Case Study: Laura worked in Paris and Medellin

Case Study: Laura worked in Paris and Medellin Medellin by Omar Uran

This article was written by Laura Robertson, published on 21st July 2010 and has been read 7810 times.

Laura Robertson has just graduated from Durham university, having spent her year abroad in Paris, France and Medellin, Colombia. She worked for both parts of her year abroad, and tells us how it all went...Tell us a bit about you... I have just graduated from Durham University with a degree in Modern Languages (French and Spanish) and am currently planning to take some time out to travel before moving back to Paris to work.
Where did you go? 
I went to Paris for 8 months (August-April) where I worked as a stagiaire at C&A France Head Office as a receptionist, translator and in-house English teacher. I then went to Colombia for 5 months in May-September where I spent three months volunteering as an English teacher/Activities Coordinator at a children's home in Medellin, Colombia's second biggest city and then spent two months travelling around the country.

Was your trip organised by your university? 
No. The University Year Abroad Secretary forwards lots of job opportunities to students, one of these was the position I went on to fill at C&A.  This info is very helpful when looking for a job as it is usually targeted specifically at Year Abroad students and/or relates to posts that have been previously occupied by Year Abroad students. My university also insured me during my Year Abroad. However I organised work/travel/accommodation/visas etc independently, as well as insurance in the case of Colombia as my university was reluctant to insure me to travel to a 'medium risk' country (according to the FCO).

Did you have any problems whilst you were out there? 
The biggest problem I encountered during my Year Abroad was finding accommodation in Paris.  I arrived 2 days before starting work and initially stayed with a friend about an hour out of the city centre.  I was then lucky enough to get offered a sofa bed in a friend’s flat 5 minutes from work where I stayed for 6 weeks whilst flat hunting, which can only be described as a nightmare as a foreigner on a stagiaire's salary, with no French guarantors, in September (peak time as it coincides with the start of the academic year). My main problem was a lack of paperwork, something the French are very fond of.  Most 'above board' flat rentals require a dossier including ID, details of your (French) bank account, your last three pay slips, documents relating to previous rental etc as well as all this information from your guarantors.  As a Year Abroad student, most of this is impossible to provide. The other problem was competition. Any flat worth renting was always in very high demand. Colocation websites such as appartager.com, kel-koloc.com and colocationfrance.fr can be good and accommodation aimed specifically at foreigners (craigslist and fusac magazine) or even aimed at students is easier to secure. In the end I found my flat through a colleague. Other difficulties were to do with opening a bank account (without an address), cracking the hard exterior of the Parisians (who are actually very nice once you get to know them) and getting used to a French office environment, which is quite different to any I had encountered in the UK. As I have travelled quite extensively in South America and worked with children before I knew what to expect from Colombia. My only problem was extending my tourist visa, twice, so that I could stay in the country for 5 months.  This was a complicated process involving a lot of paperwork that needed to be done EXACTLY right. Other than that leaving both places was the most difficult thing I had to do as I thoroughly enjoyed my time and made amazing friends.

Did you struggle at first with the language?
I struggled a little at the very beginning of my placement in Paris as my job involved answering the telephone and dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary, but this proved to be the best way to get my spoken language up to speed, fast.  In Colombia I found it difficult to switch from French to Spanish at first but again my job and Colombian friends soon solved this .

How do you think your time abroad has benefited you for the future? 
I learnt a lot about the cultures of both places which will be valuable if I ever spend any time in France/Colombia again.  My spoken languages improved immensely and I would now call myself fluent in both.  Starting from scratch in a new country has prepared me well for post-university life.  Overcoming adversity, particularly in the beginning in Paris, to create a life from nothing (that I was then saddened to leave) has given me some really important life skills and the work experience I gained has benefited my CV, and I hope will prove useful in future jobs. It has also given me some direction in terms of my future career.

Would you recommend going abroad to other students?
I would strongly recommend going abroad to other students, even if is not a requisite for their course.  The knowledge, experiences and memories gained are invaluable.  If you go away with a positive attitude and determined to make the best of your time away then you will almost certainly improve your language more than you could ever do in the classroom, boost your confidence, increase your enthusiasm for the language you study (which comes in useful mid-Fourth Year), make friends you will keep for life and have a lot of fun.

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