A First Time Traveller: Learning Abroad In France


Lisa Szutu had never been much of a traveller – aside from her schooling in Calgary, she had only ever been to Vancouver, Toronto, and Las Vegas.

But in her third year at the University of Calgary, Lisa recalls a marketing class she attended that inspired a great adventure abroad. She noticed a handful of her classmates were exchange students who had travelled from all over the world to study in Canada.

“It got me thinking, ‘why did they decide to come to Calgary? And why have I not considered going somewhere myself?’” says Lisa.

That very same semester, she approached the Exchange Office at her school and started gathering information about studying abroad – a trip that led to a semester of studies in France!

Making plans for a trip to France

A First Time Traveller: Learnings Abroad In France

Lisa was a fairly inexperienced traveller – but this fact didn’t deter her. In fact, it was realizing all the things she could gain from travelling that motivated her to seek out an exchange program.

“My decision to travel abroad came after seeing a lot of exchange students at my university and realizing that it was a great way to meet people from around the world and to experience living away from home,” she says.

Choosing a destination

Initially, Lisa was debating between a few different destinations – Hong Kong, London and Paris. But in the end, France won out for 3 reasons:

  • It was central, which made travel to other parts of Europe easy and accessible.
  • Travelling in Paris can be expensive – taking advantage of student discounts while living on student rent made the opportunity appealing.
  • France has a lot of art, fashion, and culture, which makes it an appealing city to explore.

Since Lisa was studying Business Administration and Marketing at the time, she did most of her program research through the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.

“They were very helpful and knowledgeable,” says Lisa. “All the information I needed to decide what schools and transfer equivalents I needed was available there.”

Lisa enrolled in an exchange program with ESSEC – a business school in Cergy, France. While she had an elementary-level comprehension of French, she was by no means fluent. However, this didn’t deter her. She obtained her student visa in Vancouver (which was a mini-trip in itself!) and began planning her trip to France!

Living in a new country

During her trip, Lisa stayed at residence dorms on campus provided by EPSCI, a post-baccalaureate school of business and management. Here, she lived with other exchange students from all over the world who were attending school in Cergy.

“The building housed over 400 students,” says Lisa. “It was nice to be able to walk down the hall to visit your friends.”

Right away, Lisa realized that the courses in France were structured very differently from the courses she took in Calgary. The classes were much smaller than what she was used to in Canada, and there were no textbooks – the content of the courses were heavily based on discussions led by the professor.

Plus, each course was 3 hours long – this meant there was only one class a week per course. Lisa took advantage of this and arranged her schedule so that she could have 4 day weekends! This gave her the opportunity to experience France and enjoy the culture.

Travel tips by Lisa Szutu

Plan your banking – A great alternative to setting up a bank account abroad is pre-paying your rent through a bank transfer before your trip. Then, make sure you have enough money in your chequing account to last the trip – most debit and credit cards can be used around the world!
Connect with other students – If you are going abroad, there may be students from your university who have stayed there the previous semester. Talk with your exchange coordinator and see if they will leave their housewares for you when you arrive – you’ll save a lot of money on items you would end up throwing away after 5 months!
Arrive with an open mind – Understand that people from different places will have different views. For example, while Canadians may be used to racial diversity, there are many countries that are a lot more homogenous. Be prepared, and make an effort to see things from their perspective!

“Travelling abroad was everything I’d expected and more,” says Lisa. In Europe, the infrastructure was more developed, timely and reliable than what she was used to in Calgary. She really enjoyed the mix of old and new elements around the city, and how busy and lively the streets always were.

“I never experienced homesickness or culture shock,” says Lisa. “I had an open mind – I was excited to see what life was like outside of Calgary.”

Lessons learned

Even though Lisa had a rudimentary understanding of the French language, she was able to live and travel in France fairly easily. Her peers were always providing tips and suggestions for things to do around Europe. Through her experiences, she learned how important it was to plan trips in a group.

“You should not rely on one person to plan and lead the whole group,” says Lisa. “You never know if you will get lost from the group or if the one person who’s carrying the map or guide book ends up losing their backpack and that leaves everyone scrambling to find out how to get somewhere.”

Lisa also learned communication skills during her time abroad – even though she did not necessarily pick up another language, she learned to be very specific when speaking with others to avoid being misinterpreted. Through making sure her statements were clear, she was able to avoid hassles and confusion down the road.

A First Time Traveller: Learnings Abroad In France

Overall, Lisa says this trip has allowed her to see things in different perspectives. Her travels have helped her come out of her shell and see more of what the world has to offer.

“A lot of growth and knowledge that we gain through life are through experiences,” she says. “I can read about how awesome the food is in Spain and may have been to a few Spanish restaurants in Calgary but it’s nothing compared to real Spanish food in Spain.”

It’s been over 5 years since Lisa’s trip to France, and today she works as an Account Executive with a national media company. She says she is still in contact with the lifelong friends she made during her exchange over Facebook and WhatsApp.

Her advice to aspiring travellers: “Enjoy! Life is what you make of it, so have a good time and you will have the time of your life.”

Interested in planning your semester abroad? Check out the Study and Go Abroad Fair!