Guest Post: My Study Abroad Experience Far Exceeded My Expectations

Celine Wlasichuk's month in France turned out to be one of the best of her life

Celine Wlasichuk - 19 January 2018

I was set to graduate without any more administrative headaches, finished the most time-consuming courses of my degree, lined up with a summer job I enjoyed and plans to go to law school down the road. For once, it seemed like there was nothing in my life left to sort out, at least for the time being.

Or rather, that's what the logical half of my brain was telling me. The creative - or perhaps rogue? - half had other ideas.

The problem was simple: I had nothing particularly interesting planned in the rest of my time at the U of A. And I'll be the first to admit that I'm a victim of that disease that everyone associates with millennials: the travel bug. Some people say it makes us free-spirited, independent individuals; others would call us entitled, spoiled brats. But either way, once you catch it, there's no escape. So I started considering whether I could go on an adventure to somewhere new, and justify it academically.

I looked into a phys. ed. program that involved spending a month in Southeast Asia. Fascinating? Definitely. Applicable to my political science degree? Hardly. I looked into the Faculty of Arts Cortona, Italy program: marginally more applicable, but awkward timing for me. And then I found the perfect fit: La Rochelle through the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies.

I've been a bit of a French nerd ever since junior high, and what better way to improve your French than by studying in France? I googled La Rochelle, brought up a Wikipedia summary and a few pixelated pictures. Population 80,000; Atlantic port city with two iconic stone towers; modern-looking university building with the catchy nickname of "the FLASH" (at the time, I found it rather ugly). That was nearly all I knew about the city before embarking on my adventure.

I tend to prefer big cities to smaller places, and quite frankly, there was nothing about La Rochelle itself that spoke to me. But it's the only direct study program that the U of A has in France. I would be taking U of A courses, with U of A classmates and a U of A professor (Julie Tarif, an amazing individual with whom I wish I had had the chance to take more courses, and for whom I've now also had the privilege of working with as a TA). The program is only a month long. I figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a shot, and even if I didn't fall in love with the city itself - well, it still gave me an excuse to go to France and do some independent travelling before and after, right?

Flash forward a semester or two. On principle, I don't cry, but as I set out to leave La Rochelle after one of the best months of my life, my ordinarily stiff and exceedingly respectable host mom, Françoise, shed a few tears.

Speaking of which: that's another aspect of the program that I hadn't been too sure about beforehand. Living with a French family that I hardly knew anything about? But we turned out to be an incredible match, and Françoise has unequivocally informed me that she's expecting me back for a visit in a year or two. In the meantime, the two of us have exchanged everything from measuring cups to underwear in the mail, for reasons that don't bear mentioning.

While I fell in love with my host family as well as - unexpectedly - the city itself (and, yes, even the FLASH), I would be hard-pressed to pinpoint my favourite part of the experience. Maybe it would be one of our weekly daytrips, like the one to Puy du Fou, a world-class historical theme park. Maybe it would be the night of festivities when the locals rang in the first day of summer, which had everyone (from children on their parents' shoulders to rowdy 20-somethings) listening to music and dancing in the streets. Maybe it would be the lifelong friendships I came away with - one of the girls who participated in the program with me, no more than an acquaintance when we arrived, has become one of my best friends in the world, and we later went on another European trip together. Or maybe it was the simple pleasures: riding our borrowed bikes to the city's most famous ice cream shop as "homework," lying on the beach while practicing oral presentations, getting into museums for free and befriending the tour guides, buying some particularly smelly cheese at the local market and eating it all before I got home.

And who knows: participating in the La Rochelle program might even have given me a jump in my long-term career. As I work my way through my first year of law school, I find that a lot of the traits that once made me unique - Type A, perfectionist, detail-oriented - are shared by almost all of my classmates. As far as our potential employers are concerned, we're a dime a dozen. But if it comes out that I speak near-fluent French, glazed-over eyes tend to spark with interest. "You want to practice law in Western Canada, and you speak French?" people ask me.

Of course, I'll be the first to admit that's far from a firm job offer. Living and studying in France taught me more than just French, though: I've gotten a lot better at going with the flow, as nearly everybody in France seems to do on a day-to-day basis.

But one thing is certain. Even though only a handful of students participate in exchange programs in law school, I've decided I'm going to be one of that handful. Lately I've been spending far too much time looking into the logistics, working on applications, comparing schools and cities and opportunities to learn new languages. The only real question is: where to go next?

Celine Wlasichuk completed her undergrad at the U of A, where she majored in political science and filled her electives with as many French, German, and Italian courses as she could. In La Rochelle, she fell in love with France so much that she spent the following year living in Paris, although the opportunity to start a law degree eventually dragged her back to Canada. In her free time she can often be found reading, taking board games too seriously, playing soccer or searching for cheap flights.

Guest posts present the experiences and viewpoints of Arts students, faculty, staff and alumni. The views and opinions expressed within these posts are solely those of the authors.