I studied for 5 weeks during the summer in Pau, a small city in the southwestern region of France. When I was deciding where to go, I knew I wanted to be in France because French is my minor and I wanted to be immersed in the language to practice. So, I began the long process of browsing through endless programs until I ran across USAC’s program in Pau, which sufficed the credits I needed. I had never heard of it before but after doing some research, I decided that it seemed to fit the expectations I had for my study abroad experience.
Located near the Pyrenees mountains, Pau is a very green and outdoorsy city. There are parks close to the city center and it’s so easy to access the mountains. The main strip is lined with restaurants and also overlooks the snow-caps and greenery of the Pyrenees. I loved the layout of the city and I actually spent most of my time downtown. Pau is known for being the birthplace of Henry IV, so I would perch myself by his castle or the nearby cathedral and just read. It’s such a peaceful city and because it was so simple, I was really able to become a local and truly immerse in the culture.
Since Pau is small, there are not as many English-speakers as there are in a bigger city like Paris so that meant that I was practicing French every single day with locals. Before studying abroad, I had only taken two years of French so this was definitely challenging at first. There were many moments where I was dumbstruck and didn’t know how to respond when someone was speaking to me but I quickly learned that this was all part of the experience. I got more comfortable with being uncomfortable and I think that was a really growing experience for me. And after a couple of weeks, I began to order at restaurants and get around using just French. This was such a rewarding feeling and the whole reason I wanted to study in France in the first place! I could see myself actually improving in my French skills.
Another way I immersed myself was by staying with a host family. I got placed with a lady who had a cat and honestly, I was not too excited about this at first. I had wanted a family with children so that I could practice French with people at a similar level as me. Plus, I am much more of a dog person, so I wasn’t thrilled about the cat. However, this was just another thing I had to adjust to and it ended up working out. My host mom cooked dinner for me twice a week and provided breakfasts for me. She was so helpful in answering any questions I had and she actually was fluent in English, so she was able to help me with my French homework. After the first week, we decided to only speak in French which was great practice. Also, she lived close to the university so I got to walk to class everyday and the city center was only a 10 minute bus ride away. I am so grateful for her and would say that going the extra mile and staying with a local is definitely the way to go.
I think one of my favorite parts about my experience was just the routine I developed. I would wake up, go to class, take the bus downtown with friends to eat lunch, then just read or hangout in a café for the afternoon. It was such a simple lifestyle, which was especially perfect for the summer when all you want to do is relax. I loved trying different restaurants, establishing my favorites, and enjoying more espresso and chocolatines than I could have ever imagined. Being able to just do life in another country was both culturally enriching and humbling because I was forced to dive head-first into a different lifestyle and adapt to my surroundings. All the chocolatines helped make that easier though. 🙂
On weekends, I traveled with other students in the program to nearby cities such as Bayonne, Biarritz, Toulouse, Cauterets, and San Sebastian. This was so much fun because it gave me the space to bond with other students while experiencing a whole new city. I’m really glad that I stayed within 2-3 hours of Pau because any more would have been too overwhelming. Plus, I wanted to really get to know the area I was paying to study in. This is when I took advantage of the Pyrenees and went there two weekends in a row. Through my weekend travels I was able to hike, swim, lay on the beach, eat amazing food, and see the most beautiful views. It was awesome to be able to see new places every weekend and Pau was the perfect home to come back to.
Last but not least, USAC was an awesome program to be part of. The directors were so helpful and accommodating, frequently checking up on us and taking us on many field trips. They also connected us with local schools, where I got to interact with elementary and middle school kids. It was obvious that our well-being was their best interest, which was so reassuring. I loved my French teacher and loved the classroom environment that USAC orchestrated!
There is so much more that I could say about my summer, but hopefully that gives an idea of how impactful my experience was. For me, studying abroad taught me how to be adaptable and also forced me to find solutions and make quick decisions when things didn’t go as planned. Traveling allows you the space to grow as an individual because you learn how to interact with those different from you, broaden your horizons, and be challenged in your thinking. I also met many people from other countries like Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece, England, Germany, Ukraine, Spain, and Italy. It was so interesting to discuss the major differences between our experiences. I found that it’s easy to romanticize places outside the US, especially given the political circumstances we are in. However, I learned that every country has pros and cons and I gained a new appreciation for my home.
While there are many things I wish I could change about the US, there are also things that I am really thankful for and don’t want to take for granted. And I would not have discovered that if it weren’t for studying abroad. I feel much more culturally aware and confident to travel on my own. There were many challenging things and times where I was ready to be home but those moments stretched me in a positive way. I learned so much and improved tremendously in my French. What more can I ask?
Anna McLain (BA English) spent the Summer 2023 semester studying abroad in Pau, France through USAC. Anna had the following to say about studying abroad, “It’s easy to romanticize traveling because we always tend to want what we don’t have. And travel does offer many amazing opportunities and impactful experiences! But it’s far from easy and can be really stressful navigating a whole new country. Studying abroad challenged me in more ways than I expected. However, I saw myself grow as an individual and I’m so thankful for the way it has helped prepare me for the future.”
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