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How I went to the south of France for an Exchange year as a High School student

Gap Year
Exchange Program
Language Learning
Nov 19, 2022
7 mins read

English


Lycee Saint Cricq
Lycee Saint Cricq

natalie.pijet

🎵

@natalie.pijet
from
Poland🇵🇱
💼 Exchange Student
⏳ Aug 2022 — Jul 2023
📍 Pau,
France🇫🇷
🗣 French
Not Required (EU citizen)
Lycee Saint Cricq
Lycee Saint Cricq
📍 Pau,
France🇫🇷
🗣 French
🤓 1,600 Students

I am from Poland, but I started my international education journey two years ago when I went to a Danish boarding High-School for one year of the IB Program. I then decided to take a gap year and do an exchange program in France, which is what I'm doing right now. A big part of my life is music, I play the piano and violin. I am really into volunteering work and love learning languages.

The decision to go abroad

I always wanted to study abroad because I want to become a doctor. Poland, where I am from, doesn’t have the best medical education. At the same time, my parents were encouraging me to study foreign languages so I could be comfortable when I go out of my country. I speak Polish, English, French, and German.

Considering the political situation in Poland, I felt that it was going to be worse every year. While in quarantine, I spent a lot of time researching schools and learning about studying abroad. I decided that the right time to go out of my country is now, not when I finish high school because I will have better opportunities after having an experience at an international high school rather than a regular public Polish school.

Why France

My best friend is Polish, but we met in Denmark. Her sister participated in the exchange programs. After I heard about this amazing opportunity to go abroad, I really wanted to join. I and my friend applied together for the same countries, but she ended up in Brazil and I am in France.

My first choice was the US, but it was extremely expensive and there weren’t any available programs at the time. I decided to look for something in Europe: France, Switzerland, and Germany. I got accepted to the program in Switzerland, but there wasn’t any host family left who could take me in. My remaining choices were France and Germany, so I said yes to France as it’s warmer and nice. My mother also did An au pair in France and she really enjoyed her experience.

Beautiful sunsets in France
Beautiful sunsets in France

Application Process

The application process was pretty easy. I had to submit personal data, a physician's statement report, write Personal Statement, and pass an interview in English. Overall, it was pretty fast, I think it took me only two weeks to apply. Knowledge of the French language was not required, as the aim of the program is to study French, so you are not expected to be fluent.

Searching for schools was relatively easy because I applied through a Polish organization that has connections with a French one, called WEP France. I submitted all my documents to the Polish organization. In contrast, when looking for a school in Denmark, I had to go to IB schools finder website and manually send emails to schools asking if they can accept me.

Lycee Saint Cricq
Lycee Saint Cricq

Funding

Unfortunately, there aren't any scholarships or financial awards for the exchange program. But the organization I went with (WEP France) was way cheaper than many other options I looked at.

Making Friends in a new place

I felt that French people don't generally like to make new friends among foreigners, especially since they know that I’m staying here just for one year. It’s not a temporary friendship. Most of my friends are those who came to France from another country and go through the same experience. If you don’t speak French fluently, it definitely very hard to make friends here, because locals don’t speak English very well.

Going to a music school really helped me meet people, as there they are more open and willing to help me with anything. Having some hobbies or passions helps you find like-minded people!

Typical Day at my French school

School in France is very hard, we spend around 9-10 hours studying every day. I start at 7.50 AM and finish by 6 PM on Mondays, and 5 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Wednesday and Friday are half-days, but on Wednesday I also have a music school, so I come back home by 10 PM.

I wake up at 5:30 AM, then study for half an hour because we usually have a few tests every day. Then, I get ready and eat breakfast. I believe French people don't eat breakfast - they usually just wake up, drink coffee or eat croissants. In my case, I love breakfast, so I take longer for that than others in my host family.

At 7 AM I have a bus to school, which takes around 30 minutes. There are a lot of protests in France, so it’s common that the bus doesn’t arrive because the driver decided to go for a protest. Teachers also protest and might not come to their classes.

