Seeing the World: Study Abroad in France

Photograph of a student sitting on a wall in rural FranceDuring the spring of my junior year, I had the chance to study abroad in Metz, France through the Georgia Tech-Lorraine program. I had always wanted to study in France for a semester because of my experiences learning French in school, but I wasn’t sure I would ever fit it into my schedule as a Computer Science major. I’m here to tell you that not only can you study abroad as an engineer, you can have an amazing time while doing it! I’ll take you along for a day in the life of studying in Metz while discussing some of the things I learned from studying abroad.

In the mornings, I wake up in the dorm I share with the local French students and head to campus. I missed Ithaca while abroad, but I didn’t miss bundling up to face the Ithaca winters for my walk to class. Metz is a town on the France-Germany border, about an hour away from Paris on the Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGV. I speak decent French, but a lot of the students came to France knowing nothing of the language and picked it up along the way.

After buying a coffee for 50 cents from a vending machine (the French are living in the future, let me tell you!), I head to my classes. As a computer science major, I have to complete an “external specialization,” where I have to take three related non-CS courses. I used study abroad to complete my International Relations external spec, so my first class of the day is History of the European Union. This was such a fun class to take because you could drive for thirty minutes east and end up in Triers, the oldest town in Germany; drive south instead and you’d end up in Strasbourg, the home of the European Parliament. History had never been my strong suit, but something about living so close to these major historical landmarks made it fascinating to learn about.

The break from engineering classes was fun, but I couldn’t leave it behind completely. In the afternoons I go into the lab to work on my research. I worked with two French students and the local biology lab to build Machine Learning models to identify coal-burning fields in satellite imagery. I was used to doing ML projects in a team thanks to my experience on the Cornell Data Science (CDS) project team. This was the first time, though, that I got to work on a project with a fully international team. The language of research was English, but I also found chatting with my research partners in French to be great practice, if not humbling. Comparing schooling and cultural differences was a fun way to pass the time while waiting for our programs to run, but in the end, code is code and we were able to work together just as seamlessly as I would with anyone back on CDS.

Dinner during the school week was generally very simple, both because I was so busy with evening activities and because I ate so much food when I travelled on the weekends! From currywurst (curry and bratwurst- just trust me on this one) in Munich to locally sourced smoked salmon in Finland, not to mention all of the incredible food I got at home in Metz, even dining hall food couldn’t compete. My study abroad program hosted loads of activities to get to know the local culture, and I made it a point to go to as many as possible. My friends and I got dressed up and went to the local symphony, took drawing classes, and wandered the streets of Metz. Like many European towns, Metz’s cathedral dominates the skyline. No matter where we were in town, if we were lost we could always look for the cathedral and orient ourselves from there. If there’s anything I miss about the city of Metz the most, it’s the amazing views of such beautiful architecture.

Weekends were our time to travel, and any sort of schedule went out the window! Studying in eastern France meant that you could hop on a train and end up in at least five different countries within a few hours (Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, UK). I got to ski in the Alps, float down the canals of Bruges, and take the train into Paris just to have lunch.

As amazing as these experiences were, they were that way thanks to the amazing people I shared them with. The Alps were so much fun because I went with ex-downhill ski racers, even if they left me in the dust; I met up with a friend from Cornell in Bruges who was studying in Scotland- a long way from meeting up on the Eng Quad; half the fun of going into Paris was hanging out with my friends on the train ride. Even though COVID shutdowns cut down on our time exploring France and Europe, I know that I will be friends with these people for the rest of my life, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the time I spent with them.

Cornell gives you such an amazing engineering education and I’m proud of all the things I’ve done in university. The coursework is important, but to be an engineer in the real world means you have to understand how to navigate it just as well as you can work through a difficult problem set. Studying abroad in France opened me up to a whole new set of experiences and perspectives, ones I never would have gained by spending all my time in the classroom. I learned how to work in an international context, both through my diverse coursework and research experience. I gained a new level of self-confidence after successfully navigating a whole continent of travel experiences. I made some great friends. Studying abroad was one of the best parts of my Cornell experience, and I would encourage everyone, engineer or otherwise, to study abroad as well.

—Linnea, computer science