One Girl’s Guide to Engineering School à la française

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You are in for a real treat today – my colleague and dear friend, Tamara, is here to write about her engineering study abroad experience in France. She’s a smart and extremely talented woman and I am sure you will enjoy her story as much as I did…

When I took my first French classes in 7th grade, the term “engineer” conjured an image of a suspenders-wearing man who helped drive trains. There are other types of engineers (though driving trains is quite impressive and important, that is not the type of engineering I’d like to tell you about today)…

1_engineer_stereotype

Fortunately, thanks to the Penn State Women in Engineering Program’s outreach to high school students, I later learned that engineering is a very broad profession with many disciplines. Engineers can work in many different industries (medicine, food & beverage, energy) across many different geographic areas – including France.

I think I’ll always remember listening to a Penn State engineering student talk about her internship in France. At the time, I was still a high school student trying to decide what major to put on my college applications.  Yes, I liked science and math. Yes, I had fun building robots. However, hearing this student describe living and working in France was different from the typical “sales pitch” to potential engineering students. You could combine an interest in a foreign language with engineering.  Incroyable!

I had loved studying French (as well as math and science, bien sûr) all through middle school and high school. When I heard the engineering student talk about her French internship, the message I came away with was music to my ears. You don’t have to trade your French/English dictionary for a graphing calculator….you can use both.

I think you can compare engineering to a little black dress – great by itself, but even more fun when you can accessorize to your liking with business, law, or even a foreign language.

I accessorized my undergraduate studies in chemical engineering with French classes, an energy industry internship, a pharmaceutical industry internship, and a semester abroad at an engineering school in Nancy, France.

As I had continued to study both French and engineering, I decided that I wanted to apply my foreign language interest and technical skills together. Through online research, I found out about the Global Engineering Education Exchange, and selected three French Engineering schools, including l’Institut National Polytechnique de Lorraine (INPL, or National Polytechnic University of Lorraine), located in Nancy, a small city in Eastern France that I knew essentially nothing about beforehand except that 1) It was in France 2) It had an engineering school.

Although I was woefully under-informed about the city I would come to call home for a semester, I would soon also learn 3) Nancy was a gorgeous city full of lovely parks and promenades, architectural treasures, cobblestone roads, and open air cafés in the warmer months. 4) Nancy was also home to many other international students, though far fewer Americans than larger French cities like Paris.

Open air café in Nancy’s town square, Place Stanislas

Open air café in Nancy’s town square, Place Stanislas

 Now a note on cultural differences and culture shock:

As a foreign exchange student, you may be welcomed by the host country, but you won’t fit in. In my opinion, that’s kind of the point – you step outside of your comfort zone both culturally and linguistically. You struggle to understand and be understood, gaining a new empathy and respect for the international students who face this challenge for their entire academic careers back in the U.S. In facing these often-frustrating challenges, you learn not just about your host country, but about your home country too. The experience will force you to think critically about your own definitions of “normal.” I think that’s a wonderful and powerful personal lesson.

So anyway, engineering school in France. Off to Nancy I went and learned how to perform chemistry lab experiments in French:

3_travaux_pratique

Chemistry lab in French seemed to me fairly similar to lab coursework I had done in the U.S., although there was a pesky difference where they sometimes use commas for decimal points (example: 20.8 is written as 20,8).  Oh, and of course, the rest of the world uses the metric system, so I became accustomed to thinking about temperatures in Celsius and lengths in centimeters and meters.

One of my fondest chemistry-lab related memories actually occurred during spring break. I took a train to the Alps to take a ski lesson (en français, of course) and work on my organic chemistry lab report from my bed & breakfast in the evenings :

A study break from organic chemistry lab writing in the French Alps

A study break from organic chemistry lab writing in the French Alps

Yes, engineering classes are demanding and require even more time and energy when they’re in French. However, as in U.S. university studies, I think it is important to make time for the unique extracurricular activities and events available. Enjoy the people, places, and celebrations for their unique character, even if (or perhaps specifically because) you are sans doute an outsider. I was some combination of lucky and open-minded, and had fun participating in French student life.

The school within INPL that I studied at was called l’École Européenne d’Ingénieurs en Génie des Matériaux (EEIGM), which translates roughly to “European School of Materials Science and  Engineering.” One of the events EEIGM hosted was le Tournoi des 4 Raquettes or “The Tournament of 4 Rackets.” TD4R was part team costume competition and part tennis/squash/badminton/ping-pong tournament.

5_TD4R

Studying in Europe is not all cathedrals and alpine skiing – both European and American college students enjoy any reason to wear ridiculous costumes. One of the funniest memories of my semester abroad turned out to be taking French public transportation from my apartment to the TD4R tournament dressed as a zebra.

That being said – the cathedrals were incredible:

Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Metz, France, nearby Nancy in the Lorraine region

Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Metz, France, nearby Nancy in the Lorraine region

Taking technical coursework in French was challenging, and my semester abroad threw me off-sequence in my undergraduate curriculum, delaying my graduation. It was a time-consuming and expensive accessory to my education. I pursued the experience because it was a very important goal of mine on a personal level, and that made it worthwhile to me.

I emphasize the personal aspect of this time and fiscal resource-consuming pursuit because my message to a student reading this is not “Please take my experience and hit ‘Ctrl+C’.” My intended message is that you can and should seek out opportunities that are meaningful to you on a personal level based on your own values and interests. After all, it’s your little black dress!

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