Category Archives: Tammie in France

Studying Abroad as a First-Generation College Student at an Elite Establishment

I refuse to let the pressure get to me. Walking around the hallways of this elite French school, I refuse to be intimidated. I refuse to let everyone’s ease and comfort, (their only worries the readings they didn’t complete last night or the impending presentation they haven’t started), make me feel like I’m a burden. I refuse to feel that I deserve this less, or even, that I deserve this more, which is a thought that bubbles up to the surface when I am overly-confident, partially bitter at how little everyone else has had to do to succeed as I scaled my very anxieties to get here. I refuse to bow.

 

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I’m at the Louvre so I’m smiling but deep inside I’m panicking: Will my scholarship come in time? Will I pass my classes? Will they be challenging enough to be interesting? Are there professors I’ll meet on Monday familiar with students like me in the classroom? Whatever Tammie, smile, we’re getting crepes later.

 

I have a few friends who go to my host school (or are alumni). A good friend of mine, who for the sake of this blog we can call “Nick,” attended this school and graduated, with high honors of course, and told me everything I’d need to know before attending. I know it’s wrong to come to a new place with worries and assumptions but, I’m human, and I cannot keep myself calm in almost any situation so why should this be different? Before I came here Nick told me that this school was built as a place where the French elite could educate their children; politicians and diplomats sent their kids here to follow in their footsteps, and it’s become world-renowned as a place to get your foot in the door to a successful life as a part of high-brow academic society. Many of the previous French presidents have attended this school. Almost all of the people who go here are part of the wealthy elite in whatever nation they come from; all of their family is usually college-educated. Well, crap.

 

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Pictured in the Jardin des Tuileries, one of the largest and historically most important parks in Paris. Nick took me on a bike tour, and we stopped for a moment to admire how many things there were to do right in front of us.

 

Knowing that I have quite the snappy attitude towards those who think they’re better than anyone else because of their academic or economic privilege, I prepared myself for the worst. I pictured myself living in an academic battlefield, constantly having to prove that the self-sufficient girl from New York (the Bronx, to be specific) was good enough, smart enough, and could handle what this school brought for me. Every time I thought about it, I got sick. What if I couldn’t afford to take all the same fancy trips everyone had planned? How would they feel about me going to a state school, one of the most affordable educations in the nation, coming from a CUNY rather than Columbia University, or NYU?

Fast forward some months, and voila! Here I am. Refusing. Refusing to let my own mental insecurities about my abilities affect how I present myself and how I perform at this elite institution that I absolutely deserve to attend. Refusing to disappoint my parents, who I don’t see as inferior for not having attended college, but as visionaries and angels, who sacrificed everything they’ve ever had to make my life better and more privileged than theirs ever will be. I refuse to view myself in competition with others with whom I might not relate; but rather I will let myself get to know others, and see the similarities we share in the world of academia, global travel, and professional experience.

 

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My fears were quickly relieved when I made great new friends who taught me that it’s dangerous to over-think and stereotype institutions, no matter how right I think I am. It’s important to focus on making good friendships and fostering connections, and the rest comes easy. And by the way, no one cares about your circumstances!! This is something our brains will tell us to worry about, but it’s your heart that counts, every single time.

 

To be honest, I think all first-generation college students share some of the same trials and tribulations. There is a girl here with me from my school who has become one of my closest friends in the time we’ve been here together. Let’s call her… Amara. Along with her, I’ve made good friends with an Afro-Brazilian woman (let’s call her Dascha) studying abroad in Paris, and she has struggled just like me to make it to this great university. They both understand, as fellow first-generation college students and low-income women of color, how nerve-wracking it is to be here among all of this wealth, prestige, and honor. We’ve had days, hours, and moments, when we’ve needed to confide in each other about comments made in our classes, observations we’ve seen among social groups, and implications of this institute which were shocking to us. (For example, everyone here can afford textbooks. At our home university, many professors omit them, or give much more time for students to purchase them, because working class colleges contain multitudes of people who can’t afford hundreds of dollars at once for reading material.) I am extremely grateful to you, Amara, for being a friend I confide in about these issues, who understands my anxieties, and gives me hope that we can for sure fulfill this experience without losing our self-esteem, or feeling any type of inadequate.

 

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They don’t have to understand the struggle, it’s okay. If they’re good friends, they’ll care enough to hear you out: your fears, concerns, and everything that comes with it. As long as they’re open to understanding the world, they’re alright with me. Never be ashamed of where you come from.

