise, people dress quite different here as well. At Texas A&M, it is common to wear athleisure clothes to school and around College Station. That is not the case in Strasbourg. Here, many people are dressed nicely, often wearing dresses, jeans, or trousers instead of shorts and leggings. Lastly, EM Strasbourg is also quite different than Texas A&M. Class schedules vary, with classes at different times and locations each week. While my classes haven’t yet begun, I am interested to see if I will like the variety in the schedule. The classes here typically meet once a week with 3-4 hours sessions. Attendance and participation are highly prioritized, and the grading scheme is completely different than what I am used to at Texas A&M. I am excited for my classes to start and I’m sure I’ll find even more differences between EM Strasbourg and Texas A&M.
In conclusion, my journey in Strasbourg has just begun. I am eagerly looking forward to this exciting chapter of my life and I know this experience will help me grow so much.
What a semester it has been! Over the past five months, I have visited thirty-two cities in thirteen countries; filled a scrapbook and a half with anecdotes, papers, and postcards; made countless memories with friends from all over the world; had innumerable blunders and mistakes that made me stronger and maybe even a little wise; and, most significantly, had the time of my life. I mentioned this in my other post, but this was an unbelievable opportunity that changed my life, and I feel so, so indescribably blessed and grateful for this chance to see and learn about the world around me.
The significant takeaway from this experience was the sheer extent to I grew and learned. I grew so much! I made so many mistakes—countless missed trains, embarrassing situations, encounters where I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do. Flights or trains were sometimes even cancelled! I once got heckled by a group of French teenagers for my cheese of choice! But the world didn’t end and now I’m better equipped for future experiences! By facing them head on, I am more equipped for the wilder aspects of adulthood that aren’t included in any guidebook. The sheer life experience was invaluable, and the resilience I had to develop is something I’ll carry with me all my adult life.
Furthermore, going abroad means I know I can live in a new city all on my own. I know I can manage my money to have incredible life experiences, I know I can thrive even in deeply new and scary environments. I can do anything now! My confidence has increased tenfold!
By seeing so much of the world, it is also much smaller and more human than it was before I left. I now have trip planning in the bag, but more importantly, I know myself better. In having so many experiences, I’ve refined what I value and prioritize when exploring the world around me. I knew I liked art and history museums, but I didn’t know how much I loved hiking until I visited the rolling valleys outside Dublin. Having the chance to dive head-first into the activities, natural beauty, and cities that this big, vibrant world has to offer was life-changing. Going abroad has provided me with a global, well-traveled perspective that amplified my empathy, fearlessness, and confidence.
Now, with all the places I’ve visited and loved, Strasbourg was still the main one I would live in again, if given the chance. Why do I love Strasbourg specifically? Man. Let me count the ways…
When asked about my favorite part of living in Strasbourg, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is its size and public transport. The first bullet point in my outline for this post, even, read “TRAM!!!! TRAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!” Living in a centralized, population-dense environment completely transformed my view of what is possible with urban infrastructure, and the ways people can live. I didn’t drive once in those five months. The closest grocery store was but a seven-minute walk from my dorm’s door. The tram took me to the train station, or into town, or to my friends’ apartments; the bus took me directly to class, cutting my commute time in half and improving my chronic tardiness drastically. Also, the tram was gorgeous. It was so beautiful. The windows were huge, it was above ground, and each car was so sleek and pristine. I’ve visited DC metros, NYC subways, Chicago’s delightful elevated rail, London’s massive tube system—Strasbourg takes the cake in terms of my favorite tram systems. Amsterdam was a close second.
Even without the tram and bus, town and class were all still walkable. When the weather was sunny or gorgeous, I spent so much time outside! Walking to events or appointments with friends, updating my scrapbook on a bench on the university campus, anything! And my window was always, always open. My phone tracked my exercise trends, and this whole summer I’ve gotten notifications about “We’ve noticed changes in your walking/staircases/distance trends.” Ouch! Where I once averaged 8-15,000 steps a day, moving back to a car-centric infrastructure in a blisteringly-hot state easily more than halved that.
Exploring the walkability, ease of exercise, and accessible public transport of Strasbourg completely changed my life for the better. Now, I’m considering walkable US cities to live in after graduation, and I owe this exciting new challenge to living in Strasbourg for a spring!
Strasbourg was an ideal city to live in not just for its public transport, which can be found in any number of European and even American cities, but its unique beauty and characteristics. Architecturally, Strasbourg brilliantly marries a rich history of French and German influence with all the modern conveniences of shopping malls, adorable coffee shops, and top-notch public transport. (Have I mentioned the public transport? Not sure if I mentioned the public transport. Really, it was wonderful.) Strasbourg is small enough to be quiet and peaceful, to have centuries of history all around you, and it’s big enough for liveliness, a state-of-the-art tram system, and for the accounting firm I worked at this summer to have an office. It was perfect for me. The opera and theatre show touring performances, and the smattering of museums are free for students. At a short train ride from Paris, the world’s cultural capitol is right at your fingertips, and being right on the French-German border, many major German destinations are at your door.
Strasbourg is a fifty-minute train and two-hour bus ride to Basel, Switzerland, which has a tri-country airport near France, Germany, and Switzerland that cheaply takes travelers to many, many European destinations. Strasbourg’s location and size could not have been more perfect for my specific needs as a student who wanted to make the most of their time abroad. Strasbourg is also a real university city, so student life is active and fun. That said, one of the characteristics of Strasbourg that I loved the most was its diversity of population. Little kids, elderly women going for groceries, students like us, families, young working people, all took the tram together, or soaked up the April sun in the center of town together. It was a city where everyone could find their place and cohabitate in peace and harmony.
