#StudyAbroadBecause it teaches you what you're made of

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Jan 29, 2015 / 0 comments

Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After many years of trying, she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French. She writes about her experiences with Franglais and food on her blog, tomatokumato.com. Her writing has been featured in That's Paris, an anthology about life in Paris, Serious Eats and Epicure & Culture.


Emily Monaco - #StudyAbroadBecause it teaches you what you're made of


What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

The first time I studied abroad, I was 14. My mom kind of planted the idea in my head as it was an option through my school's French department, and I thought it seemed pretty cool. I'd been to summer camp a few times, and at 14, "pretty cool" was about as far as my logic for such things went. I had a choice of three programs -- one was very new, so I decided not to do that one just because it was less established and I thought I wouldn't really have a point person there. Of the other two, one was a boarding school in Nantes and one was a homestay near Lille. I chose the homestay because I thought my French would get better as opposed to constantly speaking English with other boarders. I went for three months.

The second time, I studied abroad in Cannes. I was 19, but since my first experience, I had already been to boarding school in the States and university in Canada, so it didn't feel like a really big deal. I moved to France permanently after four months in Cannes.


Emily Monaco - #StudyAbroadBecause it teaches you what you're made of


What was your experience like? What is your favorite memory? What were some challenges you observed?

I'll talk about my first experience for this. It was really hard, actually. I thought I spoke pretty good French, but I didn't really. I didn't have very much vocabulary at all, so even if I was speaking in present tense, I could hardly make myself understood. I was supposed to leave New York on September 12th 2001, which I obviously didn't, but I decided to go anyway (I kind of refused to be scared of flying right after 9/11), but that meant that when I arrived in France on September 21st, everyone wanted to talk about the terrorist attacks, and I didn't even know how to say firefighter. I remember the second week I was there, I broke down crying at recess just because it had been so long since I had made myself understood.

That being said, I adapted. I know now that my level of French when I left still wasn't all that great, but I figured out a way to adjust to the situation, and there were some great moments. I think that because of how hard it was and how I forced myself to be happy anyway, I've learned how to do that same thing later in life.

Some of my best memories were with the homestay father, who really tried to help me understand and to help me communicate every night when we sat down to dinner together. He had a whiteboard and whenever I didn't understand something he would draw it for me. I also loved spending time with my homestay sister's enormous extended family -- her father was one of 10 children, and her grandparents used to have dance parties in their basement with all the cousins and aunts and uncles. It was the first time I'd seen people having fun at a cross-generational party, and I loved it!


Emily Monaco - #StudyAbroadBecause it teaches you what you're made of


What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad?

I think that the study abroad experience was one of the most defining of my life. Going at such a young age was a big part of it. At 14, I didn't know how to do much of anything for myself, and in France I was expected to be a lot more independent than I was used to in the States. It also opened my eyes to a different culture which, I realize now, isn't all that different from my culture, considering the places that I could have gone. But I remember going there thinking I would watch only French movies and listen only to French music, and I realized once I got there that not every country was a little microcosm independent of all other countries, which was how my experience in the US had been, for the most part, up to that point.

The biggest skill I developed from being in France is undoubtedly speaking French. But I also learned how to cultivate a sense of "universal understanding" that has helped me learn other foreign languages with less frustration. It never bothers me that much to miss something or not understand, because I spent three whole months in a fog with basically no English contact at all.


Emily Monaco - #StudyAbroadBecause it teaches you what you're made of


Has your experience helped you get to where you are today?

I live in France, so I'd say so!

I think what's interesting about this experience is that my sister actually did the same program 7 years after I did. She was part of a more technologically savvy age, and by the time she got there, the host families all had Wifi. She was able to stay in touch with people at home via Skype and didn't get the same sort of full immersion (drowning...) experience that I did. We're also just different people, but I feel that the way that I lived the experience as a true full immersion was an important part of it for me.

Today, eight years after I moved here at 19, I don't feel that I would be comfortable fully living in the States anymore. It's become my adopted culture, which might have happened had I just moved here at 19, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I really did attend French school and live with a French family in a French town, even if it only was for three months. It's not the sort of experience that's easy to come by when you're older.


Emily Monaco - #StudyAbroadBecause it teaches you what you're made of


What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?

It will change your life. For me that was a good thing, and I think that for most people it's a good thing. But I do sometimes wonder what I would've become if I didn't do it. I feel like my life veered with a decision that at 14 I didn't really take very seriously. I'm happy with where it brought me, but I never would have thought that it would have had such an effect on my life.


How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?

I come from New York, and New Yorkers tend to feel like New Yorkers before feeling like Americans. I felt like a New Yorker for a long time, even though I haven't lived in New York full time since I was 14. (I went to boarding school and then university, and I've been living in France ever since with the exception of 2 months when I was in Spain and 4 months when I moved home at 22.) I feel uncomfortable around certain Americans with a narrow worldview or a starry-eyed idea of what France is like.

I currently live with my French boyfriend, who I've been living with for four years. If I moved back to the States, I would feel as though he was my anchor "home." What I often say is that I love Paris and New York equally, but I never have to give up my Americanness here, and it's hard to hold onto what you feel as your Frenchness when you're technically living in your birthplace.


Emily Monaco - #StudyAbroadBecause it teaches you what you're made of


Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

I'm very glad that I did a second round of study abroad in Cannes because it led me to living here and introduced me to a lot of close friends. But doing study abroad in university is nothing like doing it in high school. There's so much more temptation to spend time with your fellow study abroad students in university, and with the program I did in 9th grade, I had no fellow anglophones. There's a temptation to form a third culture when you do study abroad with a group; if you really want the immersion experience, look for a program where you'll be isolated from fellow anglophones. It's scary, but it's really worth it.



#StudyAbroadBecause it teaches you what you're made of.





This is part of a series on international education, as part of our commitment to #GenerationStudyAbroad and our commitment to the White House Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. You'll find many more inspiring stories here on Wandering Educators!




Photos of me in Normandy this year, one of me in Monte Carlo in 2005, a few from 2007 (when I was studying in Cannes -- one from Florence, one from Dublin, and one from a very small French town in the Normandy countryside, and one from Tourettes-sur-Loup). All photos courtesy and copyright Emily Monaco.