Moving from France to Detroit for an entire year is quite a journey, especially when you have never been to the United States before and when you hail from a small town.
Making such a move is becoming increasingly popular. Every year about 4 million postsecondary students from the U.S. and other countries decide to study abroad, compared to about 800,000 students in 1975, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
While my experiences trace a journey from France to the United States, students traveling from the U.S. to other countries share some of the same challenges and opportunities.
It sounds like a cliche, but probably my first thought the second my plane landed at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport was "this place is huge."
From August to mid-November, I wasn't able to see as much of the United States as I had hoped. I wasn't confined to my residence per se, but it certainly felt that way because I lived on a campus and it felt a bit like living behind bars but without a cell.
Patience is a useful concept when you are an international student in a hurry to discover a new country and even the city where you live.
"Don't be shy" is also a piece of advice that I would give to international students. In hindsight, I didn't ask as many questions as I could have in the beginning, but I made up for lost time after November.
The more you learn about the U.S., the more you want to know about the country's intricacies. And the more you want to know, the more you ask questions.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I took my first trip outside of Michigan and went to Pittsburgh when it seemed everybody else had decided to go to New York City. I really wanted to discover the American "heartland."
Some universities like to group foreigners together because they think it will be easier for them to feel at home.
In my opinion, the opposite is true. I am not suggesting that you should avoid other foreign students, but you should try your best to spend a fair share of your time with citizens of your host country.
That will help you feel more a part of your host campus and community and, more globally, provide opportunities for cross-cultural contact. Indeed, studying abroad is not only about classes; it is also about personal development.
There are several reasons for studying abroad. For me, it was the desire to discover another culture, another language. My passion for adventure and my eagerness to discover a different point view from my native France are what drove me to the United States.
When deciding to study abroad, don't make the decision lightly or by default. You do not want to end up in a place you really don't like.
Indeed, there are several challenges one must face when studying abroad. Among them is the fact that you will have to adapt quickly to an unfamiliar environment, an unfamiliar language and accent (I am not talking about just English but 'Pittsburghese' here), a different culture and obviously a different educational system.
According to anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, most international students experience four stages of culture shock: honeymoon, hostility, recovery and, finally, adjustment.
Jannecke Wiers-Jenssen, scholar at the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Research and Higher Education, puts the challenge this way: "Most students will experience fascination as well as frustration."
There are a few things you can do to help yourself feel more at home.
Because other students may not always be willing to help you integrate (though I admit being impressed at the lengths some Americans went to), you should definitely try joining a group or association on the campus related to your favorite activities.
Don't wait for people to reach out to you; do things on your own. It really is the best way to enjoy your experience.
As my year abroad was coming to an end, I could say it definitely has changed the way I look at my own country today.
I truly think that going abroad for a year is one of the best things that could ever happen to you, no matter what the country is. It will change the way you look at things in your own country and the way you look at other people. For the better.
Some might think that we live in a globalized world and that nobody is different, no matter where you go. So far, I have not found this to be true.
Take a chance to discover this for yourself.
Nicolas Dubois, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, studied journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit for a year and is back in France completing a master's degree in history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.