Lessons from Abroad

By Olivia Haas


As a student of international affairs and history, past and current political and social climates have always fascinated me.  I felt my education of the subjects could not be developed in the way I wanted if I did not spend time abroad – experiencing other cultures for myself rather than through textbooks.  So, this past summer I spent 7 weeks abroad – the first 6 weeks as a student in the UGA à Paris program, and the final week as a guest in the home of the foreign exchange student whom my family hosted back in 2011.  Some of this time was spent in the classroom, with its window framing the Eiffel Tower, which stood magnificently behind Haussmanian apartments, learning about the political culture of Europe and the historical development of French government. Yet, most time was spent wandering the winding streets (which was an entirely exhausting experience, but always worth it for the breathtaking sites and the promise of a good crêpe around every corner).

During the day, Paris was a relatively safe city, so this gave me the opportunity to set out adventuring on my own many days.  Often, I would walk through the sixth arrondissement to the Jardin du Luxembourg to read and watch people play tennis in the park.  Other times I visited museums, like the modern art center at the Centre Pompidou.  This brings me to the first thing I learned while abroad: not only is it okay to strike out on your own (if the socio-political climate allows it), but time alone to sit at a park, go for a walk, walk through a museum, or sip a coffee gave me the time to experience the subtleties of Paris.  It gave me the chance to truly take in the city that I had dreamt about visiting for years.

At the same time, the new friends that I made largely enhanced my study abroad experience. I forged invaluable friendships with other students from the UGA community while abroad, but quickly realized that it was going to be all too easy for me to limit my friends to the other UGA students.  So, I promptly made an explicit effort to employ my broken French to meet other young people throughout the city. The next lesson for me, then, was that talking with people from another country gives irreplaceable and genuine insight into the experiences of others.  My conversations with Parisians allowed me to learn about the university system from a medical student, the grievances of the socialist party from a young lawyer, and the best flea market in town from a store owner, to name a few.

The third lesson I learned was to seize the day and not miss out on seeing any of the things I really wanted to see.  Time abroad goes by so quickly, and obviously 7 weeks was not enough time to see even remotely everything in a city like Paris, so some things are inevitably left out.  But, I realized that the time I spent in Paris could likely be my one chance to see the city.  For this reason, it became important for me to see and do the things that were most important, the things I did not want to leave undone in Paris.

The final lesson I learned was that my idea that I could go to Paris and return feeling satisfied with the time allowed was misdirected.  I thought that I could check the box saying that I experienced Paris and move on to the next thing.  I didn’t understand until I was there, in Paris, that time abroad doesn’t satiate a desire to travel, but rather ignites a fire to see more, taste more, experience more, and adventure more.