Jess en France: Reflections on the Last Day of Class

December 5, 2017

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a student at Sciences Po for over three months now. All the people that I’ve met, countries I’ve gone to, ideas I’ve critically engaged with, and self-reflections I’ve had have brought me to a different person than the one that stepped foot in this country not too long ago.

I’m sure this won’t be the last reflection post I’ll write before I leave France, but in light of my last day of pedagogical instruction here, I thought I’d reflect on my impressions of what studying abroad is like.

Although it always depends on the person or the places or universities you go to, studying abroad, very simply, is hard. I came into it thinking there would be a lot of opportunities to party or have a disproportionate amount of fun in an “exotic” and exciting city (although these weren’t necessarily my own personal goals). But, this is quite the romantic conception of going abroad that I hope to address in a more realistic capacity. Not that having fun isn’t a part of the equation, but study abroad has its equally prevalent challenges. It can often be difficult to assimilate into a new society unless you know the culture and language. That’s normal. In Paris especially, strangers aren’t generally friendly to each other, and I came to realize that I had to redefine my ideas about interpersonal interaction quite drastically. That was by far the most challenging aspect of moving abroad, because I had to find a way to make the city comfortable for me without expecting anyone else welcoming me into it. You learn to grow thick skin, and for a sensitive person like me, this is an important lesson to learn.

Studying abroad isn’t just hard because you have to adjust to a new culture, but it’s also challenging personally. Being abroad puts you in a position where, initially, you can no longer rely on your community or familiar cultural standards to tell you who you are, reference points with which we are used to defining ourselves. For me, my sense of familiarity had to be recreated. So when you don’t have the people or the ideas or the culture to reflect back onto you your conception of self, you find yourself in a tabula-rasa-like state where you are faced with the question of how to define yourself and the things you value (and the things you don’t). That’s a part of the reason why culture shock is often slow to arrive—the things you are familiar with, like the kind of clothes you wear or the way you address the cashier at the store, all things that reaffirm you sense of self in a community, have changed. It’s realized only gradually because getting to know a new place is a gradual process.

Alright, that was a bit complicated, but looking at being abroad as an identity-forming experience helped me finally understand what people mean by “finding oneself” in another country. Particularly in countries that are entirely different culturally, we’re given the chance of having a blank slate (although not entirely) to rebuild our identities. Being abroad has shown me a new array of values and ideas by which people in other societies define themselves. It offered me the occasion to reflect on what ideas, behaviors, or even mannerisms I value and which ones I don’t. I’m not saying that going abroad gives you the chance to go shopping for a new person, but, for me, at least, I grew as an individual from the opportunity to engage more critically with the person I am and how the cultures I’ve lived in have played roles in defining that sense of self.

I’ll reflect some more on the adventure itself of studying abroad and some lessons that I’ve learned in the weeks to come,  but I thought I’d share some thoughts on the personal journey today as my schooling (but not my learning) is coming to an end. I’m going to Granada next weekend, so I’ll be sure to cover that in my next post. It’s still beach weather there (whereas, in Paris, we had our first snow last night).

Updates to come!



Jeanette in Morocco: Another Beginning

November 30, 2017

My study abroad program is unique in that I get to spend a few months with a homestay family, and then during my 5-week independent study I get to live in an apartment and travel around. As excited as I was to start my project, it was bittersweet leaving my homestay family.

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After our last meal together, I gave them a handwritten letter and some of my favorite photos of us together as a small token of appreciation. My host mom started crying and it made it 10x harder to say goodbye. I’m so grateful for the time we spent together and for being welcomed into a family who made Morocco truly feel like home. I promised them I’ll definitely come back for Friday couscous!

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Welcome to my new apartment! It’s so crazy that my first apartment I’ve ever lived in is in Africa. If someone told me this would be my life two years ago I would have thought they were crazy, but it’s been such an incredible experience. Within a few days of moving in, we decorated the place with string lights and a tapestry to make it feel more like home. Though I certainly miss the delicious food in my homestay, I’m enjoying this glimpse of adulthood.

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Whether I’m in a homestay or in my apartment, I’m just so grateful to be in Morocco and watching sunsets as beautiful as this every night.

Meghann in Argentina: “So, How’s Your Spanish?”

November 26, 2017

I have been asked this question innumerable times by friends and family members from back home since arriving in Argentina five months ago. In the past I hadn’t given much thought to the simple inquiry, but now that the end of my time abroad is quickly approaching, I’ve found myself reflecting more and more on how my language skills have progressed. Back in June when I wrote my first pre-departure post, I stated that “my biggest goal is to become fluent in Spanish.” While this still absolutely holds true, during my time here I’ve come to realize just how difficult true fluency in another language is to acquire. Additionally, by no means does living in a country with a different national language for six months (or however long a period of time, really) mean that fluency will come easily—it has to be worked for. In all honesty, I do still speak English all the time, mostly due to the fact that all of my friends here (even those who aren’t from English-speaking countries) speak English perfectly. Since all of us speak English better than we do Spanish, conversing in English is easier and more comfortable to fall into; for my German or French friends, this equates to beneficial practice of their second language, but for me, it doesn’t do much. It’s frustrating to go on trips with friends (where we only speak English) and to come back to my host family or to class feeling like my Spanish skills have diminished because I used them significantly less.


