AIFS had gone through a lot of trouble to organize tours, dinners, outings, etc. (all free of charge, included in the program fees) to make us all feel welcome. But after a particularly grueling dinner where I sat at a table with six 18 year olds having their first legal drinks of wine and becoming giddy about it, I doubted this program and my place in it. BUT...
I continued to attend the free, organized activities during June before classes started. I took a free bus tour of Paris, went to a chocolate museum, the Orangerie, took a walking tour of Montmartre and even attended a Vivaldi concert at Sainte Chappelle. All surrounded by teenagers. Now, most of the teenagers were lovely. I will be lifelong Facebook friends with several girls from Texas, but it was fairly clear we were not "peers". I was definitely more of a chaperone and felt slightly out of place.
But all that did change once classes started. My best friends became a woman from Tokyo who was learning French as her 5th language and needed it for contract negotiations. A Dutch woman currently teaching in Saudi Arabia became my partner in crime and we went on bike tours and even visited Disney World. A girl from San Diego who had recently married a Frenchman invited me over to see her apartment and go shopping in her favorite boutiques. And I had several lunches and talked world politics with a Brazilian woman who was on sabbatical in France doing research on French films. And I met all these people and more in my classes at the Sorbonne.
So, was I uncomfortable? At times. Was I out of my element? Quite often. But was it an amazing experience that I wouldn't trade for the world? Definitely. I can put no price on the confidence I gained and friendships I formed while in France. It is an experience I will take with me when I become a teacher and hopefully it is an experience I can share with others.
Should you apply for a Gilman Scholarship?
Take a chance, put yourself first. If you are thinking about studying abroad, if it is something you have always wanted to do, make it happen! It isn't selfish to want to get the most out of your college experience no matter how old you are or what else you have going on in your life. This experience is something you will build upon in the future. It will benefit you professionally and personally and the Gilman Program also has a lot of opportunities for returning scholars. They have alumni resources and get togethers and career workshops as well.
Going to school when you are young give you many advantages in life and allows for some amazing formative experiences. But those like us, who waited a while, are often getting more out of the experience academically. We know who we are and how hard life can be. We appreciate the opportunity in front of us and don't want to waste a moment. We are usually working very hard to balance life, work and school, thus we are committed to getting everything we can from it. So study abroad. Apply for the Gilman....see where it can take you.