By Sophia Boyanchek
Hi! My name is Sophia and I’m 16 years old from Columbus, Georgia. I’m currently doing a study abroad exchange year in France! I am now about half way through the school year, and I’d love to share my experience! I originally wanted to do an exchange year for multiple reasons: firstly, and the most obvious, the language. Improving my French has been a longtime goal of mine as I’m hoping to stay in France for university! Secondly, the culture. I’ve always known about the differences between cultures around the world. Really submerging myself into a new world is an experience I will never forget. From the school, social life, and family traditions, life in France is so different! It is crazy now that I’m used to it!
Firstly, the host family. Personally, I chose the ISE program because of their thorough host family process to ensure the perfect host family. I got in contact with my host family the February before I left, which gave me plenty of time to get to know them, and for them to get to know me. Before meeting my host family, one of my French coordinators gave me some really good advice: your host family wants the best for you just as you do for them. Because in reality, my host family also wants to learn about my culture, language, etc.
By contacting them a lot beforehand, it made the integration into the household really easy for me. I was nervous though, because I have two 9-year-old host siblings. In Georgia, I have one older sister, so having two little siblings would be a big adjustment. But actually, it is so fun having little siblings to play with and talk to, and to tell me about school in France. The first week before school, I spent a lot of time playing games, meeting the neighbors, and having fun with my host family. It was helpful to get me prepared for my exchange year in France.
That being said, it is true I get homesick from time to time. It’s normal, and part of the study abroad process. Whenever I miss my family, I try my best to call or text, and remind myself that I will see them later in the year. Christmas was especially hard, but I tried my best to focus on my host family in France, rather than calling my family. This way, I could look towards the positive and not homesickness.
One of the things I was so scared about when coming here was my school. It is a big part of the exchange and was something I was so interested in coming here. I find that school culture in France is very different than in the US. In my school in the US, we value the importance of the school image, and building a family through school activities. In France, it is very different, and was a big adjustment. Most activities are organized not by the school, but by the village or town in France. For example, basketball has a team for the local town.
This was a big worry of mine first coming to France as I do a lot of theater and other musical activities. Something that surprised me though, was that my school did still have many options to choose from in terms of electives. For my school, and most high schools in France, the elective classes such as art, theater, or additional sports, are after all other classes and can go pretty late. For me, I have theater for 3 hours every Monday after school, and I end up finishing school around 7pm.
Trying to find activities to do after school was really hard, however my host family was a really big help. As an exchange student, you need to remember that your host family knows the area, and is there to help you. In the first month, my host family took me to an activities forum that was held in our local town. From there, I could choose any sport, language, or other activity that I wanted to do.
Also, something that was really important for me doing an exchange year, was that I could keep playing piano. In my application, I felt that the program values continuing activities and instruments, and I had the ability to say that I want to continue piano. My host mom also helped me with this and set me up with her piano teacher. In this, I have also discovered French culture in something that I love, piano. I feel that this has also brought me closer with my host family because I can help my little host sister with her piano, and I can play for them.
School also came with other challenges: grades, friends, etc. the French grading system can be really degrading for an American starting out, because getting a 100% is close to impossible. However, I got over this. I just look from the other point of view. Teachers are wanting their students to succeed and thrive, while also fixing their errors. There is always room for improvement, and that was really important for me. Friends were also difficult to find, as many students in France have been friends since primary school.
However, my advice would be to do an activity. Since I did theater, right away I made friends who also did theater. From then, we have become a really close group and we love hanging out. Also, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to others. I was always really self-conscious of my French, especially since it was not the best at the beginning of the study abroad year. However, by putting in the effort to introduce yourself, you can have many opportunities for new friendships.
In all, I am really happy with my exchange year so far. My language skills have really progressed, and I have learned so much more about myself. I have discovered more of the world, even through all of the ups and downs. I’m so excited to see where the rest of the year takes me!
We invite you to read more about becoming an exchange student and our study abroad programs. To find out even more about different available options, complete our Travel & Study Abroad interest form and our program coordinator will get in touch with you as soon as possible.
Please note that ISE now offers study abroad scholarships to our host families’ kids. Check out our host family section of the website to learn more about other benefits of hosting an exchange student.