A First-hand Account of a First-time Experience Abroad

Hello! Bonjour! Welcome to my personal post regarding my study abroad experience from this summer (2016). Let me first start-off by introducing myself. My name is Natalie Guerra. I am a third-year, Bio-medical Sciences major, who just completed her minor in French & Francophone Studies abroad! I strive to be a pediatrician — able and willing to communicate with patients of all nationalities, cultures, et cetera. I chose my specific program abroad, USFSP in France: Nice, because the program provided me with opportunity to complete my final six credits for my minor, while experiencing the culture (which I have been learning about for years via textbooks) first-hand. Now, if you would like to read about specifics, please continue on! I have tried to separate my journey into sections to be as informative as possible! I hope you enjoy!

PREPARING FOR THE JOURNEY

I heard about my desired program about a year before I actually embarked on my journey, and about six months before I applied (representatives from the Education Abroad Office came to one of my french classes to present the program). When I officially decided I wanted to go through with the program, the application process began…

The application process was rather simple, as one only needed to read required information and provide general statements. After being accepted into the program, more information needed to be read and more forms needed to be filled out; however, I did not let the extra workload get me down as each completed step meant I was one step closer to my trip! Seven signature documents, eighteen learning contents, and nine application questionnaires later (and a little action on my part as I needed to go to my academic advisor, my french professor, the education abroad office, and the financial aid office to fill out some additional forms), and I was finally done with my application–minus the two documents needed for flight itinerary! Took some time… but, again, well worth it!

Next, I was required to go through the online orientation. This step was, honestly, even more tedious than the application but surprisingly every morsel of information provided was actually useful while I was abroad… So, once again, it was worth it! The most useful information provided by the orientation, in my opinion, regarded pick-pocketing and cell phone usage abroad. With pick-pocketing, this information was so important that even my homestay mom and a stranger reiterated the information to me and my roommate on our first days there! The information goes, as follows: do not leave your phone, wallet, or any important information inside your pants pockets; additionally, do not hang (or sling) your purse (or bag) behind you while you are getting onto buses or trains. Neither my roommate nor I had a problem with potential pick-pocketers while abroad because we heeded this information. With cell phone usage abroad, it is very useful to have an international plan. I personally, however, did not have an international plan (but my roommate did so she did all the communicating between us and our homestay mom while we were out-and-about). Instead of an international plan, I had WhatsApp and Skype on my phone, and used both very frequently to interact with my family/friends back at home and with other students on the program. I highly suggest, if you are interested in going abroad, to look into international plans (as you may not be so lucky to have a roommate with international cell phone usage), and to download WhatsApp and Skype for your trip!

Once done with the online orientation, it was finally time to purchase plane tickets for the trip! This step was both very exciting and very stressful! It was exciting because it was one of the last steps and felt like one of the most official steps to joining the program. Yet, it was stressful because it takes quite some time to find the right plane (that will land at the right time), at the right price. My advice for this exciting and stressful step is to do your research (research everything from the airline service to the airport, or airports, you might be using–and read reviews). In addition to doing your research, check multiple websites and take-off airports for the same flight (once you think you have found a good one). This way you can accurately compare prices and choose the best deal. For example, I found that buying my ticket from Student Universe and leaving from Miami Airport was the best deal for my situation and landing time-slot. After you’ve picked-out a good flight, if you know anyone else with the program (even if you’re acquaintances) communicate with them! It’s good to travel with someone for company and assurance purposes, especially if it is your first time traveling alone (like it was for me). It took a little while, but my roommate was able to catch the same flight as me because we communicated our itinerary and worked it out together! Also, please note that for dietary restrictions (such as allergies, intolerances, or specific diets like vegetarian or vegan diets), call the airline ahead of time! Most airlines are willing to accommodate your on-flight meals to your specificities–just be prepared with your flight information and order number before you call!

Last, but not least, I only had to wait until my trip! In the time between Spring classes and my upcoming Summer classes, I researched the area I was going to and made goals on what I wanted to see and do! I found that watching YouTube videos of vloggers’ vacations to the same area I planned on traveling to was most helpful!

After that… It was finally time for my trip! Bon voyage to me!

SAYING GOOD-BYE (TO MY FAMILY)

It was finally time for my trip and I was stoked! Me, my mom, my dad, and my sister all drove to Miami, Florida, early in the morning to drop me off at the Miami Airport (MIA).

