In case you haven’t already heard, this fall I’ll be moving to Nancy, France (see map above) for an academic year to be an English teaching assistant at Lycée Frédéric Chopin through a program funded by the French Ministry of Education called Teaching Assistant Program in France. And as such, all my current brain space seems to be completely dominated by thoughts of moving to France. I guess that makes sense considering this will be my first time moving abroad for an extended period of time.
Since being accepted to the program, I’ve had some people ask me about the application and preparation process. Alas, I thought it might be a good idea for me to share and document my experiences by doing a series of blog posts. Here is the first post in what might potentially be a series of posts.
(If you are a listicle hater, please excuse my use of the form. As it so happens, I tend to really enjoy their organization.)
Before the Application
1. Thoughts About Why I Want to Go Abroad
This whole thing started about a year ago, the summer before my last year of university. The ever looming question of what are you going to do after graduation was not only persistent in my own mind, but also physically vocalized in what seemed like everyone in my immediate surroundings. For various reasons, I never had the opportunity to study abroad in my undergraduate degree and I knew that living abroad was something that I wanted to experience prior to making any further decisions about my career or education. I spent last summer researching the application processes to various programs that seemed like a good fit for my goals (i.e. TAPIF, Fulbright, Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange).
During this period, I spent time reflecting upon my collective experiences as a musician, a student, a teacher, a community member and I realized that education, in the broad sense of the word, has been a thread that has tied my pursuits together throughout the years. Not only do I value my own education, but also the education of others. Pursuing and encouraging intellectual freedom and critical thinking skills, especially from an arts and culture perspective, is a trend I noticed in my personal history while thinking about the application process. I knew wanted to dig deeper into these ideas by actually working abroad in education. In the end, that’s how I decided that an international experience was the direction I wanted to go.
2. Language and Cultural Preparation
For TAPIF there is a French proficiency requirement. I had taken French in middle school, high school, and a couple of non-major courses in college, but I wasn’t sure if this was going to be enough. I decided the best plan of action would be to register for the intensive grammar course at my school (required for all French majors and minors) in the fall in preparation for applying to TAPIF. This turned out to be a great idea because my professor also happened to be involved in the local chapter of the Alliances Françaises and was familiar with TAPIF. Doing well in her class and developing a relationship with her in the fall semester was an important part of my application process because she ended up being the one who wrote the letter of recommendation affirming my language proficiency for TAPIF. For good measure, I also took a European politics course fall semester to help me gain a better understanding of the French political system and its relationship to the European Union.
And even now, a year later, I’m still working on my language and cultural preparation. Because let’s be honest, I’m pretty scared that I’m going to show up in Nancy and have zero understanding of the language and the current events spoken at native francophone pace. This includes lots of watching French Youtubers, reading the news in French, changing my phone and social media settings to French, listening to French music, Duolingo, and FluentU.
During the Application
3. Picking a Region of France
The TAPIF application opens sometime in October and closes in January. So there is plenty of time to get your application package together. When you apply for TAPIF you are allowed to rank your top three choices of Académies (French educational administrative region), preference of primary or secondary school placement, and size of city. I picked my Académies based on information I could find about average cost of living and rent in each area. Although TAPIF does give you a salary and insurance, I wanted to be realistic about costs. All assistants get paid the same amount no matter if you’re living in Paris or a small town. I also knew I didn’t want to work in one of the French overseas Académies (Guadeloupe, Martinque, Reunion etc.) because, again, realistically I’m not prepared to live in a tropical climate for an extended period of time.
My three choices of Académies were Lille, Nancy-Metz, and Grenoble. I picked these regions because they 1) were not Paris and/or one of the larger cities in France and 2) would likely still provide easy access to areas of France and Europe. Although I happened to be placed in a medium/larger sized city, the application is up front in telling you that not all placements are in cities. There is the potential that you could be placed in a small town. You cannot asked to be reassigned, so just be mentally prepared for that.
Fun fact, I definitely picked Académie Nancy-Metz based on an episode of House Hunters International on HGTV where the city of Nancy was featured as one of France’s popular university cities and intellectual centers. It felt like a weird meant-to-be moment when I was notified in early June that I was placed in Nancy at a high school named after the composer Frederic Chopin.
4. Personal Statement and Letters of Recommendation
At this point I should also mention that the application, which requires a resume, personal statement, and two letters of recommendation, is all in French. The letters of recommendation do not necessarily need to be written in French. However, the resume and personal statement needs to be written in French without edits from anyone who is familiar with the French language. The personal statement is used as a measure of interest for the program and as a measure for your grasp of the French language.
Like I said in my first point, deciding to spend time abroad wasn’t something that I decided to do in the spur of the moment. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. When writing my personal statement, I made sure to bring forth concrete examples and evidence of this reflection. I explained how experiences on my resume supported my goals and why participating in TAPIF was an important step for me in gaining a better understanding of different cultures and educational systems.
