Meet Jan Fernandez-Castillo (he/him/his)

Program and Location:

Fall, Institute for American Universities in Aix-en-Provence: Aix-en-Provence, France


Aerospace Engineering and French Language & Literature

Why did you choose to study abroad?

I’ve been studying French for 11 years, and I’ve wanted to visit France for a long time. In addition to improving my language skills, I wanted to experience the French culture and immerse myself in a way I couldn’t in a classroom. I have tried to study abroad in France for a few years, and this was the first time I have been able to. I also love traveling, and the ease of traveling to vastly different places in Europe was a big attraction.

What did you learn about yourself?

After a few days to transition into living in a foreign country, I realized that my French skills were much better than I thought. I didn’t have as many issues understanding or being understood as I anticipated, and I could hold my own better than some other students who thought they were fluent. I also adapted very quickly to life in France. I previously studied abroad in Cuba and adapted quickly, and I thought this was due to being Puerto Rican and feeling comfortable in my new environment; when I settled in France, I understood that I can adapt to new places fairly easily.

What was one of your favorite parts of your program?

Being able to travel so easily, for many different reasons, was the best part of my semester abroad. Affordable air travel is obviously one of these. Ryanair has a base in Marseille, so I was able to visit multiple different countries; one of my roundtrips cost only 20€. More importantly though, the ubiquity of public transit in Europe made it possible to go anywhere. I love traveling, but in the US, it can be difficult to travel without renting a car because most cities are oriented around them. This was never a problem across the six countries I traveled to.

What was your experience with navigating COVID-19 abroad?

I had applied to study in Montpellier with UNC twice, and after the second cancellation due to COVID, I had to scramble to find a program that was still accepting students, had my required courses, and was still awarding scholarships. In September, when I arrived in France, the difference was like night and day; everyone was wearing masks and showing proof of vaccination. I was able to convert my CDC card to a French pass sanitaire before departure through a slightly odd email process, so I had no issues eating at restaurants or traveling within the Schengen Area. Travel restrictions changed frequently, but they were easy to follow and never posed a problem.

Were you surprised by anything during your time abroad?

I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a surprise, but learning more about the French political system certainly opened my eyes to my new temporary home country. There are lots of stereotypes about France and though I’ve tried to follow its politics for the past few years, there are a lot of ideas and misconceptions that are easily fixed with experience.

How were your classes abroad different than if you would have taken them at NC State? Did you take any field trips or do anything outside of the traditional classroom?

Our classes were organized differently based on the professor, with some leaning more towards a French style and others towards an American style. Two of my classes had an important oral exam at the end, as is typical of the French, although we had a few assignments throughout the semester which gave students a buffer for the final. The other two had more homework assignments, similar to here in the US. These classes were held in a few old buildings in the city — including one that used to be a chapel — as opposed to a separate campus. This made it easy to stop at a restaurant for lunch or visit the market between classes. The Aix-en-Provence campus of Sciences Po and Aix-Marseille University, both of which were near the IAU buildings, were also in old buildings, so it didn’t feel out of place. We also had excursions to other cities in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, which gave us the opportunity to spend a day in some cities that we might not have been able to visit.

What advice do you have for future study abroad students?

Choose a program where you’ll regularly interact with local students. The one thing I disliked about my program is that it was entirely geared towards study abroad students, so I didn’t get the interaction with French students that I wanted.

Would you do it again?

Absolutely! I can’t study abroad again now that I’ve graduated, but I’m already planning a trip back to Europe!