Before I left and in my previous blog post, I was apprehensive about the weather. And it was indeed a uniquely cold winter—December temperatures dropped to the teens in Fahrenheit, and the sunny Spring days where flowers bloomed and made the whole city glow didn’t visit me until late April. I was still wearing a light jacket walking along the early May mornings. So, my apprehensions were correct; the weather was very different from TAMU. But it was all completely manageable. In my mind, I was expecting a winter of midwestern proportions—biting, miserable wind, snow collecting on your eyelashes, slipping on the ice. There was nothing of the sort. It was very similar to the two weeks of winter College Station experiences, just for five months out of the year instead: grey days wrapped up in a jacket, sweater, and boots, but no precipitation. In fact, the parts of France I visited and lived in didn’t experience a real Texas rainstorm till the day I boarded the flight to leave; snow wasn’t a real concern.
I was also nervous about socializing, but I met so many wonderful people. I now have friends—or, at the very least, fondly-remembered acquaintances—from Portugal, Turkey, Spain, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, California, Indiana—so many! The wonderful memories of all the people I met and built community with are indescribable. Plus, the meals and laughter and class lectures I’ve shared with the four other Aggies have dashed that fear. I am so grateful I got to know these friends and share five months alongside them; I could not have asked for a better group of people with whom to embark on this scary journey together.
I already cannot wait to visit Strasbourg again, and will cherish these months as fond, treasured memories. I could not more strongly recommend embarking on a semester exchange. If you are on the fence, consider what apprehensions you hold, and what the worst thing that could possibly happen would be. This approach helped me take the plunge and dive feet-first into what will surely be a highlight of my time in college.
Strasbourg, for those unaware just like I was, is a city in the Bas-Rhin sector of France located right along France’s eastern border with Germany. Looking at the pictures from previous students with CIBS, it is evident how gee-yorgeous Strasbourg’s city streets are. The Germanic, wooden houses lining cobbled streets is just as breathtaking in person as it is in pictures. The towering cathedral is simply stunning, and so, so much bigger in person. For four euros, you can climb winding, centuries-old stairs up to the top and look over the whole city!
I flew out December 31st for a January 9th semester start date; for my first week, I got familiar with the city. I got lunch from the local kebab shop and dangled my feet over the river as I let the sun warm my cheeks. I made unwise purchases from the trendy secondhand store (90 euros for a faux leather jacket…do not do this, friends). It was a perfect way to start my time in Strasbourg.
I admire France’s approach to groceries and food. I loveeee that baguettes are 65 cents, and everywhere, and delicious. Fluffy on the inside and crunchy and crackly on the outside…they are just like that scene in Ratatouille: “How do you tell how good bread is without tasting it? Not the smell, not the looks, but the sound of the crust.” Indeed!
Furthermore, life passes at a slower pace in France. The days stretch out, long and savored. I take my time choosing apples for breakfast. I am very silent; having little to no French language training, I master bonjour, s’il vous plait, and merci beaucoup quickly. I am very intentional at either using French or saying nothing at all—I do not want to be an entitled American asking locals to bend to my will and language when I’m the one visiting their home. However, this would be better if I had any French training. So I spend a lot of time silent, haha. This silence, so far, has been received without issue. It appears strangers are more reserved with one another than in the States, where I more readily spark conversation with passersby. Aside from other students or youths in my age group, with whom it is okay to be more casual, I wouldn’t say I feel comfortable complimenting the shopkeeper’s shoes, for example. Additionally, politeness and respect are heavily emphasized in French culture. I thought my manners were polished enough being from the South, but it is imperative, I am discovering, to use madam, monsieur, s’il vous plait, merci beaucoup, and bonjour with every interaction.
EM Strasbourg—short for Ecole de Management—is but one building! The nearby Universite de Strasbourg has a small campus with perhaps a dozen buildings, but this is not the case for the business school. It is an airy, breezy building with four stories, I believe—one ground floor, then three higher floors. (Oh, that’s another thing I’m getting used to—the ground floor is usually referred to as 0 instead of 1, with 1 being the first floor up instead of being the first floor of the building.) My professors are amicable and accented, but I’m just grateful for the English instruction. They are all very good at what they do. Sections are small; it feels much like high school, or how things are at my brother’s liberal arts college. I am taking the equivalents of FINC 341 and SCMT 364, here, as well as the very beginners’ French course and a class on the economy of the European Union—a field I am wholly unfamiliar with, so I am very excited to learn more. I can’t tell, but I think my professor for that class works or worked as a lawyer for the European Union? That is amazing! Makes one wonder what he’s doing teaching a bunch of undergrads.
Strasbourg is much bigger and livelier than I expected. I was expecting a very quiet, maybe provincial place, and was almost concerned about not having enough to do. But within my first two weeks, I’ve already visited a lively independent comics store, multiple secondhand shops, and attended a Pub Crawl hosted by my university’s International Students organization. I’ve hung out with the four other Aggies here with me—I sense that the five of us will become close :). Furthermore, I’ve come to realize that Strasbourg is the perfect size, actually! Small enough that getting anywhere is easy as pie and the streets are so peaceful at night, but big enough to have its own transport system and active nightlife. I love it here already. I feel so blessed to spend the next five months here!
