On June 11 of last year I boarded a Frankfurt-bound flight, kicking off what would end up being a 222-day odyssey abroad. To give a bit of background, my name is Emilie Lozier, and I am a third-year student at Oberlin College. With majors in French and chemistry to contend with, I devised a plan a couple years ago to find a way to go abroad, keep up with my disparate areas of study, and still somehow graduate on time. This is how it has worked out so far.
My journey is in three parts. The first phase was this summer, during which time I pursued an internship in glass chemistry at the Otto Schott Institute for Materials Research in Jena, Germany. Wanting to find a way to bring chemistry into my study abroad experience, I applied for the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst’s RISE program, which matches American, British, and Canadian undergraduates in the sciences with academic and industrial researchers throughout Germany. My project was to be completed under the supervision of a Ph.D. student, and concerned the compositional analysis of medieval window glass.
Although my German was elementary at best and my experience with glass chemistry even more tenuous, the ten weeks I spent in Jena taught me a lot about how to use what resources I had to expand my base of knowledge and overcome everyday obstacles. I had never received formal instruction in glass chemistry, but the classes I had taken thus far paired with a translated German textbook on the subject gave me all the tools I needed to move forward. And while the work I did in the lab was usually in English, my forays into grocery stores, doctors’ offices, parks, and bouldering gyms boosted my confidence with German and allowed me to make the most of my limited vocabulary.
At the end of August, after a brief interlude of travel, the second phase of my journey began. This time however, chemistry went on hold as I stepped onto the platform at the TGV station in Aix-en-Provence and sought out the woman who was to be my host mother for the next three and a half months. The program awaiting me in France offered a classic semester abroad with an increased focus on cultural and linguistic immersion. To that end I spent the entire semester as a boarder in a French family, tutored local middles schoolers, and took one of my courses directly enrolled at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, a prominent political science institution.
Throughout my time in Aix, people at home and abroad asked me if I was bored without chemistry, if the French classes I was taking weren’t rigorous enough to be satisfying. The fact of the matter was that so much of what I learned drew from the non-academic challenges I faced each time I encountered a social difference. Taken as a whole, my semester was not so much a time of book learning as it was an opportunity to develop a sense of cultural relativism. I may not have gained credits towards my chemistry major, but I never once felt that what I was doing was a waste of time, or a diversion from my career path.
In spite of this, there were times when I worried I wasn’t taking full advantage of the opportunity before me. Some evenings I would be exhausted after a day of homework and French and social missteps and decide to stay home and sleep rather than throw myself into Aix’s nightlife. Other times, I’d fumble a phrase and find myself being addressed in English, which both humiliated me and left me wondering whether my language skills had improved at all. However, the moment I left Aix to embark on the final portion of my trip, the true extent of my development emerged in high relief.
At the time of writing, I am still in the midst of this third leg, which consists of a month of travel in France, Spain, and Italy with a group of friends from Oberlin. After a few days in Paris, we made our way to Barcelona, where we spent nearly two weeks of the holiday season. Having left the city only recently, we’re now in Granada and will soon be Italy-bound. In addition to giving myself a chance to recover a bit before my return to Oberlin, this trip has given me the affirmation I had been lacking in Aix. While in Paris, my facility with French eased my group’s interactions in restaurants, grocery stores, and museums, and even during a memorable evening at the 18th arrondissement’s police prefecture. This impression was only strengthened by our transition to Spain, which highlighted how functional I had been in France, and how dependent I now was on the Spanish-speakers in our group.
When I return to the US in two weeks’ time, I’m sure that I will see changes in myself that even now are hidden. Still, there are some things that I can already tell will be different. For one thing, I’m not satisfied. My French has improved, and yet I’m even more aware of all the ways in which it could improve further. Along with this is a desire to expand my base of languages, and only travel to places where I can communicate in the local language, rather than depending on the ubiquity of English. Finally, after having lived so long abroad, I have a better understanding of how my values are not universal, and how I can adjust my behavior to respect and accommodate the cultural patterns I encounter. These are not things I could have learned if I had stayed at my home institution, and whatever the challenges, I’m grateful to have had this interlude in my studies.