When I get to school, we have four classes in the morning, followed by a two-hour lunch break, which is very nice. What’s not so good is the fact that we don’t have a designated study/chill spot at school and have to stay outside while waiting for lunch, and after lunch as well.

After the 2nd block of classes, I take the school bus back home, then work out and study. At around 9 PM we have a late dinner, after which I go to bed.

There is not as much social life, because if you want to be a good student, you have to study a lot. When I have free time, I do music and give English lessons to kids from Poland in orphanages. I really enjoy doing this because I can help someone with something I know.

Pau, France
Pau, France

Differences in the education system

In Denmark, I could spend only two hours at school every day, while in France, it's impossible. In Denmark, we would also call teachers by their first names, which made the distance between teachers and students nonexistent, even though we are not technically friends. In France, we have to address teachers with Madame and Monsieur (Miss and Mister) and we cannot call them by their first names. We don't even know their first names. We also had fewer tests in Denmark, there were only about 3 tests for one subject per year. In France, there are tests all the time. It’s definitely something I don't enjoy because sometimes I don’t have time to prepare for all subjects at the same time. My school in Denmark was an IB school, so I had only six subjects. In Poland it was 18 and in France it is 10. I can not say that I liked either school more, but in Denmark, I definitely had more free time for things outside of school. But in France, I am more organized and follow my routine.

If I compare France to Poland, the difference is in English learning. In Poland, if the language of schooling is not English, you take around 4-5 hours of English every week. In France, it’s only 2 hours, so they spend much less time learning foreign languages.

My host family

I am currently with my second host family. Unfortunately, my first host family was not very responsible, so I ended up changing families in October. The process of joining a family starts by sharing your preferences: if you want to share a room with your host sister, what area you want to live in, what is your religious belief, whether you eat meat, etc. I wrote all of it in my application and sent it to a local coordinator who is responsible for finding matching host families. If one family has several applications, they would then choose the students they feel most connected with. However, sometimes you might not find a perfect match, and you will be assigned to whatever family is available. You can request to change the family later as I did.

My current family is super lovely! They are very active and we do lots of things together like mountain hiking. The dinner celebrations are very special: we talk and eat a lot, they ask me about Poland and Denmark. My host sister is two years younger than me, so we have a lot of common interests. The family members don’t speak English, which is great for me as I get to practice French on a daily basis. They really treat me like like I'm a part of their family.

Hiking trip
Hiking trip

Best part of the experience

I think the best part is actually discovering myself. When I was living with my parents, I would do what they tell me to do, and eat what they tell me to eat. Even though I could always decide what I want to do in my free time, there was always someone “superior” to me.

When I first went to Denmark, I started going grocery shopping alone and could decide whether to buy this or that. I then had some health problems and had to go to the hospital and deal with all those problems by myself. It was definitely very tough. I remember how three weeks in I just cried a lot one night. But the next morning I woke up and realized “Ok, Denmark is my home now. I have to make the best out of this experience.” Boarding school made me grow up faster and become more responsible.

Being abroad also motivates you to learn the language fast. I thought I can speak French, but as it turned out, I couldn't. When I arrived in France, I didn't understand what was going on in classes and around me, I could just say “Hello. My name's Natalia.” Now it’s getting much better!

Another amazing aspect of the exchange program is that you actually get the experience the culture by living in a place for a long time. In boarding school, you don’t go outside as much, but here I get to know the people and culture outside of school.

Advice for students

You really need to be sure you really want to do this. You need to be brave, especially during the first months when everyone is shocked and confused. There are a bunch of teenagers who came from different parts of the world and try to navigate a new place. It’s important to be open and tolerant, as many things will be different from what you are used to at home. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your teachers, friends, or therapists!

When you are abroad, you have a lot of freedom, but you need to manage this freedom. You could party all the time instead of studying, but then you will have a lower chance of getting into good universities. So use this freedom to make your dreams true!



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