Some considerations are still being made, however. Strasbourg is certainly different from College Station. First, I’m unsure about the cold. Living in Texas all my life has not prepared me well for suns that set at 4 pm—er, 16:00, most places use 24-hour time, here—and temperatures in the thirties—gah, sorry, 0-4 degrees. I really emphasized cold-weather clothes when I packed, so have wool sweaters, thermal undershirts and leggings, and cozy, durable socks for every day, plus a scarf, gloves, and huge Costco puffer jacket that my Canadian auntie also uses, but what if it’s not enough! Will keep everyone updated.
I’m also a little concerned about making friends. I’ve discovered that it takes me, like, three actual months before I feel comfortable with a group. I’m comfortable traveling solo, but it would be nice to have people to share destinations and memories with.
Finally, I’m not looking forward to the three-hour lectures! Whew! Sometimes I’m struggling in the seventy-five-minute sections here at Aggieland! Three hours? Three hours! Three! Three of them! Boy! I only have one class a day here, which is thrilling—on Wednesdays I don’t have class at all! Incredible!—but those classes are three hours long! Whew. Whew. Will keep you updated on this as well.
Staying in Strasbourg for an entire month through has probably been the healthiest thing I’ve done for myself since arriving.
My view from the tram stop on the way to class at EM!
What I mean is, I’ve learned more about myself and this city in this one month than I have in the few weeks I’ve had here in September and October between traveling to other cities/countries.
While I’m in love with traveling and exploring every new place I have the opportunity to discover, it’s almost been restorative to stay in one place and truly make it your home. I know in my last blog I said I was homesick for most of October, and now since the start of November, I’ve come to feel as though I truly belong here in every respect. Whether it be with friends, school, or just making my way around Strasbourg, I genuinely feel at home.
With that said, November has definitely been busy: all of my classes have culminated with presentations and reports due one right after the other, some of my classes have ended completely (yay!!), I went to see Flume in concert with practically EVERYONE in Erasmus, I had 1000 questions thrown at me about my thoughts on the election results, we put together and celebrated our own Thanksgiving, the Christmas Markets have officially opened!!, I had an awful fever in the midst of my busiest week, my friend group has changed a bit, I’ve gone out almost every weekend to keep having as much fun possible with the little time I have left, and like I mentioned earlier, I’ve learned more about myself than ever before.
Us girls before Flume!!
To talk about a few things specifically, let’s start with the election. Being American, obviously, my opinion was sought after by literalllllyyyy everyone. From professors to other European students, from the days leading up to the election to the moment I walked into class the day after the election results, I was met with the same concerned looks full of worry and pity. Like I mentioned in my last blog, Europeans are not very fond of Donald Trump. At all. So when they asked who I voted for and found out that I did not vote for him, they were more than relieved. So, in the days before the election, mostly everyone here was convinced that the majority of Americans would vote for Hillary Clinton. … How confident they were in their assumptions. Well, like we all know, things didn’t turn out the way I and most Europeans hoped they would and once I walked into my Experiential Marketing class after the elections results came out, all I heard all day was, “Carmen. I am so sorry. How could this happen?” Or other comments along those lines. Now, truthfully, I was disappointed and genuinely sad for my country and friends back home, so I was pretty down for most of that morning. “God Bless the USA” was on repeat for me all day, in fact. Because although I was disheartened by the results of the election, I still have faith in my country and the love that we have for it. I still have hope that things will be okay. Time will only tell, I guess.
On another note, now that most of my classes are over, I’ve comprised a list of tips to keep in mind for anyone who reads this and is interested in or preparing to study abroad:
1. Know how to manage your free time wisely. After speaking with friends who have studied abroad before, I came to France knowing that the courses offered to exchange students are much easier compared to what I’m used to at Texas A&M. And since classes are only for a few hours once a week with the entire course being graded on a few assignments or one exam and/or presentation, the weeks fly by in the blink of an eye, especially with all of the extra time you spend not studying every minute of every day for multiple rounds of tests, quizzes, essays, etc. So the general concept of this tip is pretty self explanatory. Fill your time enriching your life with friends, new experiences, getting to know the city you’re in, and a bit of Netflix from time to time if you’re feeling up to it. 😉 Which leads me to…
2. Do as much as you can!! Do something new and crazy. Go explore and discover. Try new foods. Listen to other points of view and learn about everything possible! Dance and sing your heart out in the middle of a busy street. Go paragliding. Learn a new language. Travel anywhere and everywhere. Don’t just say or plan, DO. Which also brings us to…
3. If you have the monetary means and time, travel as much as you can (but don’t forget to explore your own city/region/country!) Self explanatory.
4. Meet people from EVERYWHERE! My closest friends are Scottish, Czech, British, French Canadian, German, Brazilian, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Italian, Danish, and American. And you know, Americans are cool and all, but you’re here to make friends from all over the world and be exposed to their unique cultures, customs, and languages – take advantage, expand your horizons!!
5. Everything is temporary. Now this one may sound like a downer, but it’s really not. Yes, your time abroad is limited, but keeping that in mind will only make you appreciate it that much more. Your time is precious with the incredible people you meet, so it’s important to make your time worthwhile with them. Get to know these people, get to know your city and truly make it yours, get to know what it feels like to change, get to know yourself, get to know what it’s like be okay with going out of your comfort zone. Just get to know everything and everyone you possibly can because this opportunity is worth every second you have abroad. This being said, also remember that the bad stuff is temporary too. While it’s important to work out grades, classes, issues back home, etc., dwelling on worry and fear is too time consuming to focus on. These things are temporary and will all turn out fine in the end, so spend your time doing things you love with the people you love and let go of that which is out of your control, holding you back, or distracting you from making the most of your time abroad.
