Study Abroad in France, Some of the Nitty-Gritty Details

This post will be some observations about the Study Abroad part of the experience for anyone else who is planning a similar trip.  Of course every University will be somewhat different so what applies at Université de Picardie Jules Verne might not be exactly the same at another European school.  But for what it’s worth, here are some of the snags to be aware of, beginning with a rundown of how UPJV handles the incoming Erasmus/ISEP students.

The Pre-Arrival Communication

Well before our arrival, we received umpteen emails and packets of information, maps, schedules, directions, and everything we needed to know about the University and the city.  I’ll give UPJV an A for the pre-arrival process: their information was very thorough and our emailed questions were answered promptly, even during August when the staff was technically on vacation.

The Meet & Greet

We were urged to let the staff know our arrival time so they could assist us in getting to the University.  They came through on this as well.  One student I talked to was met at the airport in Paris by a peer mentor who drove her all the way to Amiens – well above and beyond the call of duty!  Since I had my own personal ride to Amiens (it helps to have friends in France, I highly recommend it) I only needed someone to fetch me from my hotel on Monday morning since I had too much luggage to take on the bus.  A nice young man not only picked me up at the hotel, but helped me get through the dreadful housing check-in process and get settled in my room.  He also gave me a brief tour of the campus, bus stops and nearby stores.   An A for the greeting, a D for the housing check-in.  Hence the first snag:

Checking into Student Housing

Now France is hardly what one would call a “developing country” (tongue firmly in cheek). These folks are renowned for their engineering and technology.  But if your only experience here was the administrative process at the University, you would think you were back in the mid-20th century. They apparently didn’t get the memo that computers have been invented which can streamline the process of registering for housing or for classes.  This is all done manually by staff members who move through the process at an escargot’s pace, seemingly unperturbed by the lines of students snaking out the door waiting to be given their room assignments.  But that wasn’t even the worst of it.  When it was my turn to check in I was informed that I must pay two months rent in advance.  Since my housing is paid through ISEP (International Student Exchange Program), I explained this to the woman only to be met with a blank look and “What is ISEP?”  I’ll just skip to the chase which is that the line grew longer and longer while we hashed this out.  It involved phone calls to their International Department to understand what the Exchange program was all about and to reassure them that ISEP would pay my rent. Then I was reluctantly given a key and a suspicious look (reminiscent of the infamous “Can you PROVE you’re a student?” from the French embassy.)

The icing on the cake, however, was when I found out later that another ISEP student who checked in three hours after me encountered the very same issue with the very same woman who checked me in.  She started all over again with the “What is ISEP?” routine.  Seriously?

The First Week – Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

Our first week at UPJV was a whirlwind of planned activities for the International students.  I have to give them credit, they made sure that we saw the town and that we could find our way around.  We were featured in a couple of local publications as we took Amiens by storm (pics in a previous post.)  By the end of the week, I was on nodding acquaintance with all the other Internationals.  And here I’ll point out the first pitfall: we haven’t been integrated with any French students.

Even without knowing names – most of which I couldn’t remember, spell, or pronounce anyway – I recognize The Polish Girls, the British Girls, and the big groups of Spanish and Chinese students.  I see the Turks, the Czechs, and the Germans and we all recognize each other.  All these students immediately realize I am American and start speaking in English, delighted to have a chance to practice the language (nearly all of them speak English better than French.)  However, except for the two or three students who are part of the committee to welcome Internationals, I haven’t met ONE SINGLE French student.  Since my classes are all FLE (the French equivalent of ESL) I only interact with other International students.  The main suggestion I would make to the University would be that they find ways to incorporate more local students in our outings so we can get to know them and practice our French with native speakers – which is why we are here.

REGISTRATION à la Française:

And this brings me to the last issue which is perhaps the most befuddling of all:  the registration process.  If the other French universities are like this one, you can just forget everything you ever knew about registering for classes.  This is weird.   I am not making this up – truth is stranger than fiction – but when we ask repeatedly (because we just aren’t understanding how this works) how to register, we are told that this is how registration takes place:

The first couple of weeks (and this time period is only vaguely defined) you simply go to whichever classes you’re interested in and decide if you like them or not.  If you like a class, then you sign up for it.  That’s it.

“But how do we actually sign up for the classes?” we ask.  This seems to be a straightforward question but elicits another vague response along the lines of, “You just talk to the professors.” Huh?  Two weeks into the semester and I still haven’t “registered” for any classes and still have no clue how to do it. The otherwise helpful International Dept. staff just can’t give us a definitive answer on this and there are baffled Erasmus/ISEP students wandering around campus wondering what we are supposed to do to get officially registered in our classes.

Schedule  If this PDF link works, here is a sample “class schedule” we have to go by.  Clear as mud!

Odds and Ends

A random assortment of details that someone might want to consider when going on Study Abroad in France:

1.  Don’t plan on bringing your devices and effortlessly connecting to wifi everywhere you go. Not gonna happen.  “Free” public wifi is nearly impossible to find and data plans are expensive.  Although our University has wifi, it is ONLY on the actual campus.  The student residences 100 yds away cannot pick up wifi at all.  WHY?  I just want to know WHY?   I was able to borrow a laptop from the U. for no cost and connect via cable in my room.  (This sounds easier than it actually was, but I won’t go into all the gory details.)   Be prepared for this!

2.  If you are staying in campus housing, it is like any dorm room where you have to provide all your own household items.  Since you obviously can’t bring this all from home, plan on spending a few $100 getting set up, knowing that you will leave most of the items here when you leave.   It seems like they would have some kind of program for International students to buy/sell/trade off some of this stuff, or even – heavens to Betsy PROVIDE some of these items – but you are totally on your own here.  Just hope you are “lucky” enough, like I was, that a Wal Mart type store is in walking distance of the campus.

3.  Forget what everyone tells you about “packing light and buying it here”.  Pack every pound of clothing that you are allowed by the airline!  (toiletries are the exception – yes you should just buy them here.)   Just be sure to include some throwaway items that you can replace with better things as you buy them.   That way you have what you need with having to rush out and buy things and you can shop at your leisure.   Bring your sneakers and ignore what anyone says otherwise.  The French wear sneakers just like us.

4.  Be prepared to be humilated at least a dozen times in your first few weeks.  I’m not saying the French are purposely rude or anything, but there are little details that we just don’t know. I have been scolded for going through a checkout line at the grocery store without weighing my fruit in the produce deptartment first  (I didn’t know!)  I  was yelled at by a bus driver when I tried to pay the usual €1,20 for the bus fare on a day they were having a promotional fare of only €1.  (I didn’t know!   And why was he mad that I gave him too much money?)  Just know these things are going to happen and be prepared to put on your best “Little Lost American” face and hope for sympathy.   🙂

Good luck!


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