Sunday, June 16, 2024

MTSU student studies abroad for language, learns self-reliance


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Featured Photo by Zoe Naylor

Story by Zoe Naylor

Four thousand miles away, one Middle Tennessee State University student has adapted to a new way of life during her year abroad.

Jaël Guest, a sophomore French student, has spent the last eight months in a time zone seven hours ahead in Caen, Normandy, France. Studying French, Arabic and linguistics, she jumped headfirst into pursuing her love of language. Classrooms taught her a lot, but life lessons haven’t come as easily to her as the academic ones.

After Jaël arrived in Caen in September 2022, the first few months were an adjustment. The French university system is vastly different from that of the United States, especially because of the lack of homework. Guest missed the structure of her home university, where weekly assignments and quizzes abounded. Too much ample time made her anxiety skyrocket, and she quickly learned that “free time” was a double-edged sword.

During her fall semester, she lived with a “host mom” instead of in a university dorm. In the best of cases, that meant getting immersive language practice, home-cooked meals and free laundry. Guest didn’t get that experience, though.

Her host had strict quiet hours and the two often had heated personality clashes. Guest’s home sat miles away from the university. As the evening hours ticked on, public transportation became spotty — which led to the detriment of her social life. She found it nearly impossible to participate in evening activities for the international students or experience the night life that is quintessential to French student culture.

Combine these factors with missing her closest friends and parents at home in the States. To call Guest’s first semester an “adjustment” is an understatement.

Gradually, things began looking up. A devout Christian, Guest felt elated to find a weekly Bible study. She said it became her anchor. She attended faithfully each week, paying no mind to the bitter Normandy cold or an exam the next morning.

Studying in her second language the text she had read since childhood, Jaël said the Bible study helped her find self-assurance — one of the most valuable things she has gained over her year abroad.

“[I’m] finally on my way to becoming actually independent,” she said.

Guest learned that independence doesn’t equate to lonliness — a difficult line to draw. In the past, the introvert used solitude as a crutch to avoid challenging herself.

“Whenever I notice I’m scared to do something, I do that thing,” she said.

A prime example is when Guest took a trip to Italy. She chuckled as she called the planning process “trial by fire.” It was the first time she planned a trip by herself, a symbol of her adulthood through decision making.

Guest had some trouble getting all her ducks in a row with the trip, but it ended up being a wonderful experience. She learned to give herself grace when trying new things.

Doing so allowed her to plan more international trips on her own. Guest traveled to Belgium, Switzerland and Germany. She definitely stretched her comfort zone. She spent Christmas break with a family of missionaries she had never met in person in Germany.

She said her favorite part of international travel is how it “brings history closer.” She is glad she took the leap to plan her many trips, as they have rejuvenated her love of history and etymology.

Over the last seven months, Jaël improved her French skills, added “studied abroad” to her résumé and rekindled her love for academia. But arguably more importantly, she gained self-compassion and self-reliance.

“I was hoping somebody would tell me what to do,” she said. “I have to decide what I want to do with my life.”

She pushed herself out of her comfort zone of her own volition, which made her grow immeasurably.

Now nearing the end of her year at the Université de Caen-Normandie, Jaël lives happily in a 95-square-foot dorm room and is still attending her weekly Bible study.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Destiny Mizell, email For more news, visit, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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