Personally, in the face of confusion and conflict, especially in regards to friendships and working in group projects/presentations, I’ve noticed that I’m more resilient than ever before. Thinking back, in previous situations, I would have obsessed over “what I could’ve possibly done wrong” and “how do I fix this?” and “how do I make these people happy?” But being in Strasbourg and going through all of this, I’ve learned how to let things go. I’ve realized that the only person responsible for my happiness is me. And with this knowledge I’ve come to discover the most impactful things I’ve learned/gained from this experience:
A Sustainable Mindset
France’s measures to promote sustainability and a cleaner environment are remarkable. Now that I’ve become accustomed to taking reusable bags with me to the supermarket and recycling on a daily basis, it’s hard to imagine that I could ever go back to such a lax outlook on waste management and eco-friendliness. This is definitely something I intend to bring back with me to the states and hope to instill in my everyday life.
I knew from the beginning that being so far away from home for the first time with essentially zero travel experience, this exchange would be the biggest challenge of my life. The unknown scared me, my lack of “worldly knowledge” scared me, not having familiar faces with me in a foreign place for 4 months scared me, failure scared me. But despite all of that, I knew that if I could overcome this, I could overcome anything. And I am immensely proud to say that I have.
I only have 2 weeks left in Strasbourg (3 weeks left in Europe) and now I am dreading leaving the unpredictable, exciting, new life I’ve found and the people that have come with it. I have conquered some of the biggest fears I’ve ever had here, so now, I feel secure in myself and ready to take on my next big challenge.
I’ve lost friends and gained them. I’ve stumbled my way through a French conversation. I’ve figured out public transportation in multiple European cities. I’ve learned how to budget and save money in a responsible way. I’ve taken an 11 hour bus to and from Vienna on my own. I’ve given more presentations in one semester than I have in my entire college career. I’ve found my voice again just by singing “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz at a karaoke bar in front of a bunch of people I had never met before in my life.
If there’s anything that I’ve gained from being here, it’s definitely the confidence in myself to face whatever life throws at me. Even if I fail miserably, embarrass myself horribly, or fall completely flat on my face, I still manage to pick myself back up and find a way to succeed. This kind of confidence has taken me years to develop, and although I’m still nurturing it and learning from my mistakes, I am now more than sure that I am capable of confronting anything that comes my way.
With everything that has not gone “according to plan” or “the way I wanted it to”, I’ve never had so much patience for the world and people around me. Of course, this is easier said than done, but I genuinely feel as though I am able to adjust to unfamiliar situations and perspectives much more easily than I have in the past. I am more understanding and empathetic. I am more capable of keeping a level head in frustrating circumstances. I have the power now to maintain my faith in the fact that what’s meant to happen will happen, and what is meant for me will eventually come and guide me in the right direction.
Long story short, the time I’ve spent in Strasbourg, France has been eye-opening and just being here has been one of the most courageous things I’ve ever done. And I regret nothing. 🙂
November was my last full month here. It’s sincerely starting to feel and look like Christmas since it’s gotten so cold (lows in the mid to high 20s, highs in the 30s) and the Christmas markets have drawn thousands of tourists and visitors every week. I have 2 weeks left in Strasbourg (I leave Wednesday December 14th to travel around the UK for a week) and I have every intention to do everything I still haven’t done here and spend each day appreciating my time with my incredible friends.
Tree lighting ceremony to officially start the Marche de Noel de Strasbourg (aka Christmas Market)!
I’m thrilled to see what these last few weeks in Strasbourg have in store for us!!
– Carmen Pilarte
For any questions about my time abroad, Strasbourg, or studying abroad in general:
Bonjour from Strasbourg, France! My name is Carmen Pilarte, I am a little over a month in my exchange in Strasbourg at EM Strasbourg Business School, and I am at a loss for words to try and describe how much of an exciting adventure it has been living here… but I’ll give it a shot.
So, a little bit of background information: I am a Marketing student at Mays Business School at Texas A&M and the only person from A&M studying here in Strasbourg, I’m in my last year of college (A-WHOOP), and I chose Strasbourg mainly because I’ve always dreamed of learning the French language, its central location within Europe makes for easy travel, and EM was one of few schools in France that offered enough Marketing classes to transfer back to A&M. I never knew that these 3 reasons would lead me to the most challenging, yet rewarding month of my life so far.
When I first arrived, I was lucky enough to have my parents by my side as they wanted to make sure I got settled in and could adapt to my new life relatively easily since they knew that this would be my first time traveling/living alone in a new continent, let alone a new city (but I also think they might have used my exchange as an excuse for all of us to have a week-long vacation in London the week before 😉 ). We strolled around the city, got our first feel for the transportation system, and observed the French lifestyle together in those few days we were all here. And while I was at my orientation week at EM, they helped set my dorm up, told me where the best places to grocery shop were, and left me with the confidence that I was prepared to take on this challenge of living 5,625 miles away from them for the first time. Like I said, I was fortunate to have them with me those first couple of days, since this is not the case with a lot of other exchange students. And although they’ve adjusted and figured things out just fine, even some of my friends were jealous of the helpful knowledge and hands that come with experienced, loving parents. (THANK YOU MAMI + DADDY!)
