As the parent of a high school sophomore, I find myself reflecting on the path that led me to transfer from a small, selective liberal arts college in Waltham, MA to pursue my studies in a large, public research university in Montréal, Québec (Canada). Given the reality of the ridiculously high cost of a four year undergraduate degree at a private college in the U.S., I increasingly find myself encouraging my son to think outside of the U.S. as he starts to research undergraduate schools. My experiences as an American high school exchange student and subsequently as an undergraduate transfer student in French-speaking Canada are shared below.
I started out as a bio-chemistry major at Brandeis University where I was officially the youngest person in the entire freshmen class. I was 16 years old during my first two weeks at Brandeis, having graduated from my high school in three years instead of four.
Spending many late nights in the library studying inorganic chemistry paid off. By the second semester, I was earning an A and had scored a coveted seat in the department head’s section. Thanks to the course distribution requirements of my liberal arts university, I took a social sciences elective in Linguistics. I immediately fell in love with the world of studying languages and their structures and followed my introductory class with coursework in phonology, syntax, etc. The most memorable course was Investigations in an Unfamiliar Language where we interrogated a Polish graduate assistant and tried to decipher Polish syntax. To this day, I can still remember a few random Polish phrases.
As my love for Linguistics grew, I made the difficult decision to change my major. Fortunately, my mom, whom I’m sure was disappointed at first, supported my decision (well, she had insisted I attend a liberal arts college so that I could explore academically).
As the youngest student on campus, I adapted very well. I maintained a full course load and worked three different work study jobs to finance my education. I volunteered as an International Student Orientation Aide in my sophomore year and loved it! Despite my newfound academic love, something was missing….
I became restless as I rapidly outgrew the limited foreign language offerings, especially in French literature. My French proficiency is not due to family heritage–my maiden name is Meyer. No, I developed a strong affinity for French thanks to my childhood friend, Vanessa, whose mother was from France. [I saw Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour at the tender age of 13 thanks to Vanessa’s mom–what a treat!]
All Roads Lead to….Québec
However, it was my summer ‘abroad’ in Québec that cemented my passion for all things francophone. Upon high school graduation, I was awarded a full scholarship to an American Field Service (AFS) program where I received French language lessons (three week immersion program with a group of thirty American and Mexican high school students) followed by a memorable five-week homestay in a quaint village (Saint-Grégoire, across from Trois-Rivières).
Needless to say, after my first year at Brandeis, I missed the francophone scene and curtailed my summer job bussing tables in a Bridgehampton (yes, ‘The Hamptons”) restaurant to attend summer classes at McGill University in Montréal. Although I had a wonderful time studying the fine art of translation at McGill and making new friends with other international summer visitors living on-campus, I realized that if I ever returned to Montréal for future studies, I would learn more French attending a francophone university.
A Leap of Faith–Transfer Time
My discontent with Brandeis deepened–it was a wonderful and nurturing environment, but I had outgrown it after three semesters. Upon examining my options (in the ‘pre-Internet’ era), I quickly ruled out transferring to a French university because the education system is so different and my timid outreach efforts were not rewarded.
After hitting the proverbial brick wall with France, I decided to explore study options in the province of Québec. In Québec City, one could study at l’Université Laval. I voted against Québec City early on in my search; I had already lived there for three weeks during my language immersion program and found it to be a tourist trap. Lovely place to visit, but I just couldn’t see myself living there for the next three years.
I turned my sights back to Montréal and researched l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and l’Université de Montréal (UdM). If accepted as a full-time student, I could pay in-province tuition rates since the Québec government (at the time) had a special deal for international students enrolled in either French studies, Québécois studies, or Linguistics. I called up the non-degree seeking department and asked to speak to someone about transferring. Fortunately, the stars were so aligned that I spoke to a Monsieur Frenette who was amazed to have a young American college student from New York on the phone chattering in French.
Monsieur Frenette immediately asked why would I limit myself to non-matriculated status? If I could pass the French language entrance exam, he would guarantee a space as a fully matriculated student in the Linguistics department. Hence, I took a calculated risk (I am a pragmatic francophile!) and instead of quitting Brandeis, requested a leave of absence just in case things didn’t work out in Montréal. It was a somewhat stressful since not get a student visa until after I sat for and passed the French language entrance exam. My mom, who was supportive of my decision, drove me across the Canadian border with my prized possessions and didn’t bat an eye when they queried her about the stuff on the roof. (I guess we looked like stereotypical Americans who don’t pack light, so we fell under the radar in that regard.)
One wouldn’t necessarily think that studying in Canada would require much cultural adaptation for an American, but it certainly did. I felt the constant, unspoken pressure to defy stereotypes. The most common stereotype is that all Americans outside of the U.S. are affluent. Oh, I sure broke that myth, especially when classmates saw how much I had to work to finance my studies.
Another common misconception about Americans is that we cannot / will not learn a foreign language. I fought that one on a daily basis–as soon as service providers, especially bank tellers, detected my American accent, they would revert back to English. I had to firmly and politely insist on continuing the conversation in French.
Despite my prior cultural exchange and language study experience, I still had to overcome linguistic barriers. During my first semester, I must confess, I ‘shopped’ around for professors who had an international French accent. After a semester of full immersion in Québécois language and culture, I discovered that my school had a small but excellent East Asian Studies department. In addition to majoring in Linguistics, I could also study Japanese! Elated by the possibility of minoring in East Asian Studies, I was still nervous about learning a third language which would be taught in my second language (which I was still learning).
Not to be deterred by my self-doubt, I contacted the Japanese 101 professor and requested an interview. I asked him outright if he thought I would have any difficulty learning Japanese since the grammar explanations would be in French. His response was a simple, “Can you understand me now?” (Yes, of course) He replied, “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.”
I adapted well to my new environment and made friends. I made friends not only from Québec, but also from various francophone countries, especially Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire, since l’Université de Montréal had tuition agreements with francophone countries. Ironically, the place where I met the most students born in Canada was in my Japanese class. Little did I know that my minor in East Asian Studies would set the stage for another important life experience more than a decade later when I moved to Fukuoka, Japan to teach English on the JET programme!
Lately I find myself reflecting on this calculated leap of faith, especially given that my older son is a high school sophomore. His academic interests lie in the STEM field. At a recent GAP year event, his face perked up when the Irish Gap Year representative told him about the ease in which American students can study in Ireland and how much more affordable tuition is, even for non-Irish citizens. Recent articles citing free German tuition have added to the discussion of sending one’s child overseas. (See, for example, “How US students get a university degree for free in Germany,” http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32821678.)
I shared with my son how I completed my studies in Montréal at a the fraction of the cost of an American undergraduate education. Back then, my studies at l’Université de Montréal were $300 CAD per semester total (not per credit, not per course, but total!) The cost of living was more affordable, especially when taking into consideration the exchange rate. More importantly though, I was immersed in a dynamic francophone environment, constantly pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.
If you are exploring the idea of sending your child overseas for his or her entire undergraduate education (and not just a semester or year of study abroad), consider intangible factors beyond the immense benefits of an affordable international experience. Notably, imagine reducing your child’s stress with respect to the college admissions process. Most overseas universities have a streamlined admissions process which does not require years of stacking a child’s ‘resume’ with an abundance of extra-curricular activities.
If your child decides to take the road slightly less traveled and applies for admission to an undergraduate school overseas, I’d love to hear from you!
P.S. With the money I saved by transferring to the Université de Montréal, I was able to realize my childhood dream of visiting Paris. (That $400 CAD round trip flight from Montréal to Paris was quite an experience!)