By Alex Carey
At Albion, it’s not uncommon for students to travel to far off places with classes or other organizations. Some students, like me, even get to travel to the same destination twice. In October 2012, I went to France as part of my First Year Seminar class. This year I returned to France with the Gerstacker Institute. Though it was the same destination, the different living situations, leadership and cultural interactions in each made the trips totally different experiences.
My first trip to France was with the French department. Professors Dianne Guenin-Lelle and Emmanuel Yewah were in charge of my FYE class of about 12 students. During the trip, we each stayed with separate host families in Albion’s sister city, Noisy-le-Roi, France.
Living with French families was an experience in and of itself – getting used to a new place in a foreign country and trying to pick up on bits of the language while getting to know complete strangers. It was difficult at first, but ended up being very culturally enlightening for us.
When I was first thrown into my host family’s house for a week, I had no idea how I was going to survive. Who were these random French people that were supposed to feed me and give me a place to live all week? After I got more comfortable and got to know them better, however, I was able to practice the French language I knew and really delve into this foreign culture I had previously only read about.
Our itinerary for my first trip included some sight-seeing in Paris. However, it was mostly about building relationships with our sister city, Noisy. We visited schools and city halls, each time escorted by one of Dianne’s close friends in France, some of whom included personal assistants to the Mayor of Noisy-le-Roi. Throughout the trip, it was clear Dianne always had a mission. She planned out each and every day to the last detail. She also prepped us well for the culture, teaching us about how to act in public and what to be aware of in the city.
For example, we were taught that Americans, especially American tourists, appear noisy and loud in public in foreign situations. Dianne made sure we stayed quiet and respectful, which allowed us to not stand out as much, but to be less focused on each other and more on the surroundings.
This Gerstacker trip was almost the complete opposite. We traveled for different reasons, we stayed in very different living situations, and we were led by a completely different team of people.
For starters, the point of this trip was to finally meet a group of French students that our International Entrepreneurial Exchange class had been working with up until this point in the semester. Together with the French students at a school called L’Ecole Supplementaire de Vente, Sup de V for short, our class of nine was split into groups, where we developed business plans for products that would potentially premiere in the U.S. market. We will continue to work with the French students all year, and then present our ideas at the Elkin Isaac Research Symposium.
Instead of staying with host families in Noisy, this time we stayed in hotels. Rather than being thrown into the culture like my class freshman year, we spent more time interacting with each other than native French speakers. The main focus was on the task at hand in class, rather than fully submerging into the French culture — something I found slightly disappointing after learning nothing but French culture the first time I went.
We spent the first weekend of the Gerstacker trip sight-seeing in Paris, before we moved to a hostel in Louviennces, a small town near St. Germain en Laye where Sup de V is located. From there we attended class every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. learning about business strategies and market research with our French counterparts.
We were led around Paris and to class each morning by our professor, Joy Nakfoor. After class, however, our itinerary was left entirely up to the French students, who were not always the most organized.
Each night they took us out to restaurants and bars in either Paris or St. Germain that they had picked only a few hours before. Regardless of planning, it was completely different than what we were going through as first-years in Noisy, when we were all sent home to host families around 6 p.m.
The experience in the bars itself was different than the U.S. too. The French socialize in very different ways. College students in France are more focused on conversation with one another and enjoying their time in each moment rather than going out with a goal to get drunk like some Americans might. This I admire.
On the other hand, the French also smoke cigarettes much more than any one does here. This I did not like.
Overall, each trip was different in itinerary and style, but both were a blast. In both cases I made new friends, both American and French. Long story short, when given the opportunity to travel while at Albion College, take it. You never know what you might get out of it, but it will always be worth it.
Photo by Joy Nakfoor