Studying in France

by Vanya Akraboff

Ah, France – a land of wine, fashion, art, and high culture (don’t ever try to question France’s cultural supremacy, at least not in earshot of a French native). The country has one of Europe’s most romantic and cosmopolitan capital cities, as well as some of the chicest beach resorts in the world. France is a fascinating place to study abroad, offering a rich revolutionary, artistic, and literary history as well as a rapidly changing contemporary society due to the recent influx of African and Middle Eastern immigrants. The French are fiercely proud, especially of their language, and are more than willing to show their country and culture off to the poor students who aren’t fortunate enough to live there. By some strange twist of logic, French women don’t get fat, but foreign students often can’t resist France’s crepes and croissants, and return home a little worldlier, maybe a little rounder, a little more fashionable, and with a definite dose of French confidence and attitude.

Here is the breakdown on some different study abroad options in France, an entirely biased and in-no-way exhaustive list that should nevertheless give you an idea as to how you’d like to approach studying in France.

  • Sorbonne, Paris: The Sorbonne is one of Europe’s most prestigious universities, and is located right in the heart of Paris. For students serious about learning the language and receiving top notch instruction, studying at the Sorbonne is the way to go. In my opinion, nothing can beat living in Paris, a city of cities that encompasses a little of everything in French society while emanating an absolutely enthralling Parisian culture of its own. Studying at the Sorbonne usually involves a direct exchange with the student’s university, and is generally only an option for students with extensive French experience. Information about the Sorbonne for foreign students can be found here. As Paris is such a fascinating and culturally important city, many universities sponsor summer or short-term programs (focusing on art or history etc…) for students who have had little or no French training. Some might argue that there are more English speakers in Paris (and therefore fewer opportunities for speaking French) and less of the traditional provincial French feel, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but if I could give one piece of advice to anyone wanting to study in France, it would unequivocally be to study in Paris.
  • Angers (AHA program): Angers is a smallish town in the Loire Valley with a large student population, and was also my home for a semester in college. Foreign students most often study at CIDEF, the international portion of l’Universite Catholique de l’Ouest. Many universities offer programs linked in some way to CIDEF, and it is also possible to apply directly to CIDEF as part of a direct-exchange if your university isn’t affiliated with one of the independent programs (this sounds ridiculously complicated, but it is pretty much the same everywhere – there are several towns in every country where everyone seems to study abroad – the local university has a “center for foreign studies” and countless universities and independent programs create their own sub-programs out of the curriculum offered by the center).

    Being part of a smaller program (such as AHA) offers on-site guidance, excursions, and host-family placement – all things that CIDEF doesn’t necessarily provide for their foreign students. AHA made the application process, paperwork, and all kinds of nitty-gritty details very easy to navigate, and I adored the host family I was placed with (unfortunately, not all AHA students had my luck). On the flip side, being part of a private program made it more difficult to meet other (French and international) students, and more independent natures might find the planned excursions and meetings stifling. Quality of instruction at CIDEF seemed to be on par with most other foreign student university programs in France – the classes were taught by French professors, but were surprisingly reminiscent of high school, requiring daily homework and focusing on repetition and memorization. Studying at a foreign student center is an excellent option for improving language abilities and having an all around good study abroad experience, but perhaps not much else (from what I hear, the same holds true for similar programs in other European countries, such as Spain and Italy). A semester at CIDEF through AHA costs close to $11,000 (including tuition, program extras, housing, and some meals).

    The city itself has its ups and downs. It is quite small and relatively quiet, so those looking to go clubbing every night might be happier elsewhere. The large student population provides the opportunity to meet peers from around the world, but the most common consequence is that students tend to stick with others from their home countries. On the other hand, most residents are unwilling to speak English (and willing to help you with your fractured French) while Angers’ size makes it possible to really get to know the city in a matter of months.

  • Nantes: Nantes is another smallish city in the Loire Valley, but is larger than Angers with an even larger international student population. The local university offers much the same set-up as the university in Angers. Accommodation is most often in dorms, and fellow students who studied in Nantes met more international students. If you don’t want to (or can’t) study in Paris, Nantes is a good in-between option, offering a navigable size and plenty of opportunities for partying all night with your new study-abroad friends.
  • Teaching in France: The French government pays native English speakers a (close to) living wage to teach conversational English to primary and secondary education students all over France. They don’t require TEFL or TOEFL certification, education training, or really anything aside from being a native English speaker proficient (three or more college semesters) in French. Applying to the program basically involves the same steps as applying to a study abroad program (letters of recommendation, triplicate-copied transcripts etc.). Finally, the €945/month stipend only involves 12-15 hours a week of classroom time. For students looking to finance their study abroad program, future teachers looking to gain classroom experience, or the lost French graduate looking for a way to move to France, this relatively unknown program is a godsend. All the relevant information and application materials can be found here. This is a good way to move beyond the study abroad bubble and really experience living and working in France, and it can even be accomplished while studying abroad. There are, of course, drawbacks to the program – there is no way to guarantee you’ll get the regional placement you want, and the living wage doesn’t provide quite enough for a fabulously jet-setting European lifestyle. It’s very possible to end up in a small, somewhat boring town with no money to travel and lots of time on your hands. The program is best suited for students who have a tangible goal in mind for their time in France – simultaneously participating in a study abroad program, completing a research thesis paper, or working as an independent tutor on the side, and who aren’t relying solely on their “living wage” to support their time in France.

    There are rumors (unfounded as of now) that the program will soon be open only to EU English speakers – this opportunity really is unique, especially for Western Europe, and any student looking to extend their stay in France should look into it.

Friends who have studied abroad in France through a bevy of different programs invariably say that they had a difficult time meeting other French students, and that the level of university instruction was not what they had expected. Most universities have a community college feel (which makes sense, given the low cost of attending French universities) with very little campus community or camaraderie. Therefore, foreign student centers are often more “fun,” but often keep the student from really integrating into French society. As with any study abroad program, what you want to accomplish in France really determines what type of study abroad program you should aim for. Hopefully, these three options will give you an idea of the diverse range of experiences available to the foreign student in France.

original photos, top to bottom, by: Arslan, marshlight, and hometownzero