I still remember the day I received my acceptance later for Duke in France’s SciencesPo program. The Duke in France program has two divisions: the regular program, which gives students the option to take two out of your four courses at a French university, and the SciencesPo program, where students take all six of their courses at SciencesPo, France’s top university for political science. The SciencesPo courses are all in French, and most of them are quite rigorous.
I grew up with some French experience from my family. By no means was I a fluent French speaker, but in high school language classes I had a substantial head start on my classmates. This experience gave me a lot of confidence in my French studies; I was sure I wanted to apply for the SciencesPo program. “My French is good,” I told myself. “It would be cool to study at an elite French university.” In hindsight, I realize that I was also yearning to do something impressive. I’ve done well in classes at Duke and always enjoyed myself, but I felt like I had thus far failed to differentiate myself with anything impressive beyond curriculum requirements. Studying at a top French university seemed like a great way to do something that I enjoyed, to speak French, and to challenge myself.
When my acceptance email arrived I called my mom, overjoyed. All was right in the world. I was spending that summer with DukeEngage in Jodhpur, India, and now I knew my fall would be spent in France in the program I had been so excited about. My mom, who had gone to a French high school, warned me that SciencesPo would be really tough and stressful. She warned me that the French grading system is a harsh one and that the French style of teaching would be intense. These are things that I heard from many people. But at the end of the day, my desire to do something special made me too stubborn to listen to anyone.
There have been tough moments this semester academically. My mom and Duke were both right when they told me that SciencesPo would be really hard. There have been quite a few stressful days. But at the end of the day the most important lesson that I have taken away from my time in India and France isn’t something that one learns in the classroom or from working at an NGO. The post-study abroad questionnaire asks a few questions about how studying abroad has affected your desire to study a foreign language, your propensity to live in a foreign country and your likely career path. For me, I’m not sure it has had a dramatic influence on those trajectories. What it has made clear to me is which fundamental things matter most in my life.
When people talk about “spending the summer in India” or “studying for a semester in Paris,” it sounds amazing, and I’m not claiming it’s not. DukeEngage Jodhpur was truly an experience I will never forget. This semester in France has also been exceptional. The last six months have changed me dramatically and for the better. However, people rarely talk about the reality (or at least what was my reality): that these experiences are also full of moments of struggle and loneliness. You’re making new friends, seeing new places and doing new things. But every so often, you find yourself very alone. The people who have long given your existence a sense of meaning and stability are an ocean away.
The last four or five generations of my Indian host family were born in the same house. At one point this summer, the families of three siblings plus their mother were all living under one roof while their other two older brothers lived in the two homes next door. The concept of being away from home for so long was completely foreign to my host family. After all this time away, I am beginning to understand why.
These six months away from home, what I’ve come to realize is that no matter what you’re doing, no matter how good things sound, no matter how beautiful of a city you’re in or how impressive of a gig you’ve got, friends and family will always be the most meaningful things in life. My happiest moments this semester didn’t come from the pride that I took in studying at an elite school or the sheer experience of being in Paris. The best times in these last six months were always the times spent with friends. After having been so lucky to get out and see just a little bit of what’s out there in the world, I am not coming home with a new set of professional goals and or an extended list of places where I want to live abroad. I come home with a new appreciation for the friends and family who have made my life so special and with whom I can’t wait to share the future.
Philip Doerr is a Trinity junior and is currently studying abroad in Paris, France.