Cregan: Asking for help proves to be vital in foreign classrooms

Study abroad, as I’m learning, isn’t a solo endeavor.

For me — and, I’m guessing, almost every study abroad student out there — the past week meant a return to reality as our traveling ended and our classes began. And everyone needed a buddy to get through it.

Between ten days of travel and nearly a week of class-free orientation time in Strasbourg, I’ve been firmly in vacation mode ever since I left ‘Cuse in December. Even after arriving in the city, thinking about classes took a lower priority than getting to know my host family and exploring the city’s restaurants and nightlife.

But last Monday brought a decisive end to my “no worries” way of life and reintroduced the word “study” into “study abroad.”

My semester at the University of Strasbourg began with a two-hour medieval history lecture that was taught entirely in French — not a very auspicious beginning. Try as I might to understand, more than half of the professor’s words went over my head. Unlike in the conversational French I’d been practicing, there was no asking him to rephrase and I couldn’t understand anything from his body language.

The more the professor talked, the less I understood, until I may or may not have fallen asleep. Upon waking up from my mini-siesta, I panicked. What was I doing? If I could barely understand what homework was assigned at the end of class, did I stand much chance of being able to complete it?

But after some internal pep talks and espresso, I was able to find my classes the next day more encouraging. Rather than trying to follow every turn of phrase, I jotted down keywords. I asked professors about the assignments and made sure to caffeinate before my next 9 a.m. history lecture.

As I was trying to cope with the language barrier, I began noticing some less obvious challenges to taking classes in a foreign language. One unexpected obstacle was deciphering professors’ messy handwriting. Not only is it more difficult to make out sloppily written words when you don’t have a full grasp of the vocabulary, but European handwriting is sometimes strikingly different, especially for numbers.

Ones look like 7s, and 4s look like backwards lightning bolts — don’t ask me why.

Another challenge was trying to guess the standards for assignments.

When my history professor asked us to write “biographical forms” on Louis XIV, everyone nodded as though that were a totally self-explanatory assignment. After asking around, I was able to glean such useful guidelines as “well, it should be pretty short” and “mention that Louis XIV was the one who built Versailles.” In the end, I put together a page of bullet points and called it a day.

The one clear lesson I drew from my first week’s experiences was the necessity of asking for help. My previous strategy of “smile, nod and pretend you understand what they said” simply wouldn’t cut it here.

Looking back, many of my struggles in my first week at school could’ve been avoided if I’d simply asked for clarification or help. Take, for example, my failure to access the school’s Wi-Fi. When the university librarian told me to simply enter my student code to log on, I smiled, thanked him and walked away without asking which of the many numbers on my university ID constituted my “student code.”

After a few feeble attempts to commandeer the Wi-Fi of the guy sitting next to me, I was forced to give up and go home.

In the coming week, my resolution is to not be afraid to rely on others. So, to my professors, you can expect a lot more after-class questions from the girl with the American accent.

To the blonde girl in my literature class, please don’t think I’m creepy if I sit behind you for the rest of the semester (and, for the love of all that is holy, don’t decrease the font size on your notes).

Maggie Cregan is a sophomore history and magazine journalism major. From Cleveland to Syracuse to Strasbourg, she enjoys rocking out and getting hopelessly lost. If you want to talk to her about this column, or are Keith Richards, reach her at mmcregan@syr.edu and follow her on Twitter at @MaggieCregan_SU.



Top Stories