Ben Price, an MEng civil engineering student at Imperial College, has chosen to spend the fourth and final year of his degree course at the Ecole Nationale de Ponts et Chaussees, in Paris, under the ERASMUS student exchange scheme.
I jumped at the opportunity to study in France, but as the day of departure approached I began to have doubts; why would anybody want to leave their home university in their last year of study to go and spend an entire year in a foreign county? I knew where I stood in London, all my friends were there and my studies were well organised. Why go off somewhere new and start all over again? However, after six months in Paris things look rather different.
Speaking French all day, everyday, has a pretty dramatic effect on one's level of understanding. I improved more in three months here than I did during three years of classes in England. Report writing in French is a little stressful, but it was not long before mysteries such as the subjunctive tense began to make sense.
How does the course in Paris compare to the one in London? It is not easy to find modules similar to the fourth year subjects I would have been doing at Imperial. The courses tend to be either very mathematical or really operational. There are exams at the end of every term, a welcome change from the hell of summer exams. The biggest difference though is the attitude towards engineering. Everything has to be derived in general terms from pure mathematics; which is fine and very powerful in lots of situations. The approach definitely leads to more generalisation, civils being seen here as something to specialise in during the last two years of study, rather than as a separate subject.
I would love to be able to say that, after a few months, I really understand French people, but unfortunately I can't. Why, for example, does the student union get elected on its capacity to sing loudly and pull moonies? Why is French music like nothing else on earth? These are questions I may never know the answers to, but at least I can say I'm having a great time while attempting to find the answers.
Getting to know French students has been one of the greatest challenges. It's tough, especially when you have the vocabulary of a 15 year old. On the other hand, I have been thrust together with 80 other slightly confused students from other European countries. The common bond of not understanding is strong, and the amount I have learnt about various European states surprising. Our differences may be great: but it's clear that once everybody gets talking the same language our similarities are far greater.
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