Once there, I quickly met up with my soon-to-be roommate and, together, we waited in line for check-in! Very fittingly, my sister bought us both croissants to share when would eventually get to the terminal. After check-in, I said a very long, and very teary-eyed good-bye to my family! I knew I was going to miss them tons, but thankfully I took pictures with them all a day before my departure. I continued to wave good-bye to them until I was up the escalator that led to TSA control, and they were out of sight.

Some longs lines later and we, my roommate and I, finally reached the terminal. We explored around, ate the croissants, and ate more food before going on our first flight. When the flight attendants finally called our section, we fought through the crowd to get to the plane! It was so congested that I made a comment to myself that the situation was similar to Disney World; a nearby stranger then quickly responded that it was worse than Disney World! Anyway, once through the congestion and on the plane, my roommate and I said a quick prayer for protection and good-times and we took-off!

Some eleven to twelve hours later, and a new stamp on our passports, and we finally reached the plane (pictured below) that took us off to Nice, France!

Plane to Nice

FIRST-DAY EXCITEMENT

And… Voila! We were finally there! Once we got off the plane I basically ran through the airport, snapping every possible picture I could. We were welcomed into France, and the doors that took us officially into the country are pictured below, as well! I actually was so excited and jumpy, and was taking so many pictures that my roommate needed to remind me to calm down and “stop looking like a tourist!” (She was still a little sleepy from our flight.)

Nonetheless, after baggage-claim I spotted our chauffeur and ran straight for him. Again… I was so excited and fast that my roommate needed to keep telling me to calm down–but I just kept insisting that I was being excited for the both of us!

Once in the van, we met three other students who would be studying with us at our foreign school, France Langue. The students were two girls from Spain and one boy from Turkey. After a quick, little van tour of Promenade des Anglais, me and my roommate were the first to be dropped-off at our homestay abode! Three flights of stairs was all that kept us from our new home and our new mom, Sophie!

Sophie greeted us with kindness and food, as she had prepared our rooms and cooked us food (ready for us to eat) with love. First french word that I added to my french vocabulary, while actually in France, was “courgette” (which in English is translated to “zucchini”), as the food Sophie had ready for us was a zucchini quiche! After letting us take our time eating and a thoughtful conversation, Sophie took us out for an Sophie-official tour of Nice!

We first went to France Langue, our school, and then we saw the replica of Notre Dame on Rue Jean Medecin. Next, we found ourselves passing the Euro Cup fan zone, the Nice tourist office, and “water park” with a Euro Cup sign that led straight into Vieille Nice. Once in Vieille Nice, we got our first taste of Nicoise (but Italian influenced) gelato, and then we saw another peek of Promenade des Anglais, and the literal peak of what we called le Montagne/Cascade of Nice.

Right after our tour, Sophie had to part ways with us so that she could visit her mother, but she trusted us with a map and enough intelligence to find our way back to our new home! …And then my roommate and I got lost. But it was a good type of lost, I swear!

For a little while we sat at the end of Promenade and just took in the view, and then we wandered around le Montagne/Cascade until we found ourselves in Place Garibaldi. From there, we wandered back (with a little direction from locals) into Vieille Nice, then into the grand-scale stores of Rue Jean Medecin, and, eventually, back home.

It had been such a beautiful and exciting first day. I was so taken by the views and the people that I didn’t even think to snap pictures after the airport. It was love at first sight. I told my family and boyfriend that I was more than okay on that first night, and just drifted into the most blissful slumber.

Welcome to Nice!

GENERAL WEEK

My three weeks in the Cote d’Azur went by too quickly, but I was blessed enough to enjoy every second of it. As the weeks went by, and upon reflection now, I noticed that the structure of each week was generally the same (although every day was unique, in its own right).

On each Monday, aside from the first Monday there, the morning was prime-time to explore the city I (in current time) called home. After exploring and eating a delicious lunch out-on-the-town with my roommate, it was time for school in the afternoon. By the time school was out, my roommate and I would usually be tired so we’d go home for a nap and some reminiscing before dinner-time.

Tuesdays were solely dedicated to school, as classes for my particular program were held in the mornings and afternoons on this day. Snack and lunch would be cheap (from the Monop’ closest to the school and local shops full of delicious specialty foods), and then I’d just head home with my roommate to catch-up with family and reflect before dinner.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, classes were only held for my program in the morning. After a quick lunch out-on-the town in the afternoon, it would be time to meet with the program for a scheduled excursion!

