Student Spotlight: Returnee Perspectives

Featuring Cullen Allen (Vanderbilt 2024), Sybil Fu (Columbia College 2023), Greta M. (Barnard 2024), and Lucy Zorzano (Barnard 2020).

Charlotte Force
February 15, 2023

On the Morningside Heights campus, “orientation” evokes first-year students arriving in September a week earlier than others for the New Student Orientation Program. But here in Paris, orientation happens every term – spring, summer, and fall – as most students arrive for a single semester only. It seems as though just as they are getting used to saying bonjour to the boulangère, and finally letting it sink in that they are, in fact, in Paris – it is time to say au-revoir to the City of Lights.

That is, except for some returning students for whom all of this is now quite familiar. For these returnees, orientation allows them to pick up the projects and pastimes they had begun when they were last in Paris.

Sybil Fu, a Columbia College fourth-year majoring in Comparative Literature and Economics, studied in Paris in the Spring of 2022. She didn’t know she’d be back for her final semester of college. “I was doing my summer internship and said to my friend… ‘Wouldn't it be great if we were back in Paris?’”

Cullen Allen, a Vanderbilt third-year majoring in Anthropology and French, slated to study for only one semester, yet continued into Spring 2023: “I just decided to stay!” The French department at Vanderbilt was especially supportive of the decision, and, Cullen added, “The Anthropology department said anything you do is anthropology, so that works.”

Both have taken advantage of their additional time in Paris. Before classes were in full-swing, Cullen said, “I’ve tried to go to at least one museum every free day I’ve had. I know if I don’t do it now, I’ll get distracted. If I ever have doubts about being happy studying in Paris, I go to a museum and I think, yeah it’s a great decision to be here.”

From the perspective of returning students, Paris seems to be the star. Greta, a Barnard third-year student studying Architecture and Environmental Science, said, “My advice for future Reid Hall students is to push yourselves to explore all corners of Paris and try to see other parts of France too. I think students most commonly think about traveling to other countries in Europe, but it's important to remember how diverse different areas can be within France. It's well-worth seeing.”

Cullen shared a similar perspective. “Now, I feel that my time here is more about my relationship with Paris. It doesn’t feel like studying abroad, it feels more about being in the place and what you can do there. It happens that people move around every weekend and it’s important to explore where you are and get to know that really well. I’d give that advice to anyone. To me, that’s one of my biggest priorities, is to feel like I know Paris and have built a relationship with the city.”

Europe has a great deal to offer, and a lot of diversity when you travel widely, but exploring Paris deeply is equally as varied. Sybil said, “I wish I had stayed more in Paris last time but I thought I’d never be back in Europe!”

And of course, Parisian café culture has its charms. Cullen said, “In France, people are used to going places and watching others go by. That’s why the chairs are pointed out towards the street on terraces. I try cafés in different neighborhoods, a lot of the time alone – my time to watch people, or read a book.” He added, “I also like seeing different parks. My favorite is definitely the Buttes-Chaumont, it’s incredible.”

At orientation this year, Lucy Zorzano, a Barnard graduate of the class of 2020, came to speak about another question students studying abroad often pose: how does one make French friends? “You just have to be persistent,” she said. “Since you’re the outsider, you’re the one who has to make the effort if you want to actually make friends.” In the fall of 2018, she and her peers made a friend group in Paris, thanks to a student from the Sorbonne they met at a Reid Hall cocktail party.

There is an American stereotype that the French are difficult to befriend; but that is likely less true of university students. Sybil said, “People have the impression that the French are closed-off, or don’t want to make friends, but I think a lot of them do! Especially at the License level” [the third year in French university] “ reach out… invite them!” From Cullen’s perspective, “The two countries have a really awesome relationship in a unique way, there’s a lot of admiration and respect on both sides, and Columbia’s community here has that Franco-American tie at its center. I’ve been really pleasantly surprised, and happy to meet so many interesting people through Columbia’s resources.”

