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  • Writer's pictureIan McKenzie

"Mon Chemin" : The Road to France

An American’s Guide to Living & Studying in France (Part 1)

C’est mon choix

Most of my students and all of my friends and family are now aware that I have some upcoming travel planned. This Fall, I am moving to France to explore new avenues (probably not so much the Champs-Elysées), discover different places, some new and some old, and see friends–also some new, and some old. I have grown so much in my teaching since I began at LFBK two years ago, and have learned a lot about myself living in NYC, but, as the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. My hope is that this new chapter allows me to refresh in ways that the NYC grind doesn’t allow and to deepen my understanding of French culture and the contemporary society that are so different from the U.S.

Before I had even left the United States for the first time to study abroad in Spring 2016, I always knew there was something great waiting for me in France. In all but an official sense, it has been a place I like to think of as “home”; like Dorothy, since leaving at the end of that semester, I have always felt like I have been called back and that I absolutely must find a way to get there.

Since my semester abroad, I tried just about every imaginable route to return to France. I have done some extended summer travel during which I sublet or transferred my apartment, packed a suitcase, and rented a room from a friend in Normandy; I even applied and was accepted to work as a language assistant in a French university in 2020… Unfortunately, the temporary nature of tourism and some cataclysmic world events delayed my plans to the point that I was somewhat resigned to the possibility of letting that dream slip away. It was with the reminder from certain friends and family that, despite the challenges, I deserve to fight for the pursuit of my own dreams. While no one would cry for me or tell me it wasn’t worthwhile, without trying to make this happen for myself, it would only be I who suffered for it, me who didn’t finally do it.

I now knew I couldn’t be told what to do or how to do it, but I had to try. I had made my choice.

The Application

There I was, early July in my apartment in Brooklyn–the summer beginning to set in, A/C blasting, not thinking about the future ConEd bill in exchange for a moment’s comfort. I decide to crack my knuckles and start some research for Masters programs in French universities. Having been a part of the institution of Academia for some time, and having more than a little familiarity with defeatist French attitudes regarding what is seen as “normal” in terms of the way things are done, I was more than prepared for any amount of rejection–but what did I have to lose?

So I opened my laptop and searched very simply, “Master France” (‘Master’ being the French borrowing from English to refer to the degree beyond a Bachelors). To my surprise, I found a very aesthetically pleasing website called MonMaster–“My Masters” in English. Intended for those holding a French Bac (Bachelors), this website is basically a beautifully-coded spreadsheet compiling all of the available Masters programs in a given field into a single streamlined searchable database and application portal. This next part may shock some of our North American readers: since French and European nationals are entitled to affordable or free education, to my understanding, this application portal is free to use for as many applications as the user would desire. The offering of each university will have some variation depending on the particular makeup of the faculty, but, for the purposes of most graduate degrees, the only thing that will change from Alsace to Bordeaux is the relative availability of après Ski and raclette versus le surf and St. Emilion.

With the knowledge that, as a foreigner, the process wouldn’t be as straightforward as for a French person, and definitely not as easy this late in the game, I searched for programs in linguistics (Sciences du langage) and easily found summaries and contact information for each of the programs available in all the public universities in France. In the immortal words of Ina Garten, “how easy is that?”

In the emboldened way of any true American trying to achieve a dream, I made some digital “cold calls”; I wrote a boilerplate introducing myself, summarizing my reasons for reaching out to the program for more information, and, ultimately, to see if there was any opening left in the program. To my surprise, every one of the program directors responded to my email in some form! I was frankly astonished to receive such a high response rate from French public servants who are almost in their annual August vacation period. To even greater surprise, as it turns out, some programs would be opening a “second wave” of applications thanks to the failure of the new MonMaster platform. Meaning: thanks to the coinciding events of a new portal failing resulting in a last-minute reopening of applications, and the impeccable timing of my email, I would have the opportunity to apply to French universities for Fall 2023.

The Acceptance Letter

With only a few weeks–sometimes even days–to prepare and submit my applications, I followed the instructions of the few programs who informed me that they would be having a new, short period of admissions. I quickly gathered all of my materials–a writing sample from my first Masters, scanned copies of literally every official document since birth that I had translated when first applying to the teaching program in 2019–and sent everything off. I was lucky to have prepared everything I would need except for some letters of motivation well in advance–French institutions being known for their bureaucratic ways (bureau is a French word meaning “desk” after all), the list is even longer for foreigners.

Out of four applications I received a total of three acceptances. I was over the moon! Upon receiving my first acceptance letter from Paris 3 “Sorbonne Nouvelle”, I called everyone that’s supported me over the past few years to tell them what had happened and what my plans were–ok, yes, and maybe to pass the hat a little bit! Everyone that I spoke to about my plans was happy for me if not also more surprised than I was as I had chosen not to tell a soul about my application process in case nothing would come of it this time around. Luckily, I got the pleasure of sharing some great news and also receiving three accept ance letters to places I could really see myself living in for a couple of years! I was one huge step closer to my dream of living in France while doing something I love.

Packing My Bags

With the first huge hurdle out of the way, the work of immigrating to France is only just beginning. Now that I have an official motivation in hand (ie. an acceptance from a French institution), I can begin the immigration process, starting with renewal of my American passport–yes, we’re really starting from scratch here.

I will eventually do a deep dive on all things involved in moving to France on a student visa, but for now just know: it is not cheap and it is not fast! Even if I didn’t need to renew my current passport, the process of applying for a student visa when not on an exchange program will take anywhere from one to two months and cost anywhere from roughly three to six-hundred dollars…this precludes any guarantee that the French consulate will approve the visa application. Nonetheless, as long as you have some kind of financial plan and housing lined up, the application is unlikely to be denied and before you know it you’re landing CDG!

To Be Continued…

What does the to-do list look like? At this point: still quite extensive… I have yet to receive my renewed passport back which I submitted in late July, and I have yet to choose among the three schools I was accepted to! I am awaiting a decision on a certain exonération des droits request that I submitted to the governing body of Paris 3 (my first choice school) for foreign students–yes, school is much less expensive than anywhere in the U.S., but it costs much more for foreigners than for nationals–think, $400USD versus $4K in annual tuition and fees Regardless of the outcome of that request, however, I will have a choice between two schools–one in Paris the other in Lyon–and will be applying for the student visa soon enough.

In the meantime, I have a cat I am arranging to take with me, clear some things out of my apartment and overall just wrap up my life in NYC! I am so happy to be on this journey that has been many years in the making. Follow along for more on the immigration process, what it’s like taking a pet to live abroad, and life in France as an American.

A suivre…

By Ian McKenzie:

Ian is a French teacher at Learn French Brooklyn with a passion for language, culture and pedagogy. He has studied and lived in Normandy, France and his students of all ages benefit from his range of teaching experiences at colleges and middle school. He enjoys the arts, phonology and hanging with his cat, Seymour.


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