Fridays were reserved for an exam during morning class and then free-time to welcome the week-end in the afternoon! From this time through Sunday night, it would be all up to me and my friends to plan the day! We went to other cities and enjoyed the local culture with this wonderful time!

And then, of course, the week would be repeated until I had to make my bittersweet leave home.

ABOUT THE SCHOOL

France LangueFrance Langue, whose entrance is pictured below, was an absolutely wonderful school to be able to attend! It is a specialty school dedicated to teaching students, of all levels, the basics and intricacies of the french language.

In order to thoroughly understand the workings of the french school, it is important to note that before arriving to the school  I was required to take an online placement test (at least a week in advance) so that I could be sorted into an appropriate class for my skill set. In addition to this, on the first day of school another (much shorter) physical placement test was given along with an individual oral assessment.

After all the verifying tests were over, it was finally time to meet the other students! I was directed into an open holding area full of students and refreshments! I eagerly introduced myself to the fifty-plus other students looking to expand their french knowledge. The other students, including the three that I met on my first day, came from all over the world! Some came from Germany, others Switzerland, Japan, Australia, and a variety more! Soon enough, all the students were oriented with one another and the school. Next on the agenda was a guided tour of the city!

It was clear that immediately after the placement tests were given, the school wanted nothing more than to make students feel welcomed! Everything from the students accepted into the school, to the tour, to the actual classes were superb! Our student ID’s even allowed students free access into local museums! Classes were always consistent, and started right when the school said they would, and every class period had a precise fifteen minute break to allow students to grab a snack, relieve themselves, relax a little, and interact with other students. Fridays, as mentioned earlier, were dedicated to a weekly review and exam, and then it was free time from there! Although I did not take-part in their offered excursions (because my program offered excursions of its own), it is also important to note that the school had planned, open activities almost every night!

If you would like to know more about the school I visited, please feel free to visit the following link: http://www.france-langue.com/nice/.

 

ABOUT MY HOME-STAY LIFE

As mentioned previously, I stayed with a lovely home-stay family whose head-of-household was named Sophie. My experience with them from the second I passed through the front door was also–I bet you can guess — nothing but great! Since I already covered my first-day experience at home, I will go on to describe my accommodations and level of comfort throughout my stay.

My accommodations consisted of a bed, desk, shower room, toilet, everyday breakfasts and warm dinners, and even a washing machine for clothes! I was always comfortable and felt at-home, too, especially because Sophie always took the time to talk to me and my roommate (and eventually roommates as Sophie took another wonderful abroad student in about a week into our stay) no matter how exhausted she was from her long work days! Conversations were always open, and Sophie loved to hear opinions that differed from her culture (as I loved to hear her opinions that differed from mine). She was always more than happy to expand my french vocabulary, help with school, talk about recent news and local politics, and even give life advice and share stories. Her ten years of taking in students from abroad truly shone through while I was there. Absolutely perfect!

Dinnertime was something I especially looked forward to because it was always delicious and we always ate together. It was dinnertime that sparked the best and longest conversations! My last dinner with Sophie and my new family (along with the front door and my room) is pictured below.

By the time I had to leave Sophie, her home, and her family, I felt like I, too, was a part of the family. Luckily, I still keep in contact with my home-stay family via e-mail so I don’t miss them more than I should.

I strongly recommend opting for the home-stay life, should you choose to study abroad, and I also recommend keeping in contact with your family and roommate(s) after you leave!

(Oh! And, Sophie, if you read this: Merci beaucoup!)
Homestay Life (2) Homestay Life

ABOUT THE PLACES I VISITED

The area I traveled to, as most readers have probably inferred already, was called the Cote d’Azur (translated to The Blue Coast in English). In English, it is also commonly known as the French Riviera. Although my program was mainly based in Nice, France, through the program and my own free time I was also able to go to other accessible cities/countries. Below, I have listed the places I visited. Additionally, I have attached a small description and a defining picture of each riveting place!

Nice, FranceNice

My whole trip revolved around the beautiful city of Nice, France, and I could not have been more privileged by it. I was luckily able to see many of its iconic landmarks (including Vieille Nice, whose entrance is pictured below), visit three of its museums, and experience both its day- and night-life.

