A specialized program at a great price
Studying in France as an international student is one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in my life. Why did I choose France for my higher education? First of all, having completed most of my secondary education at the Lycée Français in Mexico, my training and manner of thinking have always been close to « la pensée française ». But second, because most Mexicans who want to study abroad choose the United States or Spain (where there is no language barrier), I was convinced that studying in France would add value to my professional education.
Economics also played a role in my decision. Higher education in certain other countries (including Mexico, the United States, and several countries of Europe) is dominated by private institutions that offer rather general programs. In France, by contrast, most of the universities are public and the cost of education is low. At the same time, their programs are more specialized.
I lived in Bordeaux for the 2007–08 academic year while completing a Master 2 in law related to city-planning, construction, and real estate at Université Montesquieu Bordeaux IV. At first I had a hard time adjusting to the French way of life, mainly because the Mexican and French cultures are so different with regard to lifestyle.
My biggest problem was to find a place to live. I hadn't thought I would have any trouble finding an inexpensive small apartment of 50 square meters. Obviously that was unrealistic, as real estate prices are very high, even in the provinces. After an exhaustive search, I found a much smaller place (36 m2) in a building managed by the regional student-service agency, CROUS, which I shared with a friend who was also studying in Bordeaux. But I didn't have a guarantor to co-sign my lease, and French landlords are very strict and inflexible. Fortunately France has lots of public and private organizations that help international students solve problems. The first step is to look for the CROUS in your region. There are also various housing-assistance programs that I applied to. I was granted housing assistance that covered about 40% of my rent.
It took me a little over a month to adjust to French life. Four tools were indispensable. The first was my Carte Bleue and checkbook. Opening a bank account in France is pretty easy. You just make an appointment, deposit funds, and get a Carte Bleue (Visa) and a checkbook. It was in France that I first learned how to make out a check, where people use them even to pay for a night out. The second tool was my mobile phone. Today, uninterrupted communication. My cell phone was the easiest way for me to communicate (either by calling or texting) and it's the way I stay in touch with the people I met during my stay. The third tool was my public transportation pass. Public transportation is one of the most efficient services in France. Although a streetcar ride in Bordeau costs €1.30, an annual pass (valid for streetcars and buses) is a good deal at €120 if you have to ride four times a day like I did. Halfway through my stay, I bought a bike for trips downtown, something I recommend strongly. The last tool was my computer and Internet service. Even though I had no forms of entertainment at my apartment (TV, DVD, radio), I could use my computer. I paid for a contract with an Internet services provider, which allowed me to stay in touch with my family, to stay current with events at home, to do my academic work, and to get access to entertainment when I needed some down time. It was simultaneously a tool for work and leisure.
The language didn't pose any problem for understanding what was going on in class, reading specialized textes, or even understanding the contracts that I had to sign during my first few days in France. The biggest language problem I had was during nights out. It's not easy to keep up with two or three simultaneous conversations full of slang. Now, however, if I heard someone say « mon pote a été arrêté par les flics quand il fumait une clope dans la bagnole » I wouldn't have any problem understanding what he meant.
I had a choice between a research-oriented program and a professional program. I chose the latter because during and after my training in law in Mexico I had worked in professional settings. Also, the professional program that I chose had two types of instructors: some who were 100% academics and others who were practicing professionals. Because of that mix, I got two very different perspectives on the same subjects. The work we had to do and our exams were on practical cases, so it was much easier to see the practical applications of what I had been learning.
My program included a three-month internship at the end of my courses but before final exams. Finding that final internship was not easy. And if it's hard for a French student, for an international student it can be a nightmare. Sometimes the professionals among the faculty offer students an internship with them. My advantage to international students is to take advantage of such offers so as to spare yourself unnecessary stress.
My experience in France definitely enhanced my professional development, particularly in how I deal with practical problems. The Cartesian way of thinking is unique to French culture, and the only way to learn it is to immerse yourself in the French way of living and learning. Understanding French methods and how to view problems the way the French do may not be easy at first, but after a period of learning and observing the culture, the international student emerges with a better education.
One of the most rewarding things for me was meeting all sorts of people—not only my fellow students but also others of every conceivable nationality. I met and made friends with Germans, English, Swedes, Dominicans, Egyptians, Colombians, Spaniards, Lebanese, Macedonians, and Chinese. I also had a chance to get to know France and Europe a little better. It's easy to take a train or get a cheap flight to visit someplace new during vacations or even over a weekend.
To conclude my testimonial, I would like to mention the support I received from Campus France. It's not easy for international students (at least not those who live in the Americas) to gather all of the information from French university sites that is needed to choose a professional program. Also, submitting applications to different universities can become complicated and expensive. Campus France assembles all of the information the future student needs to make a good choice. The application that you file through Campus France can be viewed by all of the agency's member institutions. In my case, the Université Montesquieu Bordeaux IV (to which I had not applied directly) gave me an offer of admission that I ended up accepting. So it was thanks to Campus France that my stay in France got off to a good start.
Whenever somebody asks me if I enjoyed my time in France, I like to respond in the words of Edith Piaf « …je ne regrette rien ».