Mar 21st, 2022, 01:00 PM

Adjusting to Paris as a Visiting Student

By Lauren Viggiani
By: Lauren Viggiani
Advice from current AUP students on how to adjust to a new country

Moving to any new city can be overwhelming and may cause many new emotions to arise. It is important to stay calm during times of stress when adjusting to a new culture. Sometimes this may seem hard to do, especially when dealing with a language barrier. The American University of Paris is a diverse space that welcomes students from all over the world, and they make it a priority that new students adjust well. But even with the support AUP provides, moving countries is such a big change and can still make one feel anxious at times.

I came to AUP from New York City, so there are some aspects of Paris I am familiar with such as the fast pace and taking the metro. However, there are many people who came to AUP from state schools, where walking or driving is the norm. Regardless of where everyone comes from, there are always going to be parts to living in Paris that differ from their home university. However, there are actions I have been taking to make sure I do not allow the cultural differences to make the experience harder on me. It is important to overcome certain struggles and to start enjoying everything Paris has to offer. 

The biggest piece of advice I would give to future visiting students is to embrace cultural differences. Europe is a much different country than America, it is much older and richer in culture. The way of life here differs a lot from the United States. It is important to keep an open mind and to not let differences make you dislike something because you are not used to it. In America, I would normally eat dinner around 6 pm but in France, everyone has dinner closer to 8 or 9 pm. This does not seem like a big deal but the physical change in diet, portion sizes, and the appropriate times to eat was an adjustment for me. However, these differences are worth it because the food quality and taste are so much better here than in the United States.

Further, in the US I had no problem walking around in the streets in my sweatpants and running shoes. People in Paris always look somewhat put together, so to avoid feeling out of place I would recommend putting a slight effort into dressing to go outside. For me, dressing up slightly made me feel more in place.

There is also the constant smell of cigarette smoke. In the States, most of society seems to have moved past smoking cigarettes but that is not the case in Paris. Being someone who is genuinely put off by the smell of cigarette smoke, I struggled with accepting the fact that this is the way it is here. From my observations, more people smoke than not, so smelling the smoke quite often while walking from place to place was simply something I had to force myself to get used to. Still, it was very frustrating at first.

Image credit: Lauren Viggiani


Another aspect that I found frustrating about Paris was the number of dog feces on the street. I have stepped in unfortunate spots more than once so now I am always on the lookout when I walk. I suppose not picking up after one’s dog is much more accepted here than in America.

Regardless of all these minor differences, the most challenging aspect for me is my lack of communication with the locals and small business owners because I do not speak any French. For visiting students who speak French well, the adjustment process will be much smoother and less overwhelming. The stereotype of French people being mean to Americans I have found to be untrue. It seems more that the French are much more open and willing to help at restaurants, or any business if you show the slightest effort to speak their language. If you are willing to say “Bonjour” when entering a business, they are more understanding and seem to appreciate the effort.

I have conducted a few interviews to provide insight from other visiting students. I interviewed Jack Doran, a visiting student from Pace University. When I asked Jack what the biggest challenge he had faced so far was, he said, “The language barrier, for sure. Especially when trying to communicate with the people who work in the metro. I have not been able to get a monthly pass card because too much gets lost in translation which is frustrating because I have to take the train everywhere.” This is where I got lucky when I first arrived as my friend Ally speaks fluent French. She could communicate with the metro workers and got my metro card set up.

I then asked him what the hardest part about adjusting to a new university was. "Definitely the change in platforms for schoolwork," he said. "At Pace, everything is on Classes, which is clearer to me and easier to navigate. I am not used to Blackboard and find it somewhat hard to navigate and kind of outdated.” This was something I related to very much. If you are like me, and any change throws you off, the change in the learning platform may be frustrating at first. However, after almost a month of using it, I have adjusted to the differences.

When I asked Jack about his experiences with culture shock Jack replied: “Literally everyone here smokes cigarettes. It is all I smell while walking down the streets, and I thought a lot of people in New York smoked. Here it feels like everyone has a cigarette in their hand, always.” This was one of the most prevalent differences I noticed when comparing America to Europe, but if you smoke cigarettes you are definitely in luck.

Image credit: Lauren Viggiani

Jack shared that, despite all, he was happy about his decision. "I love Paris. Even with the differences from America, it is so worth it to experience a different culture.” I have to agree. Even with the shocks I have experienced since my arrival, I have never been unhappy with my decision.

Jack's final advise to visiting students at AUP is “To be mindful and aware of your surroundings. It is super important to be alert and aware in any city, but especially a new unfamiliar one.” This is very important considering the pick-pocketing issue in Paris. This has never happened to me but I know more than one person it has happened to. I recommend carrying a cross-body purse and trying not to keep your phone in the back pocket.

Next, I interviewed my friend Anna Loprete, who came to Paris from the University of South Carolina. When asking Anna about the biggest challenge she had faced so far, she said, “Budgeting myself, for sure. In South Carolina, it seems to be much cheaper to do anything, and now I catch myself stressing over money which is not something I am used to. Seriously doing anything here costs money.” This is one of the biggest issues I have run into myself. Living in Paris, there are so many costly temptations that I encounter on a daily basis. There are many new clothing stores that I have never seen before in America, and every restaurant I  pass by I want to try. It is important to come up with a weekly budget plan that works for you in order to avoid overspending.

"The fact that the classes are much more discussion-based as opposed to lecture-based is not something I am used to." Anna said when I asked her how she adjusted to the new university. "My classes in South Carolina do not really require the students to engage as much, we mostly just listen and take notes.” Anna and I come from very different types of universities, so this is something I found interesting. My classes at Pace University are on the smaller side and very much discussion-based, being similar to the way AUP constructs their classes.

I then asked Anna about her culture shock experience. "Definitely the language barrier, I wish I spoke French so bad," she responded. "Sometimes I feel like I am missing out on what is happening around me because I can’t understand anything that is happening.” I think this is something that most visiting students are going to experience when coming to Paris. Unfortunately, unless you speak French the frustration that comes along with the language barrier is unavoidable.

Similarly to Jack, she did not regret her choice to come to Paris. "Regardless of all of the struggles, I am so happy about my decision and am excited to see what the future months have to offer.” Like Jack and I, Anna has the same feelings about coming to AUP, regardless of the struggles having the opportunity to live in Paris for a semester is worth it.

Anna's final piece of advice to future visiting students is something very important. She said, “if you are coming from somewhere in the South or anywhere warm you have to bring warm coats. Some days are freezing, and it is not fun walking in the streets cold.” Luckily for me, coming from New York, the weather in Paris is significantly warmer.

Spending a semester abroad is something that I feel is important to experience and can only help one grow. From what I gathered from my own experience and talking to my classmates, regardless of the stress of moving, language barriers, and cultural differences, all these challenges are worth this opportunity.