“I wouldn’t change my study abroad experience for any other”: The story of a German student in France

1 May

Anke Wright Anke Wright at a tour organized by her company.

Anke Wright is a German whose life has an interesting French twist. She chose to learn French, and later study in France, when most of her classmates were choosing to learn English and flocking to Anglophone countries. Anke went on to marry a Frenchman and start Delikatours – a business which offers wine tours in France.

After school, I went to University of Neuchâtel, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, to study French for a year. The course was a “French as a foreign language.” I could apply for it with a [just] high school degree.

It was a great experience: it was my first time living away from home, having to cope not only with my French course, but also with my shopping, cooking, laundry, getting my car repaired, etc. all by myself.

After a year in Switzerland, I came back home not only with good language skills and a French certificate, but also self-confidence, because I had done it! I had proved to myself that I was able to organize myself, to live on my own, and to find friends in a foreign country.

In 1997, I decided to pursue a bilingual economics course from FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences. The final year was delivered by Lille University in France.

In academic terms, my year in a French university was, unfortunately, not the most exciting. I realized quickly that the partner university was not as modern as my German university. After having to use only PowerPoint at FH Aachen, I found myself having to adjust to Lille not having computers and beamers at that time. While I was pushed to speak freely during a presentation in Germany, my fellow students in France held a 10-page essay in front of their nose and read it entirely. My studies in Germany had been very practical, whereas in France, theory seemed to be the most important thing.

But, I learned a lot about “how the French learn” and how they live. Whereas I was used to take just a few notes during the lectures and then read more about the subject at home, French students wrote every word the professor spoke. He would even speak a bit slowly, as if dictating, and all the students did a kind of shorthand writing (which made it difficult to copy any notes from the French fellow students). During the exams, a lot of exact reproduction was expected.

It took me a while to get used to it.

Another thing that struck me was the age difference between my classmates and me., I realized that I was much older than them. In Germany, you pass your A-level-exams when you are almost 19. I had then spent a year in Switzerland to learn French, and completed a two-years working experience before starting my university studies. By the time I started my year in Lille, I was 26, whereas the French students were all about 21 years old (A-levels at the age of 17 and then directly to university). I had lived far from home for several years already, whereas 98% of my French fellow students still lived with their parents.

There was a big difference in maturity between us.

A big difficulty was to write my thesis at the end of my 4-years-course, to be written in French. At Lille University, the thesis writing was group work. So, I found myself with three other students preparing our thesis! Luckily, one of them was German, too, and also defended my aim: to get an excellent mark. In Germany, if you apply for a job, you have to hand in copies of your school/university reports and certificates. The marks count a lot. If the recruiter sees that you were average or that you just passed, you are likely not to be invited to the job interview.

In France, no recruiter cared about marks. They would just look at the university where you studied, and if you had any working experience. So, French students had little ambition to write an excellent thesis. Their aim was just to pass. That was a bit frustrating.

I learnt a lot from the extracurricular activities

For e.g. the hassles of renting a student’s apartment. I had to find a French citizen to give a guaranty. Or, when you are ill and need to see a doctor. Suddenly, I found myself in a very different health system from home.

Used to paying cash in Germany, I very soon got used to paying by check or credit card in France after my embarrassing experience at a cash desk in a French supermarket, where my 100€ note was examined by four different employees. A long line formed behind me with all the people staring at “the one who was carrying a 100€ note!”

Although France and Germany are neighbouring countries, the cultural differences are huge!

During this time, I most appreciated my working experiences in France. I had already worked in Germany for two years before starting university.

Germans being very straight-forward, I had experienced business meetings sticking to the agenda and without much talking around. So, I was very surprised to see that meetings in France started with a cup of coffee, a discussion about the rugby match last Sunday, followed by discussions about the company’s products – with the customer’s order placement at the end. Big surprise! I really learnt on the field that different ways of acting can lead to the same result.

But I wouldn’t change that experience for any other.

First of all, I wouldn’t want to miss the million memories that I have from my different stays abroad.

I wouldn’t want to miss the friends I met during my time in Switzerland. Today, they are my children’s godparents.

I wouldn’t want to miss having spent a year abroad very young, just after my A-level exams. It gave me a lot of self-confidence and independence. Also, having lived for a while in my husband’s country, enables me to understand his way of thinking and acting.

I am also convinced that studying abroad opens your mind and makes you more aware of cultural differences and teaches you how to deal with these differences. I am still German, and I still prefer meetings that are straight-forward, but I can understand and accept other ways of proceeding now.

Working in a champagne house during my summer break finally gave me the idea to start Delikatours – the business I run today.

I already know that one day my children will ask me if they can study abroad. And my answer will be, “YES! Please do!”

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