 

For all the first-gen students who are reading this, feeling some type of way, looking for inspiration or courage to study abroad or head off to college: look inside yourself. It will be difficult to get rid of the assumptions that society has put on us, and we will always feel slightly resentful at how much harder we’ve had to work to get here but please understand that it’s worth it. You deserve the opportunities you’ve fought for, and there’s no sense in worrying so much that you lose the ability to soak in all of the wonderful experiences, moments, and friends you will make here. Refuse to let yourself be a statistic, but make yourself a living example. Refuse to feel self-conscious, but let your different background propel you. Refuse to let the pressure get to you, use it to succeed.

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Relating to the Globalized World

My name is Tammie, and since as far back as I can remember, I’ve been an adventurous spirit. In every aspect, I enjoy the new, the foreign, and the unrelatable. I’m always down to try something novel, whether it’s food, places, or ideas. I enjoy people, because they allow me to experience things I might not always have access to like different cultures, ways of thinking, and lifestyles. This year I decided to study abroad so that I could experience an intense immersion into a different culture as an adult with responsibilities, expanding my horizon and my worldview.

I was accepted into a world renowned school for the social sciences, SciencesPo, located in seven cities across France, locations as diverse as the program content and its academic community. Before leaving the U.S., I don’t think I had a very good perception of France or its people. To be honest with you all, I admit that I had extremely limited knowledge of France and weighed heavily the opinion of others regarding French culture and attitude. 

 

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When I got to France, my fears melted into the void like a popsicle in the summer sun. I felt enchanted driving through the Northern French countryside, mesmerized at the number of vineyards and villages whose charming and old-fashioned aesthetic transported me into what felt like a romance novel. The city of Reims in particular dazzled me with its French classic architecture and symmetrical set-up.

 

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The basilique (church)

 

Any fear, any assumption, and any bias I may have had completed rescinded, and I fell in love with France. There has been really no culture shock, because I’ve lived in Europe before and sort of understand the dynamic of life on this continent, even within the different European nations. I believe coming to France with a biased perspective helped to ease my culture shock (usually the opposite happens), because I was so pleasantly surprised with what I’ve gotten to know, and how I’ve been received in this small, fairytale town. The grand cathedral in the center of town, visible from all around the city center and even beyond, is a source of comfort in my new home, and I am happy that my homesickness is minimal.

 

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Me and my friend’s mom in front of the cathedral

 

So far, I’ve been here (in Reims) for 22 days. Twenty-two days of gorging on French food, 22 days of struggling to speak French with my American accent, and 22 days of discussing my role as an American in global politics. 22 days of learning new things, 22 days of missing New York, and 22 days of self-improvement. In this era of new presidential leadership, we (as Americans) are trying to make sense of political change. I came here looking to get politically involved, understand more about my role in global politics, and expand my education to be a better advocate for the underrepresented and oppressed. Since I’ve been here, I’ve noticed many stark cultural differences between France and New York. I feel uncomfortable comparing my experiences here to that of the entire U.S. because many of these differences apply only to New York City as I know it and many regions of the U.S. are so starkly different from the Northeast. Some of the biggest differences I’ve seen are an emphasis on politeness in the French language (even if you don’t want to be!), a difference in embracing the “melting pot” culture (the French can’t stand to be separated by race or religion; even if this isn’t apparent – the oppressed groups will tell you that the French can be very racist, even if it isn’t bluntly so), and finally, a globalized understanding of the world and its politics.

The last point I mentioned is the difference that I came to embrace, something that can be argued for really most European countries, but particularly France because of its history. The French are incredibly aware of their imperialist history, and my school in particular celebrates the scholarly pursuit of understanding many global cultures and nations as they play a role in international politics. Although it has always been my dream to work in international politics, it wasn’t until leaving the U.S. for my education 22 days ago that I realized that this was feasible, though a long way away. The U.S. tends to be selfish in its political studies; though we embrace world studies and different cultures, the focus on American culture particularly is important and our geography allows us to be relatively ignorant to what’s happening in other countries, continents, and cultures. France is a hotbed of ideology from all around the world, with African, Middle Eastern, European, American (North and Latin) people milling around, interacting in the French sphere. The French just seem to pay attention to what’s going on, while Americans seem to have to go out of their way to be involved in global politics. In my opinion, this difference in the French attitude regarding global politics is critical to both my studies, and my experience here; globalization has never seemed more vital to my personal and professional life as it is here. This semester in France, I hope to delve into the French language and political culture, soaking up knowledge about global politics that will allow me to become a better advocate when I return to the States, and as I continue my education.

 

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Me with lights in Reims.

 

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