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Rachel Oommen

About My Study Abroad Program

Major/Minor: Public Policy/Global Studies/French Minor
Program: UNC in Montpellier
Location: Montpellier, France
Term: Spring 2019


Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you select your program?
I have been studying French for 10 years and wanted to increase my proficiency. I chose this program because it was an immersion program and designed for students to grow their language skills.


What did you learn about yourself?
I learned to enjoy spending time alone. I am a big extrovert that needs to have a large community in order to feel happy and fulfilled. This program was difficult because there were only 11 other UNC students with me, and opportunities to mingle with other foreigners and French people were sparse. I had to learn what it mean to exist someplace without dozens and dozens of loved ones at my every grasp and still enjoy exploring and learning- it was a huge growing experience for me in that I understood how to make less of my happiness reliant on others and more on myself.


What is one of your favorite memories from your program?
When my group of friends and I took a weekend trip to Marseille, we stayed in a hostel that, upon arrival, struck us as a bit sketchy and suspicious. However, we stuck it out and ended up having an incredible experience. We had dinner with everyone at the hostel (employees, volunteers, and travelers) family-style and sat at this very long table and just sat and ate and drank and chatted for several hours. Afterwards, one of the hostel volunteers whipped out several instruments including, but not limited to, a guitar and a saxophone. He started playing a few songs for us and then a friend of mine on my program pulled up the lyrics and chords for "Carolina in My Mind", and we got the whole group to sing along while he played. It was a sweet, organic moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life!


What advice do you have for future study abroad students?
Travel alone. You learn so much about yourself, and its incredibly fulfilling and empowering to be solely responsible for your safety, wellbeing, and happiness when you are completely alone in a country you don't know anyone. Plus, you get to do whatever you want without having the desires of other people hinder your experience. I also made so many wonderful friends that I wouldn't have met if I had traveled with other people.


Would you do it again?


How did your study abroad experience prepare you for your future career?
I hope to enter the field of global health, in which both international experience and speaking a second language are essential. I plan on maximizing both those qualities once I enter the job market!


How were your classes abroad different than if you would have taken them at UNC?
All five of my classes were taught to me completely in French! It was a struggle but also a massive accomplishment to grow so much in my French skills that I could successfully take entire courses where English was never spoken.


How do you identify?
Student of color


Could you share any experiences where your identity played a role in your time abroad?
It took me a surprisingly long time to understand why locals were so quick to speak to me in English, before I could even speak or offer any proof that I wasn't actually French myself. I found out later it is because I am Indian (and distinctly look like it as well- I have a nose ring) and the assumption is that I don't speak any French, and English is likely to be the language we would have in common (assuming that Hindi or another Indian language is my first language). I would be so frustrated that locals would speak to my white friends in French because there was no obvious physical reason to assume otherwise, but they would immediately speak to me in English. Once I understood the reason, my frustration remained but I felt more empowered to continue to speak to them in French and prove them wrong.


Is there any advice you would give to other students who share your identity?
The French have a very unique perspective on identity- to them, there is no such thing as being "Indian-American"- once you immigrate somewhere, you are fully your new nationality, not a blend of your heritage and new country as we are in the United States. In my view, their perspective is just that- a perspective, and not a racially charged statement. My advice would be to learn and understand how the locals perceive their immigrants, and to not let that stop you from holding true to how YOU identify. Just because they view your story one way does not take away from what you say your story really is.


If you faced any challenges abroad, where could you turn to get the support you needed?
Our program director, Carol Huber. She was absolutely incredible and a supportive rock for myself and every single person on the program. I could not give her enough praise and accolades.