Study abroad reflections – Apprenez de vos erreurs – on mistakes abroad

By: Chelsea K., University Relations Coordinator, API Texas

(former API France/Rome/Syracuse Program Manager, and former API student in Grenoble, France: French Language & Culture Semester Program)

Beautiful scenery in Grenoble, France

At my college graduation, the Dean of the English Department addressed the question that every senior had endlessly heard for the past semester: What’s next? What can one do with an English degree? It seemed that every parent in the room leaned in a bit further, eager to hear exactly how their investment was going to pay off. Our Dean eloquently addressed this question in terminology that we, as English majors, knew but were not familiar with hearing in our context. She addressed the return on investment- outlining exactly what marketable skills those hours of literary analysis and creative writing imparted to us. Our parents and supporters left the graduation markedly more relieved.

Me and my host mother

I often use this same terminology when speaking to parents of students who are weary of another educational investment, and I use it with students who aren’t quite sure what the value is of a study abroad experience. We often speak with students who say that study abroad “changed their life,” and that they had an “experience beyond words.” What is important is that we closely examine what it was about that abroad experience that taught us valuable life skills that are essential to both our personal and professional development. We should really look at our return on investment in our study abroad experience.


Sometimes you may choose the wrong path - and that's okay!


I studied abroad in the early days of blogging. I’ve frequently journaled, and I had a small sense that self-reflection was an integral part of studying abroad, so I started an online journal. I kept a chronicle of what I did, but as I go back and read through it, I now see a chronicle of who I was and what I was learning.

An excerpt, from one of my days in Grenoble:

So, the point of my Carrefour story is that there are about 65 cash registers spread in a single line across the front of the store. Every line was long and my friends got in the ten items of less line. I had 11 items and was eager to not break any rules, so I went searching for a shorter line. I see this line that only has this woman and her young daughter in it. So I get behind the daughter and mother and put my things on the belt. Well, the daughter was cute with blonde hair and huge blue eyes and she was chewing on the corner of a book and I was cooing and saying, “Oh, qu’est-ce que c’est?” and talking baby talk to her, pretty much not paying attention to anything. The mother looked oddly familiar, and for a fleeting moment I thought she was American, even Texan (something about her clothes) so then the cashier turns to me and says something, very quickly, in French. I don’t completely understand so I say, “Desolee” (sorry) and lean in further so she’ll repeat what she said. She does, and I catch the words “one must be pregnant or” and then I turn in horror to the sign over the cashier number and it shows a picture of a pregnant woman, a woman with a child, and a handicapped person. I was so embarrassed! I start to apologize, and offer to change lines “je peux changer le ligne” but the cashier was super nice and just laughed and said “Ca n’est pas grave”- no big deal, and left me in line. So I am standing there, as red as my hair, and the mother turns and says to me, “Are you from here?” and I said “No- I’m an American studying here” and she starts talking in English. Turns out, she’s from SAN ANTONIO! of all places, and moved here about six months ago because her husband works for Motorola and they have a big factory/headquarters or something here. She told me good luck with everything and that it all gets easier, and to just act like I was pregnant. It was great, and took a very little bit of the embarrassment away.

As I reread this story, I can feel the embarrassment of the situation creeping back into my consciousness. I was so eager to not break any rules, to not overstep any cultural boundaries, but I did anyway! That was an essential part of the study abroad experience- learning to make mistakes. I had to make mistakes to learn. I had to get in the wrong line at the check out counter to learn why the lines were differentiated. As a devoted student and professed over-achiever, this was one of the best lessons of my study abroad experience. It is okay to be wrong. It is okay to ask questions. It is okay to ask for help. My experiences in France helped me learn that to be a better leader, I needed to be a better team player. I needed to be comfortable enough with myself to ask for help when needed.

Downtown Grenoble

In the field of international education, we speak a lot about the value of the study abroad experience. These life skills I learned abroad are invaluable. Even a day as insignificant as the one I mentioned above- a small mistake at the grocery store- was a lesson that contributed to my overall personal growth.

Mistakes are the portals of discovery. – James Joyce

For more musings from Chelsea, follow her on Twitter – @API_Chelsea

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  1. Jeramy Johnson says

    Thanks for the post Chelsea – you’re right, the best way to learn is to try! We often learn the most from our failures rather than our successes 🙂

  2. aw, I loved this post! It’s funny, I learned SO much about my host culture from the grocery store…just one more reason to love food, right?!

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