Since I couldn’t have my French professor read my personal statement, I sent her an English version of my statement in order to give her context and reasons for why I wanted to apply. My other letter of recommendation was written in English by a former employer who could speak to my experiences in working with students. I made sure to send her my personal statement in English as well.
After the Application
5. The Waiting Game
After I completed and submitted my application in January, all that was left to do was wait. Something that I’ve noticed in this whole process is that waiting is a staple of TAPIF. At this point in the school year, not only was I dealing with waiting for TAPIF, but I was also waiting for word from other programs. My last semester of school just felt like a lot of waiting riddled with spurts of anxiety caused by the uncertainty of post-graduation life.
But sure enough, April 1st, 2016 rolled around. I was not expecting a notification that day, which is why I was surprised to see the congratulatory email letting me know that I had been placed in a secondary school assignment in Académie Nancy-Metz. When I told my family they thought I was pulling an April Fools Day prank on them…
In this email, I was told that my contract with details of my city and school would be coming later in the summer and all I could do at the moment was, you guessed it, wait. I needed to wait for my contract to arrive before setting up a visa appointment with the French consulate in San Francisco, I needed to send off an identity history summary to the FBI and then wait 13 weeks for it to process, I needed to wait to book my flight, I needed to wait before finding housing…
It’s now July, I have received my official contract and things are starting to come together, but it’s definitely a slow moving process.
6. Finding a Community Before Departure
One of the most helpful things that I’ve been able to do in the preparation process is to connect with other assistants who are getting ready to leave and past assistants who have gone through the process before. Thank god for the internet. I seriously don’t know how people did anything before Google. Here are some things I’ve been doing in an attempt to find a community prior to departure:
- I’ve been reading a lot of blogs from people who have completed the program in the past. Many of them have outlined detailed descriptions of what they did before, during, and after the program.
- I’ve joined the 2016-2017 Language Assistants/TAPIF Facebook group. This group is filled with helpful tips. Pro tip: it’s where I learned that the French Consulate’s online appointment booking system releases new appointment times every night at midnight France time. Prior to this, I had been fruitlessly checking the website over and over again only to be informed that all available appointments were booked.
- I’ve been able to get in touch with the English teacher that I will be working with at my lycée and learned that I will be getting free housing while I’m in France. It’s a huge relief for me to know that I won’t have to deal with French landlords and contracts.
- I’ve also been able to get in touch with the teaching assistant who was at my school last year. I’m super excited to get some more day-to-day information about the school and city from her.
- Finally, I hope to get involved in the local community when I get to Nancy. As a result, I’ve been furiously Googling opportunities. The assistantship is supposedly only 12 hours a week, so there should theoretically be some free time to explore other interests.
- I’ve seen that the local university, Université de Lorraine, has an open orchestra for students. There might be some opportunities there.
- I’m also hoping to register for French classes at the university’s language school. What better way to improve my French?
- There is the potential of learning German at Nancy’s Goethe Institute. Nancy is only about an hour away from Germany!
- The logistics for all of this is kind of a nightmare at the moment, so who knows how it will all turn out. It’s good to know that Nancy has plenty of options though.
Having never lived abroad for more than 3 months, I’m mentally preparing myself for the potential pitfalls of homesickness, culture shock, and loneliness by trying to find communities and connections before I even set foot in France. Again, #blessed for the internet. I love being a #millennial. Who knows if any of it will work. I should probably still anticipate experiencing all of those pitfalls and more, but I’m sure preparation can’t hurt.
7. All the Administrative Tasks Ever. Seriously.
This portion of the process has been the most cumbersome. Again, the internet and past assistants have been a wealth of knowledge. Figuring out the mounds of paperwork is just a dream (not), especially in French. Signing and accepting the contract, setting up the visa appointment, copies of my passport, copies of my birth certificate, copies of my health records, copies of my prescriptions, copies of my contract as proof of employment, searching the internet for flights, the list goes on and on…
All in all, it’s been fine. Not fun, but fine. I’ve invested in a large folder with multiple label-friendly sections. Thankfully, the program does provide guidance in the form of multiple online guides (2016-2017 TAPIF Handbook, CIEP Guide).
Something I found extremely helpful was setting up an appointment at my local bank. They were able to walk me through several options for moving money abroad, ways to reduce international fraud, what to look for when opening accounts abroad etc. I’m still a bit nervous about having to deal with money and insurance abroad, but meeting with my local bank made me feel more informed and secure on the American end.
So yeah. Maybe deciding to transplant my life across the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t the easiest of ideas. Also, my timing couldn’t have been more impeccable (I’m looking at you Trump vs. Hillary and the Great Brexit of 2016). But all in all, I couldn’t be more excited. I’m at a point in my life where it feels like the time for doing is now. Come what may this fall, it looks like I’m headed to France.