Written by Heather Brooks
20TH SEPTEMBER 2012: DEPARTURE DAY
The day 14,600 students took the plunge on their first experience of living abroad. Most of those students went to study at a university in their chosen country, the rest had a completely different experience … teaching. This is what I did.
Being a French studies undergraduate, I applied to three areas of France: Lille, Strasbourg, and Nantes. I had imagined the perfect city. Strasbourg was my preferred choice, with striking buildings, bakeries on every corner, and a vibrant market on Sundays. Letting my imagination runaway was not completely my own fault – there was so much buzz about the year abroad, how it would be the best experience of my life, how it would change me forever, how nothing would compare … and I was ready for it. I was going to return to England a changed person: confident, independent, knowledgeable. This was my plan.
Mulhouse, a small industrial town, an hour and a half from Strasbourg, was where I was placed. Not one to be put off, I set off to Mulhouse with expectations intact (if slightly lowered). A very long and difficult journey there, twinned with near disaster (the owner of the property wasn’t in) made my arrival an emotional one. But I soon settled in, and ventured the 5 minute walk to explore the town. I found quickly that Mulhouse was not the idyllic city I had been hoping for; it was small, a little run down, and as I soon found out, extremely quiet in the evenings. This was a shock, and I felt a little as though I had been cheated. But boy was I wrong.
I started my first day at school on 1st October, along with the rest of the assistants in the country. By now, I had already met my mentor, an English teacher at the school, and had had my first taster of English classes in France – which I now appreciate as a rare opportunity for anyone, let alone an undergraduate from England. The students ranged in age from 15 to 18 years. I began a few weeks into my arrival teaching small groups of up to four students, and had several one-to-one sessions.
Communication was the key. I was there first and foremost to help the students practice their speaking skills. After a few weeks, I quickly realised that teaching was not at all like I had thought – it was much harder. Even simple things such as explaining what the students had to do for an exercise seemed monumentally difficult. I had thought I was a reasonable communicator, but found the students not understanding my fumbled explanations. This was a little disheartening, but I looked upon it as something to improve.
A few months later, things got harder. My first group of 15 students were well behaved, engaging and hard-working. My second was not. I had got a stereotypical group of sixteen year olds who did not want to learn English. It was very disheartening. I tried all sorts of different lesson plans, and tried to make them as fun as possible. During one we talked about celebrities, we had a guess-the-celebrity game (you know the one, post-it notes on foreheads and lots of questions), but they just weren’t interested. With this class I struggled. However, in complete contrast, I had another group of just four students (English year 13) who were fantastic. They were enthusiastic about every topic we covered, from English politics to Facebook.
For a couple of weeks I had been feeling down. I was generally feeling a little disappointed with my progress, both personal and linguistic. I didn’t get on well with the other assistants, and felt isolated and alone. I had reached the classic ‘low point’ (cue nights in with chocolate and Bridget Jones’ Diary). This lasted approximately seven days before I realised something had to change. I was in France! I realised I needed to speak some French or this year was going to pass me by without having improved at all or really done anything. Over the next couple of days, I joined a climbing club at the nearest university, and a conversation class in a local community. I was determined to speak more French, and to spend more time with the French people I already knew.
My first night of climbing was very disappointing. I tried to converse with the students, but found myself being shunned. This I did not accept. I arrived the next week with a big smile on my face and continued my attempts to start a conversation, and succeeded! Two lovely final year students replied to my patchy French, and in true French spirit invited me back for a meal that night. We ate fajitas and I tried to keep up with the conversation, which was followed by watching Ted in French. The night could not have been any better.
Cold weather aside (and it was COLD!), February was a very good month. Through a friend, I met Claire, a harpist who was living with her parents in a village nearby. Claire inspired me hugely with stories of her travels around the globe – she had travelled to more countries than I can mention. She was incredibly confident, and the most down-to-earth person I have met to date. I was so inspired by what she had to say that I decided that day that I was going to go travelling – alone. This idea scared me greatly, but I knew that was hardly reason enough not to do it. One month later, I was in Rome, standing at the top of Saint Peters Basilica, looking out across the city. Finally, I started to feel a change. I had been waiting all this time for something to happen, for me to grow-up, feel different, I wasn’t sure exactly what I expected. But I realised it was up to me to change. At that moment I had never felt more independent or confident. I met some interesting people during my few days in Rome. Going alone allowed me to choose exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. I was free to visit St. Peter’s Basilica five times over three days if I wanted (I wanted, and indeed I did). Organising the trip proved to myself that I can do it. And travelling (and flying!) for the first time, alone, was achievable.
My time in Rome was so enjoyable that I was determined to continue independent travel over the summer. Europe and Asia were in my sights. I started looking at prices, however, and realised that this year, it was not possible (much to the delight of my parents). I was disappointed and deflated – my fantastic summer had started and ended so quickly. For a couple of weeks I didn’t think about what I would do after school had finished. I didn’t want to imagine myself sat at home again – it would be so easy to revert to my hermit self. Finally, I decided the only way that wasn’t going to happen was if I found something to do. Being proactive is the key. I found a website: Workaway.info. The concept is that you stay with a family, or couple, and in exchange for board and meals, you work. This summer I shall be travelling to the south of France to stay with a family on their farm! I would never have had the courage to actually organise something like this before, (though I have often thought about it). I can’t wait for my next adventure to begin – adventure is the key word here – I know there will be ups and downs … and I’m looking forward to both because the downs only make the ups that much better.
Up to this point I have failed to mention two very important people, which I shall do briefly now. Firstly, is my landlord and ‘colocataire’, Pierre. A journalist for the local newspaper, I could not have wished for anyone more welcoming or genuinely nice. Every day he gave me a mini French lesson, and most days he laughed at my accent. In my first week he took me to the local supermarket and showed me where the school was. His love of English history has never ceased to amaze me; he even gave me a copy of his personal tree history of the Royal Family. The first time I met him I had tears in my eyes because I missed my family (and I was moving to a different country!); the last time I saw him I had tears in my eyes because I didn’t want to leave. I still email him and one of his daughters (Catherine, another person I should mention – incredibly patient and kind), and look forward to visiting him after university.
Secondly, is the head of English at the school, Catherine. Never have I heard a better English accent from a French person. I cannot thank her enough for her kindness. She opened up her house and really made me feel like part of the family – she even invited me to Sunday night dinners every week. She took me to the Christmas markets in Basel when she found out I had not visited it. And she drove me to the airport when I left. We keep up-to-date with emails, and I am looking forward to seeing her and her family once I have graduated.
I didn’t find a solution to the post-it problem, but I’m still glad I faced it; there were days I just wanted to go home, but I stuck it out, and for that I’m proud of myself. And in the end, my year abroad did bring all the things that had been promised: confidence, independence, and open-mindedness, just not in a way that I was expecting. I have made life-long friends, and travelled to new places. I’ve learnt a lot from my experiences: I’ve found that I tend to speak without thinking, which often results in people misunderstanding me. This is something I need to work on. But also, I’ve found I am more resilient than I thought. This, perhaps, is the most important thing I shall be taking from my experience abroad.
I highly recommend the Language Assistant program. Positions are available in hundreds of schools in 14 countries around the world. It opens your eyes, provides valuable work experience, and will be the experience of a lifetime. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a languages student to take part!
Heather is a French with TESOL undergraduate at Manchester Metropolitan University. She likes listening to music and watching films, particularly French films. She is in her final year at university and plans to continue her travels once she has graduated … starting with Mulhouse.