So! Strasbourg is even more beautiful than I imagined and it looks just like the pictures, plus so much more! The city of Strasbourg is quite large, yet has the atmosphere of a small town/village (kind of like College Station!). It’s French, yet being right on the border of Germany, it has a lot of German influence to its architecture as well. There are tons of lovely little shops and cafes as far as the eye can see, bars and pubs to keep up with its lively student population (making for quite an impressive nightlife), parks and outdoor areas where lots of people visit all the time, and it is home to the European Parliament while also being the capital of the Alsace region of France. It’s biggest tourist attraction is its very own Notre-Dame Cathedral (which, to my amazement last night watching Netflix, makes a cameo in the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows!!) and is surrounded by people almost 24/7, especially on Sundays, in awe of its Gothic beauty. There are still many places I have yet to discover, both in and out of the central part of the city, but I’m sure my friends and I will continue to learn more and more about every corner of our city as time goes on.
Speaking of my friends! EM Strasbourg has been extremely supportive in connecting all of us exchange students together since the summer. On top of that, my friend Marie started our main Facebook group, all of us were invited to the school’s exchange student Facebook group, and we all also started our very own What’s App group to talk more frequently. Through this What’s App group, I went out my first night in Strasbourg and as luck would have it, I met my wonderful group of friends right then and there! We all just clicked on the spot and kept wanting to find out more and more about each other to the point where I have been with them almost every day/night since we’ve met! It’s crazy now to think that I ever went a day without knowing them!! They’ve become my best friends, French teachers, and travel companions, and I can already tell our friendships will thrive even when we’re back in our respective countries, pursuing our own individual paths, years after our exchanges are finished. 🙂
Me and my friends having lunch in Strasbourg!
Some of my friends are in my classes and know what I go through on a daily basis with each class, but ALL of us exchange students (even some of the French students we’ve talked to!) know the challenges this school system has generously welcomed us with from the first day of orientation. Although I had read many blogs and had heard about the noticeable differences between our school system and EM’s, I still wasn’t completely prepared for just how different the French seem to organize administrative tasks. But first, it’s best to know some general points about the French lifestyle, some of which can shed some light on why dealing with the administration was so challenging:
The French are very laid back and never seem to be in a rush, they take their time and “do things when they do them”, “get to places when they get there.”
Restaurant business hours, for example, are extremely varied. Some places, depending on their products, may open at 7 am, 11 am (whenever they feel like it really), stay open through lunch which usually ends at 2pm, and then close until dinner which is usually around 6:30 pm until 10:30-11 pm in some cases.
Most, NOT ALL like I was previously led to believe, shops, convenience/grocery stores, and restaurants are closed on Sundays.
Transportation workers go on strike randomly and without notice, so entire trams or bus routes may not run all day and people don’t realize this until they’re already late for work/school.
So to sum up, the French are not the most organized/efficient people. And this is reflected in how paperwork, appointments, class schedules, etc. are handled. Our class schedules, for example, were not solidified until after the first week of classes had already begun. Course registration itself was frustrating because you have to make sure that 1) 2 or more classes don’t clash, 2) you have the correct number of credits to transfer back to your university, 3) there is enough room in the classes you want to be able to get into it, 4) the class you want doesn’t get cancelled right before you try to register for it (it happened to me!!). Then, once registration time came for all of us exchange students, the server/website crashed and it was delayed for another 1-2 hours, with some lucky students actually getting through to the website after refreshing a million times and others having no luck at all until the server was fixed. During orientation week, we were all offered a “Culture Card” which gives us discounts to museums, plays, movies, shows, etc. but when my friends and I tried to get them, there was confusion between departments with no one knowing who was actually handling what. That in particular is also very common here, people who don’t know within their own departments/workplaces who takes care of what and where. We would go up to one desk, ask them where to go/what to do, and they would tell us to go to so-and-so place but when we got there those people would tell us to go back to where we started or somewhere completely different!
Orientation/Registration week was very frustrating.
BUT, everyone I had spoken to said that this is the one and only frustrating thing about studying in Strasbourg. And rest assured, after all of that waiting, confusion, and frustration, like many people had told me before and like I told my friends afterward, “EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY AND EVERYTHING WILL TURN OUT FINE.” And it did, everyone eventually got into all of their classes and got every issue sorted out…. eventually. 🙂
Roadtrip on the Wine Route of Alsace!
