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What I learned about college studying in three countries: France, USA and Canada

If you’d like some insights on where to go next for your high-education schooling, check out what I found. This may help in your decision process:

For most of my life, I looked back at my scattered educational path and thought that I had wasted my time to figure myself out. I took a semester at La Sorbonne in Paris, I went to community college in Los Angeles and took extension classes at UCLA, I enrolled into another community college in Pennsylvania and graduated with my bachelors at Temple University in Philadelphia. Then I completed my master’s degree at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Now with more wisdom, I realized that my education wasn’t only completed in schoolbooks, it was constantly surrounding me with my environment. Learning a subject in a new language (English) was a tough challenge, I also learned to adapt to new cultures and learned how to make friends each time I moved. I’m overall grateful for the experience and would like to share what I’ve learned in my scattered path.

1. Tuition is the elephant in the room

American schools are notoriously costly, compared to French and Canadian schools. French schools are free (plus minor administrative fees) and Canadian schools are somewhat more affordable, although the average student debt balance is more than $26k after graduation. If you’re thinking of studying in the USA, please consider going to community college first and get your first 2 years out of the way with a cheaper tuition. I have found that community colleges were also a big advantage because classrooms are smaller, professors also have prestigious PhDs and since tuition is cheaper, you can allow yourself to explore more classes. For some students with a low GPA, going to community college can also raise your transcript.

Scholarships are also popular in the US and Canada. Another reason to start at a community college is that my school offered a GPA-based scholarship if you agree to transfer to the public university. I ended up receiving $12k with my GPA. Plus, you can check out honor societies. They offer competitive scholarships, you get extra stuff for your graduation ceremony, and it will look good on a resume.

2. Quality of education

To be honest, tuition somewhat played in the quality of education, but this is not the case for every student or every level of education. I was the most disappointed by La Sorbonne in Paris, which led me to drop out of the program. I found the curriculum disorganized and the professors not very passionate. The French professors are not as well-paid as the North American ones, so that could also be a factor. I also had a hard time enjoying Temple University for my bachelors. It was a big campus that treated school like a business and did not provide students with the best professors. I recalled the Neuroscience program being quite new and few professors had to fill in most of the classes in that program. Unfortunately, they didn’t have sufficient background and discovered the material at the same time as the students. My courses at McGill University were also average. The professors are very smart and competent, and the level of education was quite high, but I had a hard time building a connection. Few of my friends who experienced undergrad there disagreed, but for my part, in grad school, classes were treated as a formality rather than a place of learning.

The best classes I had were at UCLA extension where I found professors highly passionate, competent and engaging. I really wished I had taken more courses. The community in college in PA was surprisingly good. I took inspiring science courses with experienced professors who did not want to pursue a research lab, so they put all their energy in teaching. Contrary to belief, it’s not the “bad” or “close to retirement” teachers that work at community colleges. It’s a personal choice, and a totally respectable one.

3. To be on campus or not to be on campus

American and Canadian campuses are often tiny cities, whereas French universities are just a collection of buildings. American and Canadian campuses offer the convenience that facilitate students’ lives so they can focus on their studies. Campuses are often safe and will provide career counselling, psychological support, health clinic and good support system. They often include a large library, dorms, a dining hall, a gym, a museum, a football stadium, a hockey arena, a marching band, a convenience store, and even sometimes a bar. Campuses are really nice, but you end up paying the price for it as part of your tuition.

French schools don’t have the space nor the spirit for sheltering students in an artificial bubble. Even as early as in middle school, we were let loose in the city between classes if our parents signed a consent form. Not being stuck on campus also had many advantages, such as freedom and early maturity. If your parents trust you enough, you’re also more responsible for yourself for not getting in trouble, which also meant more independence sooner.

4. Social and night life

This may seem like a big deal to students because life is all about balance. For some, studying hard, also means partying hard. Social life is highly promoted on campus in North America through student associations and school events. North American students can also join a fraternity or a sorority to feel belonged in a community. Since the campus is always in motion, people also move around through different social groups. Friendship isn’t static and evolve as people switch classes or curriculum. The concept of social clique in North America is somewhat true but much less in universities than in high school. French students often socialize by organizing study groups and are keen to invite people at each other’s place. They will value true connection more than shallow interactions. In Quebec, I found that speaking French also helped tremendously with social integration, even in school.

I found that the schools in themselves did not have a correlation with how fun people are, but rather the city they’re in. I found Montreal, Los Angeles and Paris super fun, but Pennsylvania a lot less fun. Those are my personal preferences. I connect with people in bigger cities more easily because they often have more cultural diversity and I really enjoy making friends from different background. I have personally experienced racism in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. I try not to hold it against the city, because it could happen anywhere, but it added to my discomfort. In the end, don’t be afraid to follow your guts and embrace your choice wherever it is.

5. Job and career prospect after graduation

Studying somewhere doesn’t mean that you’re stuck at this place for your next job. When I moved to the states, I thought that I would settle there for a long time. So, I started building my connections in the pharmaceutical industry around the east coast, especially Boston. I did not expect to go Canada. After graduation at McGill University, I thought about heading back to the states since I already made friends who could help me out. I chose to stay because I followed my gut feelings. The key is to pick a place where you actually want to be, not where you should be (because of reputation, money, fear or missing out, etc). If you don’t know if you should stay, perhaps ask yourself “would I move here, if I wasn’t already living here?” Once you pick a place and commit to it, trust that the universe will send you the right opportunities for you.

There will always be benefits and imperfections in every place. It’s crucial to take advices from others and listen to people we trust, but your education will ultimately be your experience, not others’. So, trust what you want, rather than what will logically make sense for a “successful” future. Once you make a decision, don’t get too stuck in your previsions because they often end up changing as you evolve through your experience. It’s important to remain open-minded and accept new adventures and opportunities as they come.

In conclusion, studying in 3 different countries was eye-opening. I learned how to adapt, connect and make the most out of each situation. I enjoyed my classes better at UCLA and at the community college in PA. Community colleges will save you money and let you explore career options for a cheaper price. Scholarships and honor societies helped me lower my tuition and I enjoyed the smaller classes. I think that you should gauge whether you’d be happy living in the city you pick your school. It’s important to feel the vibe and the energy of the town and of the locals, so make sure to pay a visit before accepting the school’s offer. Job prospects and networking will give you a head start in school, but it shouldn’t be a deciding factor. You’re not stuck at a place after your graduation and don’t have to commit because you already know people. Many alumni move out of their college town, meet random new opportunities and end up seeking a fulfilling career elsewhere. Life wouldn’t be fun if everything went as planned, so good luck and remember to stay open.


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