Of course, making francophone friends helps with learning the language, one major goal for many students. Lucy assuaged some anxieties at orientation. “Don’t feel overwhelmed about your level of French,” she advised. “When I first got here my level was elementary, and by the end when we took the TCF, I ended up getting a C1 level. You have to make the experience what you want it to be. If your goal is to improve your French, then work on that. If your goal is to travel as much as you can because you want to take advantage of being in Europe, then do that. But if your goal is to feel that Paris is a second home to you at the end, then I probably wouldn’t be leaving every weekend. Try to figure out for yourself what you want this to be, and then try to make it happen!”

Being in France has its challenges, but these are often learning opportunities. Cullen said his French has improved tremendously. “I think I’m fluent in French,” he said, “aside from numbers. When I tried to join a gym recently, I didn’t understand how much they were saying it would cost.” Even after having mastered the art of general conversation, it’s sometimes the small, yet important, words that truly reveal one’s level of fluency. At a store last semester, while trying to give his email address, Cullen realized he didn’t know how to say the “@” symbol. “I looked at the guy blankly, and he said, ‘Ah! Arobase.’ He understood, and taught me a word.”

Language classes, held at Reid Hall twice weekly for three hours, provide the foundation on which to build. For example, Cullen’s directed research project this summer was born of his academic writing class in French with professor Cécile Balavoine. “Cécile is an amazing professor because she would use interesting forms of writing to help teach grammar. Before this, I hadn’t been taught how to write correctly and to write well at the same time… She and I had a really good relationship and a lot of that class was about auto-fiction, as a means of reflection.” Cullen connected this to his major in anthropology, “I’m doing a project on the subject of how to use auto-fiction to generate emotional knowledge applicable in anthropology.”

The diverse programs at Reid Hall have also allowed returning students to explore varying disciplines in Paris. Greta, who this semester is participating in the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s program, said, “Last semester I did an independent study with the mentorship of a professor at a local French university. I was researching Yiddish culture in Paris, specifically, elementary schooling in the interwar years compared with today. It was a great opportunity to get to do independent research outside the area of my major.”

Looking forward, some returning students are using this semester as a “dress rehearsal” to see if they might be able to make a life in France, post-graduation. 

Sybil is now applying to master programs in France. She said, “I wanted to come back and see if I could actually live here. Last time, I was on vacation mode.” This time, she’s asking herself, “Can I see myself commuting to work, living in this city, staying here for years? Can I do this? It’s looking OK for the most part!”

Cullen, who plans to apply to law school, said “I really am inspired by everyone who’s a couple of years older than me and has moved to France. I feel like France has this draw, and Paris has this draw, that’s hard to describe.” There are law school programs shared between the U.S. and France, at SciencesPo for instance. “That’s something I’m thinking about, coming back with a dual degree.”

Lucy is proof that this can happen, even if you don’t plan on it. “I chose to start learning French because I knew I wanted to study abroad.” She had never been to France, and had never taken French classes before university, but studied it in New York for her first two years. She chose to study chemistry, aiming to work in the cosmetics industry; however, working in France (let alone in French) wasn’t the plan.

She studied for one semester in Paris, then returned to New York and graduated in 2020, just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As she had previously applied for a French master’s degree in cosmetic formulation and business management, she came back as soon as she could, in September 2020. After completing a 2-year master’s degree, she interned at L'Oréal. She subsequently stayed with the company and settled in Paris. Lucy has just accepted a new position with the Green Sciences Incubator, working with startups to see whether new technologies and materials can be integrated into L’Oreal’s formulations.

“I was expecting to have the classic study abroad experience where you travel a lot and have fun, and I didn’t have many other expectations. In the end, it surpassed my expectations, I don’t think I could ever have imagined it going as well as it did.”

Students interested in applying to the Columbia Undergraduate Program in Paris should refer to this page.