My courses themselves are wildly different from those at A&M. Instead of going to each class 2-3 times a week every week for about 1 hour – 1 hour 15 minutes, I go to each one once a week for 3-4 hours MAYBE every week, maybe every other week, depending on what the professor decides. Each class also has a 15 minute “coffee break” where everyone goes to the bathroom, takes a walk around the building, and/or buys a quick, small cup of coffee. Instead of going to the same classroom for each class, professors have to reserve classrooms wherever they can and most of the time, I go to a different classroom each time I attend a session of that class. Classroom assignments can also change within 24 hours of the class session so you always have to refresh your email and sometimes adjust accordingly. Instead of beginning and ending each course at the beginning and end of the scheduled semester dates, some classes I’ve started 2 weeks after the semester had already started for everyone else (with one class that won’t start for me until Oct. 19th) and some classes will end weeks before the scheduled final exams week/end of semester. Instead of having 3-4 rounds of exams throughout the semester, a lot of my classes are mainly based on continuous individual and/or group work (with a lot of case studies!) with maybe one final exam and/or group presentation at the end of the semester. And instead of mostly sitting in lecture and taking notes, all of my classes are based on participation, discussions, and expressing our own opinions about the material. But the BIGGEST difference for me was the fact that it is totally normal and acceptable to talk about partying/drinking between the administration/faculty and the students! I’m guessing this is because the drinking age is 18 throughout most of Europe, but the fact that it almost seems encouraged by the administration/professors as a way for students to get involved and socialize with other students is BEYOND what I’m used to as an American student. I remember during orientation week, the student organization that helps integrate the French students and the exchange students gave a presentation and talked specifically about their parties, in front of the faculty, and they were totally okay with it!!! There’s even a bar IN THE SCHOOL that opens up in the evening for students to enjoy, and all of my European friends say that this is quite common at almost every university throughout Europe. I. WAS. STUNNED. This is so backwards to me because many universities throughout the U.S. only ever mention alcohol and partying in legal terms, when it comes to accident/binge prevention and awareness, or if they’re speaking about or to students who are over 21.
What a difference, man. What a difference both in and out of the classroom.
My dad recently asked me if these differences in the classroom made me like A&M or EM better, and it is hard to say. Although it feels like the course load is easier here, not having to study all the time for quizzes and tests, it still is challenging having to really know the material enough to discuss it in front of the class and to have a lot of groups to meet up with throughout the semester for various projects. This may intimidate a lot of people who are used to just getting by in a course by studying and “getting a good grade”, but it’s also satisfying and a relief to know that I have time to get things done since each class only meets once a week and that I’m challenging myself by adjusting to different learning environments and having more to say in an intellectual setting. I can’t even tell you how many times I was left dumbfounded by how much all of the other exchange students know about different topics and current events (especially in the U.S.!!) that I had NO idea about. These students have given me the motivation to know more about everything, to really pay attention in class, to truly appreciate my education, and to gain more knowledge about what’s going on in the world, especially in my own country.
Throughout all of these adventures and challenges, there’s still one thing that comes to mind when talking about studying abroad in general that my friend Ashley Crozier had mentioned in her blog this time last year: studying abroad comes with its ups and downs. It may seem as though from pictures and videos that everything is wonderful 100% of the time, but in reality, just like anywhere you live at any point in your life, there will be times where you may feel scared, lonely, bored, or upset. But the important thing to remember is that it’s okay to feel this way. There will be drama in your friend group, there will be disagreements, things may not always go “according to plan”, there will be times you don’t want to or are not able to travel, and there will be times where you just want to stay in bed and watch Netflix all day. And that is all okay. I know my biggest thing coming here was to “make sure I made the most of it always and said yes to everything and made sure I lived it up 24/7!!!” However, even just a month in, that hasn’t always been the case and to be completely honest, I’ve felt guilty about it. I’ve felt guilty about not making every second the most amazing second it could be because I’m in FRANCE and how dare I not make every second a whirlwind adventure??????? What I’ve come to realize is that it’s impossible. And that’s just the way life is. Don’t get me wrong, every day that I’m here I think of how grateful I am for this UNBELIEVABLE opportunity to experience the world and learn from it. But life throws itself at you in every direction and you have to deal with it, through all of the good and the bad. I think this is what a lot of people may forget to realize when all they see are all the pictures/videos of happy people in wondrous places, so this is just an important reminder that if you plan to study abroad, it’s okay to have your good days and your bad, and it’s okay to make every day count, the way YOU want to make it count in that moment, not the way you think is expected of you.
I am learning and growing, I am gaining perspective in a world outside of College Station, TX, and I could not be more thankful. Not a lot of people get the opportunity, so if you’re reading this and have given studying abroad some thought, DO IT. Make it happen, however you can. Even if there are obstacles, even if you have your doubts, I PROMISE that this experience, whatever the length of the trip, is more worth it than I can possibly put into words. You just have to experience it to find out for sure. Take it from me and all of those who came before me who have studied abroad. I mean I’ve only been here for a little over a month, but just know that this has already been more than a dream come true.
September was spectacular in Strasbourg and left in the blink of an eye. And these next 3 months are going to fly by I’m sure, but I AM THRILLED TO SEE WHAT’S TO COME, and if you’re interested enough, I HOPE YOU ARE TOO! Oh, and if you have any questions about my experience or studying abroad in general, PLEASE do not hesitate to contact me via email (email@example.com) or adding me as a friend on Facebook (Carmen Carolina Pilarte)!
Until next time! Au revoir!
– Carmen Pilarte
Me PARAGLIDING in Interlaken, Switzerland 🙂
P.S. I love lists, so here’s a quick list of things that I miss in the States:
Well as I said on my last blog post I would talk about the closing out of a semester abroad in Strasbourg France and also touch on the return to the United States.
April was a weird month because for the first two weeks I only had class once a week. Most of my classes ended the last week of March actually. So for Easter weekend a group of us traveled to the south of France to Nice and Monaco. It was absolutely beautiful and I highly suggest visiting here when it is warm! After finishing my last real classes we had one week off for spring break before our “Finals Week” began. For Spring Break I took a solo trip to Cork and Dublin Ireland. As scary and intimidating as that may sound, Cork was probably one of my most favorite visited places all semester. It was absolutely beautiful and I really enjoyed my time alone to explore and reflect on the semester I have had.
