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At Home in Paris

By Mary Cate Connors, Office of International Programs

After a long day of classes, Sarah Betancourt ’20 found refuge away from all the tourist city noise in Paris. She would stroll back to her apartment — past the Eiffel Tower and into a quaint residential neighborhood — where five small children and a delicious French meal were usually waiting for her. Betancourt had found a home away from home while living with a host family during her semester abroad in France.

As a French and Italian concentrator, Betancourt knew that she wanted to spend a full semester abroad immersing herself in French language and culture. “I needed to make sure I wasn’t just speaking English all the time,” she says. “I really wanted to make the most of my experience.”

Her study abroad program provider, the Center for University Programs Abroad (CUPA), allowed her to take a range of courses at universities such as Université Paris 8 and Université Paris-Sorbonne. All five of her courses were taught in French, and most of the students in her classes were native French speakers. She learned not to get stuck on the meaning of one word if it was unfamiliar, but to pay attention to the wider concept. Her language skills improved dramatically. “There was definitely a steep learning curve,” Betancourt says. “Just getting used to only listening to French in my classes was exhausting for the first couple of weeks, but I knew that’s what I wanted to be doing — so that made it worthwhile.”

One of Betancourt’s goals was to live with a host family, so she turned to resources at Princeton when choosing her study abroad program. Jordan Zilla, who is a study abroad adviser in the Office of International Programs, helps undergraduate students — like Betancourt — find semester abroad experiences that fit into their personal and academic goals. “I usually tell students who are interested in language or cultural immersion that staying with a family is one of the best ways to achieve their goals,” says Zilla. “They will be immersed both linguistically and culturally on a day-to-day basis as they experience life in their homestay and really have their language skills pushed to the next level.”

Betancourt found herself paired with a family of seven in the heart of the 15th arrondissement in Paris. The oldest of the children just turned 7 years old; the others: 5, 4, 2 and a newborn, who arrived just about a month into her semester abroad. What may have seemed chaotic to others was Betancourt’s perfect match. “We had to fill out a very extensive survey about our living habits and what kind of a family we were looking for,” she explains. “I said I would love to be able to spend a lot of time with a big family, and I love little kids, so it was great.” She ate dinner with her host family five nights a week and spent countless hours having good conversation while truly immersing herself in French culture.

“My host parents were very into the whole experience of playing tour guide, so they had lots of recommendations,” says Betancourt. “They [also] wanted to verse me in all the best French movies, so every week we would have a movie night after the kids went to bed.” They watched dozens of movies, her favorite French film being “Le Dîner de Cons,” which was remade in the United States as “Dinner for Schmucks.”

She even joined the family on vacation to Brittany, a region on the west coast of France — where she and her host family explored villages nearby, tried new foods, and enjoyed hiking and trips to the beach. “I really [felt like I] was part of their family,” says Betancourt. “They were really kind and I feel lucky to have been paired with them.”

Her home life was not the only unique part of Betancourt’s semester abroad. When she was not spending time with her host family or in the classroom, she was dancing at Studio Harmonic, a local studio in the city. Betancourt attended open danse classique classes twice a week for advanced ballet, which will count toward her certificate in dance at Princeton.

Her dance classes served as a different kind of cultural immersion, into a niche social scene. “There’s a certain kind of atmosphere to a ballet class that I think exists everywhere,” she says. “You get used to seeing the same people every time you go; you’ll ask about each other’s day, complain when things are too difficult and [commiserate when] you’re sore.”

Betancourt, who has been dancing seriously since she was 12 years old, was excited to dance alongside retired professionals from France and around the world. “It was really inspiring to dance alongside older people — who were in much better shape than most of us,” she adds. “It really makes me want to stick with [ballet] for the long haul, even if it’s just for fun.”

Looking back on her semester, Betancourt credits both her unique homestay and dance courses as some of the most rewarding experiences abroad. “Studying abroad was the perfect way to fill out my Princeton education with true, first-hand experiences of another culture, language and place,” explains Betancourt. Not only did she make lifelong connections, but she also came back to Princeton with a new appreciation for life on campus. “I think it was so valuable to experience things outside of the ‘Orange Bubble,’ but it also made me appreciate my time here even more,” she adds. “You realize how nice it is to be here — but also know that the rest of the world is pretty great, too.”