That being said, the prominence of English in the social aspect of my study abroad experience was made clear pretty early on, and fortunately this made me try even harder to improve my Spanish in my homestay, in university, and while out in the city—and it definitely has progressed a ton. Before I arrived in Argentina, I understood a fair amount and could express most ideas/thoughts, but slowly and oftentimes with rough grammar; now, I can understand nearly everything (even the rapid lectures on Argentine politics given by my professors) and discuss any topic as well. Most notably, though, is how much more confident I am with my language skills. I no longer pause when talking to my host mom to think about whether I am using the correct noun or conjugating a verb the right way. I still have a long way to go with Spanish, though. When I return to Richmond in the spring I will take a Spanish literature class, and I also want to try to watch a TV show or the news in Spanish as well, to help ensure that I don’t lose any of the language skills that I have gained here.


My host family has been integral in helping improve my Spanish. Being “forced” to speak Spanish whenever I am at home has given me the opportunity to discuss many different topics that aren’t commonly talked over at school or on the streets.

While the Spanish learning process is different from what I expected it to be in the sense that my social life almost entirely revolves around English, I can still certainly answer the question “so, how’s your Spanish?” with the reply that it has gotten significantly better. Seeing how my language skills have grown over time makes me even more motivated to continue learning after this experience is over.

Jess en France: The One, The Only: The Palais Garnier

November 26, 2017

So I’ve had a dream ever since I was a little girl that I would one day be able to visit the opera house that inspired the novel The Phantom of the Opera. Although I grew up watching the modern remake, I’ve always loved the story-line –it made me fall in love with opera as a kid. The opera house that inspired the film happens to be the Palais Garnier, which located in Paris, and I’ve saved a visit for the end of my exchange as a celebration of the end of an amazing journey.


I bought my tickets months in advance and was able to get the best seat in the house to see an opera called La Clémence de Titus. The seat that I got was in a theater box, which is a private, sectioned off area for some of the best, front-facing seats in the theater. I got a front-row seat in the box and nothing obstructed my view. I would be remiss not to mention that this trip was fully funded by the Office of International Education and its wonderfully generous $500 cultural excursion stipend. It’s allowed me to fulfill a dream of mine that I’ve had for quite some time.


The theater itself is 1,979-seat opera house that was built in 1861. It’s named after its architect, Charles Garnier, and today is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Like I said, it was the setting for Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera (although it’s a bit embarrassing I’ve only seen the film—and the modern one at that). Regardless, the opera house is world-renowned for being an architectural masterpiece. Its Grand Staircase is equally famous along with its theater ceiling, which was only recently painted by artist Marc Chagall in the 1960s (who also caused a bit of a controversy being Russian and not French-born).




The play was equally impressive, especially being that it was my first live opera. I can’t rave enough about the voices of the singers. The level of control they have in their voices is especially apparent in the straight thirty seconds of vibrato they often have to belt at the end of a piece. They’re not wearing microphones (which is standard), and it isn’t needed considering how much their voices carry to every corner of the theater. The opera piece was composed by Mozart in 1791 for the coronation of Leopold II, king of Bohemia (if I’m translating this correctly). The story-line concerns a tragic love affair that, of course, ends in an attempted murder and the king’s forgiving clemency, as the title suggests. It was a stunning performance that left everyone standing in ovation.

I was actually able to get one more ticket to go to the Palais Garnier for a ballet (which I had to buy even earlier in advance). The choreographer is a well-known contemporary dancer, and I’m just as excited to see the opera house one more time before I head back to the States. I’ve officially been able to cross off a life-time bucket-list item, and now I get to say I’ll have done it twice.

A bientôt!


Jeanette in Morocco: Marrakech Adventures

November 23, 2017

Marrakech, one of Morocco’s four imperial cities, is a growing tourist hub. My friends and I spent a long weekend there and adventured around the city’s old Medina. To my surprise, there was a lot more to do than simply sight-seeing and fancy night-time outings.

My two favorite things that weekend were going cliff-diving in Ouzoud, a nearby village that has the tallest waterfall in Africa, and driving ATVs in the nearby Sahara desert!

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This is Ouzoud waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Africa! Our guide, who grew up in the village, told us that during his childhood, it was a right of passage for him and his friends to jump off some of the smaller cliffs.

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This is my friends and I after we dived off the lower cliffs and stopped for a picture on the hike up to the higher cliffs! We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the cool water and enjoying a gondola boat ride.

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On our way up to lunch, our guide showed us to a small forest with monkeys. He stuck his hand out in front of me with a palm full of nuts to lure the monkey to jump on my head. It was hilarious and the monkeys were so friendly!

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After spending a day in the water, we wanted to get out to the desert. We spent this day riding ATVs around the desert, racing one another, doing donuts, and watching our guide do cool tricks we didn’t dare to try. It was definitely one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.