Returning from Spring Break I began to study for the two finals I had left later that week. In total I had 5 finals I believe. But my 3 business finals were honestly quite easy, two of them being 10 multiple choice questions and a short answer. My 2 french language finals were the hardest, but even then definitely manageable. Once finals were completed I had about a week left before leaving to return to Texas so a lot of exploring was done. It is crazy how I lived in Strasbourg for four months yet there were still so many places I had not visited or seen. I strongly suggest taking the time to become an expert in your own hometown and focus a little less on all the extravagant adventures. I was able to do all my gift shopping for friends and family, climb to the top of the cathedral and enjoy one last gelato cone at our favorite spot. Saying good bye to friends and Strasbourg was definitely hard, but I try to see it as a “Till next time” instead.
Returning to the states was actually A LOT easier than what I was lead on to believe. My biggest fear was driving my car again but it really is like riding a bike. Walmart seems SO SO big in comparison to Simply in France, but it is nice to have everything you need all in one place. I also managed to remember to tip my server the first restaurant I went to; which is mainly what my past week at home has consisted of: visiting friends and eating well missed food.
This experience is one I am beyond grateful for and so glad that I did. I was able to learn so much more than I ever imagined in and outside of the classroom, as well as learn a lot about myself and where I want to go with my life. I hope everyone seizes the opportunity to study abroad!
Thanks for following along this semester and best of luck in your future adventures, whatever they may be!
Month 3 of studying abroad has definitely been a smoother sailing month. You have finally gotten over the hump of the entire time abroad and you really feel like you know your stuff. You know where to buy your groceries, how to work the public transportation, when and where all your classes are… things like these really do take longer than you would expect to figure out.
For me in Strasbourg I found the “Walmart” of France, Simply Market. To be honest it’s just groceries and a few necessary toiletry items. But it is only a 5 minute walk from my dorm so I am always sure to go on Saturday because everything in Strasbourg is closed on Sunday. I may have had to scavenge for food once or twice after making this rookie mistake. In France you have to bring your own shopping bags, the recyclable kind that we have back home, and bag your own groceries! You also have to weigh and tag your produce BEFORE checkout, they will not do it for you. Took a while to get used to that concept as well. For the first month or so a lot of us did our grocery shopping at a store in the mall, little did we know we were shopping at the HEB (more expensive) of the town instead of the Walmart/Kroger. Lessons learned for sure.
For transportation in Strasbourg I walk or take the tram. Tram C is my best friend and I am surprised I don’t know the drivers by name yet! (joking) The tram is NOT free, even though for the first two weeks we all thought it was. I go to an office at the city center and pay monthly, 25 euros a month to use all the trams and busses in town. One of the busses will even take us to Kehl Germany which is only about 15 minutes away. Some people choose to do their grocery shopping there because they find it to be cheaper, I personally don’t think it’s worth the hassle unless I really feel like getting out of town, just a personal preference. Also some trains are cheaper leaving from Kehl so this bus takes us directly to their train station. Once we were travelling on the weekend when the months changed and I got back, completely forgetting it was a new month, and my tram pass wouldn’t work! Thankfully the “tram police” were not patrolling that evening and I just went the next day to reload. They do randomly check to see if you paid, so it’s not worth the risk or ticket.
My classes became more constant during the month of March. Surprisingly I never had classes on Mondays or Fridays so I was able to take some longer trips towards the end of the month. I spent 5 days in Paris mid-March, 4 days in Amsterdam the end of March and 4 days in Nice at the beginning of April. (If you want details on any of those trips please feel free to send me a message!) Paris was an absolute dream come true trip for me! I was able to meet with an old friend from high school who is studying abroad there and she showed me all around the city, it was magnificent. Many people question if I even go to class, haha, I don’t blame them. But yes, I do. Usually classes are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and they block anywhere from 2-4 hours at a time. We just meet less frequently, but for longer at EM. Classes here are VERY different then Texas A&M. You basically go to class to take notes and that’s it. There are occasionally some in class group assignments, but no quizzes, no homework, no online exercises. It is really odd and a huge change of pace. Majority of our grades are comprised of 10% attendance/participation, 40% group project case study, 50% final exam. That’s all you get. Feedback on your assignments or a quick grade turn around does not exist. I honestly have no idea how my grades are right now, I know I am passing but I don’t know what my specific grades on assignments are. We don’t have eCampus that the professors update with your grades. You just kind of, hope for the best. You can try e-mailing the professor like I did to check in, but they don’t reply until about 1-2 weeks later and they don’t have office hours. You can imagine my frustration in this matter…
The months really do seem to fly by when you are abroad, which is crazy because when I first arrived it felt like each day dragged on and on. It is important to try to have patience and remember that things are hard in the beginning but really do get easier with time. I can’t remember when the “switch” flipped but all of a sudden I just knew what I was doing everywhere I went. It is a really great feeling! I am writing this third blog on my train ride back to Strasbourg from Nice. So I personally have about 25 days left in Europe. On April 30th I will be taking a train to Frankfurt to meet with my Aunt and then we will fly back to Houston that same afternoon. It is unreal to look back and think about all the amazing places I have been so fortunate enough to visit and learn about during my time abroad. I can honestly say I learned just as much if not more outside of the classroom than I did within. Now that the weather has finally turned to Spring I really do enjoy being here SO much more and leaving will be very, very hard. Strasbourg and Europe has officially become another “home away from home”. I do admit that having friends and family messaging me how much they miss me and can’t wait till I come home adds to my desire to return to the states. It’s hard to go through so many different experiences so far away from your loved ones, and sometimes skype just isn’t enough. Most of the other students all had family or a close friend come visit them, but that wasn’t an option for me because coming to Europe is ridiculously expensive and I could barely afford to get myself over here. With that being said, I am most looking forward to the airport hugs from my parents! We already have plans to stop at the first Whataburger we see for dinner on the way home and then we are getting Mexican food for lunch the next day and some good ole Texas BBQ after that! My list of “Food I Miss Back Home” is embarrassingly long!