The iconic landmarks I visited were the Nice Airport (that welcomes many coming into the Cote d’Azur), the length of the Promenade des Anglais, the Hotel Negresco, Place Massena, Place Garibaldi, Acropolis, Vieille Nice and le Montagne/la Cascade de Nice.

The museums I visited were the Chagall museum, the Matisse museum, and the MAMAC (Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain). I highly recommend visiting all three!

Lastly, the day-life and night-life in Nice was wonderful–each in their own respective ways. During the day-time there were active locals, happy tourists just enjoying the area, and ecstatic Euro Cup fans! I did not interact with other tourists nor did I interact with the Euro Cup fans, but the locals were more than kind! Many spoke English and could easily recognize tourists, but they were very respectful and kind and let me practice my French with them anyway! I learned the most French abroad while talking to the locals! And during the night… Everyone was out! It was crowded and noisy and there was no possible way to decipher from locals and tourists (but the fans were easy to spot). I say: get a coffee with your French skills during the day and people watch, and at night buy some gelato and do the same!

Every aspect of Nice and what it has to offer was enjoyable! It’s a wonderful place that was a perfect home-away-from-home for three weeks!

 

Monte-Carlo/Le Rocher, MonacoMonaco

I can summarize Monaco pretty easily: it was clean, it was beautiful, it was rich, and I felt under-dressed (but it was all great anyway). I went to its famous casino (pictured below), its port, its castle, and gazed at the pavement (over which the Grand Prix race is held) and its aquarium (but I didn’t go inside, sadly). It was a great excursion and great day-trip to add to my abroad experience! We visited on the Thursday of my first week abroad.

 

Ville Franche (sur mer), FranceVille Franche (sur mer)

I loved Ville Franche (sur mer) so much that I went back a second time! The first time I went over was on my free time with a group of friend; I took them all after receiving a great recommendation from my homestay mom! It was breathtaking. If Nice and its beach wasn’t beautiful enough… Villefranche was another slice of perfection. The picture I have below was taken immediately after running out of the train station my first visit there. After my first trip, I went back (again, on my free time) with just my roommate, a small bottle of wine, specialty cheese from a true fromagerie, grapes, a bathing suit, and a towel–we came to just enjoy its beach, the view, and to soak up the sun. It was ahhhh-mazing! Other places to visit in Ville Franche other than its beautiful view of the Mediterranean coast are its citadel, its local specialty shops, and its delicious (and maybe a little pricey) restaurants.

 

Saint Paul de Vence, FranceSaint Paul de Vence

I visited Saint Paul de Vence with my program on Wednesday of my second week abroad. Saint Paul de Vence is quaint, scattered with artists, and built like a maze–perfect to enjoy a few hours exploring and getting progressively lost!

 

Antibes, FranceAntibes

In Antibes, which I visited with my program on the Thursday of my second week abroad, was nice but a little slow when we went. We only got to peek at its famous market (pictured below) and visit the Picasso museum, which I was excited for but once there quickly realized the museum was filled mostly with other artists and not Picasso… But I still got to see some Picasso pieces so that was cool! Our program stopped for some delicious gelato in Vieil Antibes while we were heading out, too, so that made up for any disappointment caused by the time of day at which we came.

 

Ventimiglia, ItalyVentimiglia

On the Saturday of my second week (going on third week) abroad, I visited Ventimiglia, Italy, with my roommate. We traveled there using our precious free-time. Pictured below is a path we found following some locals. What it lead to was a beautiful view… I’m only going to show the path (which was beautiful in its own right) because honestly I’d love for you to visit one day by yourself. I can’t even begin to describe the view that lied at the end of the path! How to get there: After leaving the Ventimiglia train station, head straight, cross over a bridge (peering over at the wildlife first), and then follow the coastline until you pass some hotels and what looks like a dirt parking lot and a dead-end aside from a teeny-tiny little dirt path… Follow that dirt path! Okay, after getting the view we made our way back and tried to grab some lunch. Long-story-short, we had a bad experience with lunch. I suggest packing your own and grabbing some delicious freshly made cannolis instead. Then we explored some shops, its Saturday food market and antique market, and went home! Overall, it was an awesome day!

