Reflections on Study Abroad

Duncan PellyDear Golden Eagles,

The purpose of this letter is to encourage not only my students, but all students at Cal State LA to consider studying abroad.  It is an essential and formative experience that can be self-defining and possibly one of the most memorable and intellectually stimulating parts of the college experience. 

As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to study abroad three times. The first time was in the winter and spring of 2004 at the Institut D’Etudes Politiques – Lyon 2. The second and third times were at the Free University Berlin for the summers of 2004 and 2005. 

The first thing I remember about going abroad was a sense of uneasiness.  I really had no idea what to expect in Lyon.  I always thought my French was good, but I didn’t know if it would be good enough to survive full immersion in a French university.  Fortunately my doubts were quickly put to rest when I started my first class with my French colleagues – International and Public Law.  Within minutes I went from unsure if I could follow the lecture to being certain I had no clue what was going on – All of which was made more difficult by the fact that there was no heat in the amphitheater and I was wearing a hat, gloves, and shivering while trying to take notes.


Despite some initial setbacks, things somehow got easier.  I made the wise choice to find French friends, and integrate myself into French life, including participating in activities with my host family.  I even began coaching the local American Football team – the Falcons.  While my high school J.V. team could have easily beaten this semi-professional team of individuals who were all in their twenties, I quickly found that those of us who play football are equally crazy and irrespective of which passport we carry.  As I quickly began subconsciously learning all the colorful language I shouldn’t use in polite company, the language that was academic and necessary to passing an exam trickled in as well. 

After two months, I was sitting in lecture taking furious notes and understanding the content to the same level as my French peers.  The way that my major, International Relations, was taught in France was fundamentally different from what I had learned in the U.S., as were the methodologies and logic of self-expression.  These classes began to make me think critically about what I had learned in the United States, and gave me a much more robust framework for questioning my own intellectual assumptions.  My other colleagues from my home university unfortunately socialized exclusively with each other, had only made marginal improvements to their French, and continued to struggle.  At some point, I began to have difficulty speaking in English on the phone to my parents, and dreaming in French was indeed strange.

Of course, there were things I learned on a cultural level as well.  It was the first time I had ever experienced the socialism first hand, and it made me question my own political orientation.  On a personal level, I saw the impressions that French had of the U.S. as well.  Unfortunately, these opinions were largely influenced by American T.V. that was dubbed on French stations. These classics included The A-Team, Knight Rider, The Jerry Springer Show, and John Wayne movies.  The questions that I received launched some strange conversations.  Yet these exchanges in many ways helped me better understand myself and also alter some of my ideas.


After exams in June, I had to leave and begin my studies in Berlin.  I was shattered.  In fact, I cried the entire flight to Berlin.  But somehow the sadness turned into those familiar emotions of uncertainty and confusion once I landed in Berlin.  I had neglected to maintain my abilities in German while in France, and very quickly realized I could not ask for much more than water, beer, or a bathroom.  I allowed the process to naturally begin again, and after my second trip to Berlin, I was able to complete my undergraduate thesis entirely in German.

These trips abroad started a travel addiction, and as a consequence I have lived the majority of my adult life overseas, and have enjoyed it immensely.  But my time has also helped me appreciate everything the U.S. has to offer.

At Cal State LA, similar opportunities are available as well.  Tuition overseas in very affordable and there is the possibility for receiving financial aid and grants to fund your studies.  You have the opportunity not just to learn a foreign language, but truly master one.  You can explore a foreign culture and country, and learn a tremendous amount about yourself.  You also take courses that are not normally available at Cal State LA and still receive credit for them.             

My door is always open to anyone who wishes to study abroad (especially in France or Germany), and my colleague in the study abroad office, Amy Wang ( can also help you pick out the program and financial assistance packages that are right for you. 



Dr. Duncan Pelly