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During the middle of our day in the desert, our guide took us to a nearby village for a mint-tea break. We were able to meet some locals, pet donkeys, and hold adorable babies like Zachariah pictured above!

Jeanette in Morocco: Serendipity

November 22, 2017

Throughout my time in Morocco, I’ve met some incredible people all by simply being in the right place at the right time.

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Meet Ahmed! I am currently working on a documentary short film about the threats Morocco’s famous tile industry is facing. One day, my print partner and I were planning to visit an artisan school, but our cab driver mistakenly took us to a pottery shop instead. However, the place was beautiful and still related to our topic, so we decided to stay and explore. We stumbled upon Ahmed, a man who has worked for 40 years in the tile industry and owns multiple shops now. He invited us to sit with him and we ended up staying for hours, drinking coffee, listening to his crazy life stories, and laughing really hard. He even showed us pictures from his 20s when he starred in a movie with Sean Connery! We never got to the artisan school that day, but it has been one of my most memorable days so far.

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Meet Rochdi and Azar! The one thing about being on a SIT field-study program is that your program is made up of only Americans so it can be challenging to get to know locals. However, I think befriending locals and doing local things can provide a more authentic abroad experience. My American friend and I met Rochdi and Azar one random morning on the beach. They offered to watch our bags while we went swimming and then we returned the favor. Then, somehow we ended up staying on the beach until sunset, teaching each other lingo, showing each other music, and laughing at stupid things. They’ve become some of my closest friends in Morocco and I honestly can’t imagine this experience without them!

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Meet Driss and his family! Driss (far left) is the main subject of my documentary. I only had three days to film in the tile factory and it was difficult to pick my subject being that they spoke no English and I know very minimal Arabic. I went with my gut and picked Driss because despite the rigorous, physically demanding work he was doing for hours on end, he never stopped smiling. After visiting his family and learning about their story, I’m confident I made the right choice! I was also moved to tears during some of our interviews when the translator shared with me that his whole family is illiterate and Driss dropped out of school at the age of 7 to start working in the tile industry to support his family. To this day, he is their sole stream of income. I’m so honored to know him.


Jeanette in Morocco: Behind the Scenes of Filmmaking

November 21, 2017

When I first got my camera, I said to my friends I’m excited to see where I take it, but I’m more excited to see where it takes me.

Well, I took it to Morocco, but it’s taken me to the door steps of some incredible opportunities.

I am currently working on a documentary short film to be released at the end of December and serving as the Video Editor for an online publication, Reporting Morocco.

Working as a filmmaker in Morocco hasn’t been easy. I am constantly innovating ways to combat language and cultural barriers. It seems that every time I think I have something figured out, another challenge arises that I could have never predicted. This is the nature of working in an unfamiliar place.

However, these once daunting challenges have taught me a lot. I’ve strengthened my technical skills and enhanced my creative eye, but more importantly, I’ve gained patience, resilience, and adaptability – arguably three of the most important assets for anyone in this field to have.

Here are some photos encapsulating the lessons I’ve learned as a filmmaker in Morocco!

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1) Be prepared! It’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. Before every shoot, I make sure I have three sets of charged batteries, three sets of formatted SD cards, two hard-drives for back-up storage, two microphone sets (shot-gun and lavalier), and two forms of stabilization tools (tripod and gimbal). Without these fundamentals, I wouldn’t be able to achieve the shots I want!

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2) Be adventurous! Filming in a country you’ve only lived in for a short amount of time means there’s a lot you haven’t seen. If you don’t explore, you’ll never know what’s out there that could elevate your creative vision. For a video I shot last month, I grabbed my camera and explored the old medina and surrounding city aimlessly for hours. The footage I shot that day ended up being the introduction in my final cut!

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3) Be adaptable! The photo above is my print partner and I waiting for our subject who was over an hour late to our scheduled interview. Time is a very relaxed notion in Morocco. It is not considered rude to show up late or cancel last minute. Also, the concept of answering within one to three business days does not really exist. As frustrating as it is having to deal with elements out of my control, I’ve slowly come to realize that the only way to be successful here is to adapt to the norms. On my latest shoot, my subject once again showed up late. However, instead of getting flustered, I made effective use of my time by shooting b-roll (supplemental footage) of the environment while I patiently waited for him to arrive.

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4) Be inventive! The photo above shows an interview I shot next to a landfill because it was the only quiet place I could find near the tile factory I was filming. The floor was cold, so we found pieces of old leather and a brick from the landfill to sit on. Not the most conventional set you could say, but it worked! And I ended up getting amazing natural lighting and crisp, echo-less sound from the open space.

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5) Be passionate! In my opinion, this is the most important quality of them all. Technology malfunctions. People flake. Things go wrong. There have been moments where I haven’t loved what I’m doing, but I make a conscious decision to keep going because I am passionate about my work. I am passionate about using creativity as a tool to bridge communities. I am passionate about hearing and sharing meaningful stories. I am passionate about evoking emotion – laughter, tears, and everything in between. I am passionate. And if I’m being honest, without it, I’d be nothing.


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