Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Closure and College App Essays

I meant to make a final post during most of last year and then completely forgot for a while. I can't believe I started my exchange a little more than two years ago already.

What do I know now that I didn't know two years ago? Lots. Mostly, that going on exchange was the best decision I've ever made. I really think it was my year in France that motivated me to apply to Oxford (yes, the one in England) and that was in large part responsible for my acceptance there. I'm going to be studying French and Arabic (also inspired by my time in France) starting next month. And I'm not worried at all. If I was capable of going to France, I can most definitely go to the UK (and next year to Syria or Egypt!).

I'd like to leave you with two of my college application essays because 1) I think I expressed the way I feel about studying abroad pretty well in them, and 2) I'm too lazy to write something new.

On my connection to a place (and on saying goodbye):
"In my mind’s eye I see my host mom and brother waving goodbye to me. My host dad Hervé pulls the car, a blue Peugeot 806, down the driveway, and now I see the wilted geraniums in the window boxes, the side yard where I played soccer, the imposing shutters which stayed closed all winter but now are open. Laurent puts his arm around my host mom’s shoulders and calls after me with a half-smile, “Allez, garde la banane!” an untranslatable French pun on “Cheer up!” I laugh a little through my tears and wave until Hervé reaches the end of the driveway and turns right so I can’t see them anymore. I am sobbing now, and Hervé reaches over and pats my hand.

I remember all this because I wrote everything down, every day, filling seven notebooks in ten months. The writing forced me to notice each of the million tiny reasons why I loved where I was. I remember the saltiness of the tears in my mouth, the smell of the white flowers on the bushes outside the house, the brilliance of my host brother’s red shirt in the sun, the gentleness of his voice as he tries to make me laugh, and the warmth of my host dad’s hand on mine. The grace of these details offsets how much I miss 8 avenue du Moulinard, Osny, France."

And the essay I wrote for the Common App, which summarizes my whole year:

"No one could believe that I wanted to—that I would even be able to—study abroad. I was too shy. Still, I knew I wanted to spend my junior year of high school in France, attending a lycée and living with a host family, although I struggled to explain my reasons to my parents. No, I wasn’t fleeing San Antonio, and no, I didn’t just want to become fluent in French. Finally, the words came to me: “I want to be a braver person.” I hated being shy, and I wanted to change. Going to France, I reasoned, would be like tearing a band-aid off quickly and getting the pain over with at once. I would be around people I didn’t know, and I would just have to get used to talking to them if I didn’t want to be lonely all year.

In retrospect, I underestimated the effect that studying abroad would have on me. I did become braver, though in a different way than I expected. The world I knew had fallen away, and there I was in France. So I adapted. I learned to eat grilled cheese sandwiches with a fork and knife and to do my math homework in pen instead of pencil. But for all of the external changes, I clung to who I was on the inside. I realized that I had been wrong to think that I wanted to become a different person.

Instead I worked on being a more outgoing version of myself, on talking to classmates who didn’t talk to me, and on opening up to my host family. It wasn’t easy, but the turning point came when I connected with my sixteen-year-old host brother Laurent. On the day I arrived, he barely glanced my way when he said hello. For months our conversations were unsatisfying, brief and superficial.

One day Laurent came home from school upset, and he talked to me for a minute before going up to his room. I hesitated, but finally concern conquered my timidity, and I knocked on his door. The problem, a test that hadn’t gone well, was insignificant. What matters is that when I left that room he gave me his first genuine smile in three months. After that day, we were friends, siblings almost, and on my last day in France, he stayed by me, offering his shoulder to cry on.

And I needed that shoulder. By the end of my ten months, my host family really was like family, and I had close friends at school. The sadness that I felt, though, is also a measure of my success. I had found the courage to connect with people, to reach out across closed doors and language barriers. If these connections made it a hundred times harder to leave France, then they have also made it a hundred thousand times easier for me to be myself. I know now that I don’t need to try to be someone I’m not, someone who loves crowded parties and tells life stories to strangers.

When I returned from France this summer, my mother was thrilled to see how I had changed. She said it better than I can: “Lucie, you’re not a different person. You’re more yourself.” Now that I have explained the quadratic formula and told people I love them, both in French, English is easy. I am proud that I pushed myself to go to France, I am proud that I was successful in my year abroad, and I am happy to be who I am with the courage to face the world."


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