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What Makes Willamette Weird


By Emmanuelle Schopp

This year working as a language assistant for French at Willamette University is actually my first time on a campus outside of my country, France. This new experience is very interesting, enriching, surprising, and fun, but also at the same time sometimes rather “weird” and challenging because it is so different from what I am used to back home. I cannot say that there is one thing in particular that seemed shocking to me, but rather that there have been several little things that have appeared unfamiliar to me and even sometimes rather incomprehensible.

That is why my article will not focus on a specific time, place, or experience in detail, but will rather try to develop these few different aspects.

The first thing that startled me when I arrived at Willamette was the size of the campus and the student population, which are both very small compared to my university back home. Indeed, in France, I studied at the University of Caen Basse-Normandie and it counts about 26,000 students! So I was really surprised to see the small campus and learn about the small student population here, especially because Willamette is in Salem, the capital city of Oregon, so I was expecting a larger campus. However, I have to say that I really like it here – the fact that it is a small university makes it easier to meet people, get to know them, and have this feeling of belonging to the “Willamette community.”

The second aspect that was radically different from my university in France and that shocked me terribly were the University fees. In France, University costs very little, and I would even say almost nothing compared to what it is in the United States. For instance, at my University, it costs about 190 euros per year for a Bachelor’s Degree (you have to add about 215 euros for the Student Social Security) and 260 euros per year for a Master’s Degree (adding also 215 euros for the Student Social Security). However, if you are a scholarship student, you only have to pay 5 euros per year (the fees and Social Security are free), and, depending on where you are on the scholarships scale, you can also receive money from the government to help you pay for accommodation and food.

So you can imagine how astonished I was to discover the tuition fees here at Willamette. This is a system that I am definitely not used to, and that I will never really understand because I do think that education should be free, or when not completely free should cost as little as possible. I like the French educational system because it is strongly supported by the government and therefore results in little cost for students. Here in the US, it really saddens and angers me to know that students have to pay thousands of dollars a year to study at university, have to work outside of class to pay for their tuition fees, and most likely start their professional life with debt. I think that having to pay such a huge amount of money to get an education is not a fair system because it establishes money as the first requirement to get an education, and, therefore, those who do not have money cannot afford going to university and have access to the same level of education as those who can afford to pay. Considering that, I have to say that I am very lucky to have studied in France because of the great help received from the government to give me an education: my courses were really interesting and I almost had to pay for nothing. I think I would have never been able to do a Master’s Degree here in the US because of the very high tuition fees required.

On a lighter note, what is very different here from my university back home is the food. I know this aspect may seem trivial to some people, especially compared to the previous topic, but as a French person I have to say that food holds an important and special place in my life. Since I arrived here at Willamette, I have been missing French food a lot, especially bread, cheese, and meat. For instance, what particularly strikes me whenever I eat in Goudy are the very few options in terms of meat. Indeed, it almost seems like chicken is the only type of meat people eat here, whereas at my university back home we have beef, chicken, pork, lamb, veal, etc. Also, I was quite surprised to notice that there is almost never fish served at Goudy. I do know that France and the United States have very different cultures in terms of cooking and that I cannot expect to have the same type of food here as the one I can find back home, but because food is such an important aspect of French culture, I find it really hard to adjust to American food. However, I also have to admit that there are a lot of Vegetarian options here –which is definitely a good aspect – whereas this is not particularly the case in France. Indeed, France is a very agricultural country that relies very much on its livestock farming for meat production. We do have some vegetarian options in France, but because meat is an important part of French cuisine, vegetarianism is not as spread and famous in my country as it is in the US. French people are usually great meat lovers, hence my rather disappointed note about food here.

Finally, another aspect of University life here at Willamette that particularly amazed me and that I would like to discuss is the relationships between teachers and students and the way students dress. Here I find that the relationship between teachers and students is very casual, relaxed, and even friendly sometimes whereas back home there is a certain distance between professors and students that clearly shows the hierarchy between these two groups. Teachers are seen as our “superiors” and the formality used is at the same time a sign of respect.

Also, something that seems really weird for me here at Willamette is the way students dress in class. Indeed, seeing students going to class in their slippers and sweat pants or wearing hats and caps in class is not a common thing in France. Back home, the way you dress can sometimes be understood as something reflecting your attitude. As such, it is not common to see hats or caps worn in class because it is considered as a lack of respect for the teacher. Usually, people wear caps and hats outside and when entering a room (any room, not necessarily a classroom), it is common practice to remove them as a sign of respect for the people around you and the people you are going to talk to so that they can clearly see your face and identify you. Let’s also take the example of slippers. People usually wear their slippers at home – that is to say in a cozy, relaxed, and private place. If you wear your slippers in class in France, it gives the impression that you are unwilling to engage on a professional level, that you are coming here as a “tourist” and are not really ready to work. This would be seen as rather disrespectful for the teacher. I do realize that this may seem of little importance for people here but because it is something children are usually taught in France, it is rather deeply rooted in my mind –hence my surprise and even unease here every time I see students wearing these types of clothes in class. I have been taught this is something rude to do, so it is not easy to get accustomed to it.

I do realize that my article can be read as rather critical towards customs, habits, and attitudes here at Willamette or in the United States in general, but I just wanted to make clear that the purpose of this article is not to criticize but to try to develop the aspects of my life here that are really different, surprising, and sometimes shocking to me. Even though I’ve already lived in a foreign country before (in England), I would say that the culture shock is much more important for me here because the differences between my country and the US are more numerous and bigger than the ones between France and England. It can be really challenging (but of course mainly enriching) to live in a foreign country so I guess if I appear rather critical at times, it just reflects how hard it can be to grasp customs and habits that are different than yours, and that it takes time to get used to them. But this is aIso what I particularly like about traveling and living abroad: it is all about discovering new countries, new people and customs, and trying to understand and adapt, even though this can prove difficult sometimes. But in the end, difference is what makes life interesting, and traveling or living abroad broadens your mind and makes you grow as a human being even though it can involve challenges, surprises, disappointments, and misunderstandings.

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