I Left My Heart in Paris

With summer bliss only a few weeks away, hundreds of UC Irvine students are preparing to embark on one of the campus’ featured study abroad programs. The Center for International Education (CIE) is the first pit stop for Anteaters eager to spend a quarter or more in foreign universities in countries as diverse as Singapore, Ghana and Turkey. With an estimated 1,000 students traveling abroad every year, the appeal to earn units while on an exotic excursion is ever growing.

CIE offers students several program options, including the UC Education Abroad Program (EAP), the International Opportunities Program (IOP) and UCI Travel Study.

Students are able to study abroad while earning credits toward their majors or minors in a variety of host countries all over the globe, ideal for the adventurous student itching for a break from Orange County. CIE provides helpful information regarding how to choose the perfect host country, how to attain financial aid for the seemingly out-of-reach excursions and which health and safety precautions students should take before venturing out of the United States. For students applying through EAP or IOP, there are two orientations that address living abroad and the host country in order to fully prepare students for both the physical and underestimated mental challenges that students often face.

“It wasn’t as hard as I expected to adjust. You have this big anticipation before you go and you’re really nervous, [but] you won’t die. You might feel like you’re going to die because you’re so lonely, but you won’t,” said Katrina Lee, a second-year international studies major, regarding her experience studying abroad in France last July.

Lee pursued her dream of following in her older sister’s footsteps to study in Paris through the IOP program, allowing her to take eight units at the Institut Catholique de Paris. Lee adjusted well to the intricate Parisian subway system, inevitable language barriers and relying on her feet to get her from point A to B. However, Lee’s biggest challenges arrived when her plane landed in Southern California.

“I was expecting reverse culture shock. They warn you at the orientations, but I didn’t expect it to be so literal that you’d be so sad,” Lee said.

Marcella Khelif, associate director of advisor country and region responsibilities, stated that a cycle of cultural adjustment is completely normal with students studying abroad.

“We draw a picture for students during orientation on their excitement levels before, during and after the studying abroad process. Evidence says that most students go through these highs and lows,” Khelif said.

Although a returnee orientation is available for students once they’re back at UCI, the turnout is very small, perhaps due to students like Lee who at first may have not taken the possibility of reverse culture shock very seriously.

“It was probably the second day coming back that it hit me. It was really weird, but I felt really useless. In Paris I could walk everywhere, but here I felt stuck,” Lee said.

After learning a daily routine of breakfast at the local boulangerie, conserving resources by taking quick showers and looking to the outdoors for a good time, Lee’s transition back home took away the cultural diversity Paris offered.

“You have all this excitement inside of you from your trip, but it’s hard sometimes to explain that to your friends. Conversations seemed to end quickly, so I spent a lot of time on Facebook keeping in touch with the friends I made in Paris. They were going through the same thing too,” Lee said.

Despite the month-and-a-half depression of sorts Lee endured after her return home, she is already planning to study abroad in Hong Kong in the fall, showcasing the rising trend of students taking multiple trips abroad. Lee’s enthusiasm to travel while learning has not wavered, yet there are different steps she can take to make her next transition back home easier.

“Students can learn how to continue learning internationally even while they are home. We encourage them to not have their study abroad experience to be packing up your memories in a shoebox to put on their shelf and it’s over, but continue to be part of your life from then on,” Khelif said.

The CIE’s Web site returnee page illustrates how students can do this by providing links to information regarding their study abroad experiences and adjustment challenges they will face when returning.

Returnees are subscribed to a twice-quarterly issued newsletter, exhibiting clubs and organizations on campus focused on meeting international students. The newest opportunity for returnee students is the recently established Lessons from Abroad conference, a statewide orientation for students that teaches them how to apply their experiences to a future career and to put their relevant experiences on resumes.

“I don’t want to say this [or] that in a preachy way, but it’s human nature. Before you’ve been through the experience, you don’t know how it’s going to be. So I hope they take something away from it,” Khelif said.

As for Lee’s advice to students, she emphasizes the importance of expecting the unexpected and keeping an open mind to new experiences. On coming back home, Lee stated that a traveler should find other students to talk to, especially those who have shared a similar experience.

Lee summed up her experience when she said, “Studying abroad definitely changes how you look at life; you learn to appreciate the smaller things.”