We might be neighbours, separated by only a few miles of open water, but the way we experience university life is completely different. As soon as I started my year studying for a master's degree in Newcastle, it seemed like I was stepping into a different world.
1. Let's start at the beginning: 'Freshers Week'
Those two words might be familiar to you but they certainly aren't for us French. Indeed, our "Freshers Week" basically means the first week of lectures in the academic year as opposed to what happens across the Channel.
So imagine my reaction when I was confronted with hordes of students dressed in fancy dress ready to take the city's bars by storm seven nights in a row and drink until the morning. Let's just say it wasn't quite what I expected.
Although French students also drink, they often do so more moderately, placing more importance on the actual atmosphere of their usual waterhole rather than the quantities served there. In Paris for example, it’s common for students to share a bottle of wine or two by the Seine River rather than partaking in a drinking contest at the student union.
2. Then there are the 'societies'
Once the academic year had officially started it was time to join a society. It's difficult to beat British universities on that point. Thanks to concerts, themed parties, balls, sports competitions etc. every week was jam-packed full of activities and there was never a moment to get bored on campus.
While French universities offer the chance to join a few “associations”, it's certainly not comparable to what my British university had to offer: Bollywood, Cocktail or even Pokemon societies, there was something to suit all tastes… even a French society!
3. Dressing up
Yes, we do like to dress up in France, but not quite as much as the British and in slightly different way. I have never had to buy as many outfits for events such as fancy dress or formal parties as I did in the 12 months I spent in England. And speaking of themed parties, the ‘fancy dress’ passion still remains one of the mysteries of British university life to me. Yes, I was invited to a few themed costume parties while I was a student back home, but nowhere near as many as in the United Kingdom.
I can recall the stupefaction of my fellow countrymen on social networks, astonished by the number of pictures where I appeared dressed up as a zoo animal, pirate or Ancient Egyptian etc.
Choosing accommodation in Newcastle was also a big deal. Most British undergraduates choose to live on campus during their first year or in halls of residence, but in France people don't always choose to do this. We tend to rent a flat in the centre of the city instead. My experience of university accommodation in England was both exciting but also challenging, because I had to share a flat with students from seven different countries and had to get along with them, which was, let’s be honest, not always easy to do.
But then again, it saves you a bunch of money, allows you to learn how to say “hello”, “goodbye” and “cheers” in a multitude of different languages and you get to try your hand at diplomacy when that mountain of dirty dishes in the sink just never seems to shrink.
Although the French experience will most likely buy you the private space you don’t get in halls, you have to be organized enough to be able to cook, shower, study and sleep on a very pricey 20 square metres or less.
Studying in another country can turn out to be quite challenging, especially if it is not your mother tongue and if you are not used to another university code. One of the things that surprised me the most was the support that lecturers and university staff members were offering at all times. I was assigned a personal tutor (who also happened to be one of my lecturers) from the start, whom I felt I could easily talk to about academic or even personal problems. This was a big change for me since I was not used to this kind of personal approach from lecturers, as opposed to French universities, where this kind of “lecturer-tutor” system is not as widespread.
Another aspect of the British university system that surprised me was the importance placed on plagiarism. Indeed, not that it is not the case in France, but for the first time in my student life I experienced having to submit my essays to a special software that would check my work before my professor.
6. Last but not least… the graduation ceremony
Graduating from a British university was probably one of the most exciting parts of the year for me. Not only because it meant being able to wear a graduation gown, shaking the vice-chancellor’s hand and posing for official photographs, but also because, unlike in France, I felt rewarded for my hard work.
Indeed, in France, graduation ceremonies remain rare and only take place in some business schools that tend to adopt the ‘Anglo way’ of celebrating their students’ graduation.
Instead the tradition here is to just go to university to check our results on a list or simply wait for a letter to formalize the completion of our degree. Not as glamourous as the British way, sadly. You can understand my excitement as I was called up on stage to collect my degree.
All in all, this year was full of surprises and cultural differences not always easy to deal with, but if I could do it all over again, I would do so instantly.