 

Cannes, FranceCannes

Cannes was cool! “Cannes” I go to Cannes again? I hope so! Pictured below is the center where its world-famous film festival is annually held! After visiting the center and touching the imprinted hands of almost every famous celebrity I know (including Sylvester Stallone’s), my program (whom I came there with on my last Wednesday abroad) and I went to explore the city, take loads of pictures featuring its views, and peer at its interesting graffiti. All I can say is: What a day!

 

Eze (village), FranceEze

Eze (village), pictured below, was fun but not just because my program and I got to visit Fragonard (a well-known perfumery) with my program on my last Thursday there. It was fun because there were tons of five star businesses while actually in the village! Like, Monaco, I felt under-dressed but even more so because my sandals irreparably broke while I was there (and this only added to my fun)! You might be thinking, however, why would being barefoot in a fancy place add to your fun? Well, it was fun because it was a silly situation and because I had gotten so far in my trip without anything really going wrong… So why would I let some sandals breaking apart tear me down? I was abroad and enjoying one of my last days there in yet another beautiful city! Thus, Eze was great and it even added to my already positive interpretation of the saying “Make the best of every situation.” What a magnificent final excursion in such a magnificent place!

 

SAYING GOOD-BYE (TO MY NEW FAMILY)

Saying good-bye to my new family and to the Cote d’Azur after three weeks (after experiencing so much and going to so many places) was very bittersweet. It was bitter because I was leaving paradise and closing the door on a life opportunity I will never forget–I couldn’t even hold back my tears! But, of course, it was sweet because I was going home and I could finally share, in detail, my experience abroad with my loving family and friends. Pictured below is the plane that took me and my roommate back to the United States. I will never forget the Cote d’Azure and my time there. ‘Til next time… A bientot!

Plane to USA

REFLECTING ON MY EXPERIENCE ABROAD

My experience abroad was everything that I imagined it would be and more! The time I put into researching and understanding my program and the area I would be visiting before leaving on my trip made me feel prepared every step of the way. I felt blessed on every day of my trip. It felt like a vacation but I was really learning and completing my minor! Luckily, I was able to see and do everything I wanted to and a little extra. And ultimately, my experience abroad was a great builder upon my understanding of the french language and culture, a wonderful finalization to my minor, an awesome resume builder! Pictured below is me on my first excursion of my program (enjoying my visit to the Chagall museum, the first museum of that day). I wore a genuine smile like that on every day of the trip and that smile continues to come back as I reflect upon it now. It was a great experience, fit for making big dreams made by aspiring students (like myself) come true! All I have left to say is a word I repeated each day of my trip: Wow!

Me in Nice, France! (3)

EXPENSES

In total, I spent almost exactly $5,305 on my trip abroad. The program itself cost $3,985. The hefty payment covered my credits/classes with both USFSP and France Langue, insurance, excursions out to every city/museum I went to (aside from Ville Franche and Ventimiglia, which I went to myself), my homestay, and a daily breakfast and dinner. My plane ticket cost me an additional $1,025. And, lastly, I allowed myself a budget of 300€ while abroad. This meant spending about 100€ each week, and covering everything like snacks, lunches, tickets to anything I wanted to go to that was not included in the program, and souvenirs for myself and my family/friends, with that money. I emphasize that I very comfortably stayed within this budget and never felt like I needed more or like I was missing out on something I wanted to do, and–let me tell you–I was able to spend that budget down to 0.21€.

Although the trip was the expensive, every penny was worth it and I was lucky enough to receive grants and scholarship from the school to help me out (total of $3,702.48 paid by the school).

A suggestion I have for potential abroad students is: If you can make it work, do it; and make sure to talk with the Education Abroad and Financial Aid offices months before embarking on your trip! Studying abroad, in my opinion, is one of the best investments that you can make as a student! So study abroad, if you can, keeping in mind that there are many programs that cost around the same amount of money or are even cheaper (or more expensive) than the trip I went on. And remember study abroad programs are happening all over the world! Do you research; find an appropriate program; and go, if you can!

QUESTIONS?

I hope that you, as a reader, were able to enjoy my blog! I also hope that my first-hand account on my first-time experience abroad can also be informative to any students hoping to travel. If there are any questions regarding this written piece, or if anyone would like to know more about my experience, please feel free to comment down below! I will do my best to check-back and answer as many inquisitive comments as possible! Good-bye, for now! Au revoir!

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