I went into my gap year in Paris with preconceived notions of how much I would learn about the language and culture of France. But at the end of my experience, I realized that immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture teaches more than that. I learned how to wonder about the way the world looks to those not standing in my shoes.
In France, I was confronted with humanitarian issues that I had only read about or seen on television. The refugee crisis in Syria and other countries was a contested issue, but it was hard to understand the importance of the political debate until I saw people in need of basic necessities. President Hollande pledged in 2015 that France would accept 30,000 refugees over a two year period. This is a commendable action, especially considering the fear of immigrants and refugees in Europe after the terrorist attacks that occurred in November of that year.
The people I saw on the streets of Paris were running from their countries, where they had had homes and jobs. Holding signs with their stories, depending on the generosity of strangers, they decided that the street of a completely different country was a better place for their family than their home. It is impossible for me to imagine those people as a threat to national security when they were fleeing from terrorism.
During my gap year, I was surrounded by people who viewed political situations from an alternate perspective. In my French class, there were students from China, Syria, Egypt, Russia, and Japan, as well as the U.S. I got to learn about what it was like to live in those places from real people.
For example, Samaher, a Syrian woman, was taking classes to improve her French so she could support her son. Her daughter was still in Syria and her husband was in the U.S.—she had not seen him for several years. Toward the end of the semester, her daughter came to live with her. The whole class, including the professor, was moved by her story and resilience. That story helped me put my problems in perspective and realize the scope of the refugee crisis. There are hundreds of thousands of people with similar pasts.
Studying abroad got me out of my comfort zone, and most of the people around me felt similarly ––no one had a distinct advantage. Here at Emerson, domestic students are more familiar with the culture of the U.S., and often share a similar point of view. During my program in Paris, everyone came from a different background, but we built this small community where we could open up. We could laugh together. My interactions with people during my time in Paris showed me the possibility to find similarities with anyone, no matter where they come from.
In a time when people are reluctant to listen to other voices, it’s important to find a common ground. And a trip abroad isn’t required to do this. As college students, we can help change conversations, even if it is just in our personal circles. The world can seem like a big, scary place; but the way something appears to be often differs from reality. We are going to inherit this world, problems and all, and the task will seem less daunting if we have a real idea of what other places are like beyond our homes.