Hope this helps those who are reading see what my daily life is really like in Europe! My next blog will be about ending the semester here and the “culture shock” of returning to the states in mid-May. Miss and love everyone back home! Can’t wait to be back and see everyone! <3
Hello again from Strasbourg, France! It is completely impossible to grasp that I have already been in France for two and a half months! I swear the month of February literally went by in the blink of an eye! They weren’t lying at the beginning when they said to make the most of each moment while you are here because before you know it you will be heading back home!
February and the beginning of March have been more low key months in comparison to the January. In January I was constantly trying to figure things out such as the public transportation, where to buy food, how to pay all my student fees, I was running around like crazy. But with time all of those stressful tasks have become daily mundane tasks that I complete without even thinking about. Classes have been very steady. I go to about 3-4 classes each week. The difference with school here though is that so far all we really have to do is go to class and take notes. There are no quizzes, no homework, they barely even take attendance. It makes it difficult to actually do work when it is needed. EM Strasbourg focuses a lot on group projects I have had 2 so far and have 2 more this month. As frustrating as they can be, you do learn a lot, especially working with other Erasmus students from all over the world. I did have a few “mid-terms” at the end of February and those were also frustrating because the teachers here are very vague on what will be on the exams and barely even tell you how it is formatted (essay/multiple choice etc) so it makes it very difficult to know what to study. I am personally not impressed with the business school and really miss the quality and efficiency of Mays Business School back home. Last week we found out the offices completely messed up the dates of final exams and scheduled them during the week we were told was Spring Break, you can imagine the panic as we had all already made travelling plans.
Towards the end of February we got a week off of school for “winter break” and our group of merged Americans took a trip to Portugal and Spain. We flew to Porto, took a car to Lisbon, flew to Barcelona, flew to Paris, took a train back to Strasbourg. If I can give any advice it is to NOT go to so many different places in just one week’s time. We were all absolutely exhausted by the end of this trip and the travelling costs really did add up. Nonetheless, I did enjoy this trip very much! My favorite place was Portugal! Porto was such a cute small town where we were able to do a river cruise, shop the local flea markets and enjoy a pub crawl with the hostel we were staying in. Lisbon was absolutely beautiful! We went to visit a historic castle at the top of the city right around sunset and the view was breath taking! We also had a VERY good hostel here (Lost Inn Lisbon) for only 10 euros a night! Can’t beat that! Barcelona was personally my least favorite part of this trip. I think it is because of the part of town we were staying in as well as our horrible hostel. Note to self: don’t choose the 222 bed mixed gender room. The culture of Barcelona is VERY different! If you are walking up and down the main street during lunch time the restaurants will have a person out front who will literally block your path trying to convince you to eat there. I wasn’t even hungry, so this became very annoying. Our hostel was apparently much more of a party hostel… the main floor turned into its own club around 10 pm but here is the real kicker… people did not LEAVE to go out to the clubs until 2 am! They returned about 7 am. Given that Barcelona was at the end of the trip a few of us were exhausted and just wanted to stay and sleep, which was nearly impossible due to the odd hours of their nightlife. All in all, a very big learning experience. Barcelona had some of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen in my life and the Sagrada Familia is a MUST SEE!
Porto, Portugal River Cruise
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Spain
Lisbon Castle at Sunset
Caba de Roca, the most western point of Europe, Day trip from Lisbon
I would be lying if I said that at this point in my time abroad (months 2 and 3) that I have not been homesick. The beginning of this experience is such a stressful and hard period that you tend to wonder if things will ever get better. For me there were just so many things I was unaware of and people who never knew the answers to my questions. As time passes and you learn your town and the culture you will be spending the next few months in, IT DOES GET EASIER! There are several things that I miss back home and didn’t even realize I would. Such as: free refills, service in a restaurant, the Texas heat, a normal sized affordable cup of coffee, the convenience of having a TV, internet/wifi/texting everywhere I go. There are several more differences that I come across often but I have to remind myself “It’s just their culture Kelsey”. I am thankful to have skype and social media to keep in contact with my friends and family, but I have also found that talking with people back home can cure and cause homesickness. Be careful with how often you reach out to the states, it is easy to find yourself so wrapped up with the happenings there that you miss out on what is happening right in front of you in your new home country. I love when my friends reach out and tell me how much they miss me, but it also makes me wish I was there and not here so easily. Keep in mind you are abroad for a reason and that they will all be waiting for you when you get back, don’t rush the return.
Sorry for such a long post! There is just so much to share! It is currently the middle of March and I am trying my best to write a paper and work on two group projects ahead of time because the next three weekends I will be travelling! Paris, Amsterdam, and Southern France. Before coming abroad I thought I would get to see 2 or 3 countries, well it is looking like my final number will be 7! The travelling is the best part, so save your pennies to make it happen like I did!