De Carlisle à la Ville Rose

Category: 2021 EN


As we prepared for our Study Abroad, the Center for Global Studies and Engagement warned us of the many cultural differences to come. Bread with every breakfast, coffee out of bowls, our hosts doing the laundry for the entire house; we expected these small cultural differences. Landing in Toulouse-Blagnac, we started to discover new differences, and adapt more… to pigeons in the airport, to crossing the street even with red walk signs, and to sidestepping dog droppings on the Allée Jean Jaurès.  

When Dickinson sent us abroad, we were prepared to meld ourselves to all the small differences day to day. What we didn’t anticipate, and discovered more and more after becoming Toulousain, were the huge philosophical   differences between American and French society. France values environmentalism over convenience, with paper cups and meticulously separated recycling. La laïcité stands contrary to America’s lax freedom of speech and religion, tackling equality from a different perspective.  

One of the most shocking cultural paradigms, which seems to extend to all corners of life in Toulouse, is the division of public and private life. Through laws, technology use, and even in the classroom, we’ve started to shift how we view our privacy different from our public image.  


At small liberal arts colleges in the US, students are a lot closer to their professors, almost to the point of friendship. In this relationship shared between students and professors, it is very common to know information relating to all aspects of life, such as family information, personal family problems, aspirations and passions as well. As first-years, the math department welcomes students into their living rooms and to answer the door to trick-or-treating children. At the end of the semester, classes might gather at local brunch spots to share a meal with their professor. When the class is assigned particularly difficult homework, students email the faculty desperately after midnight with questions, and can expect to receive a response within a half hour. Professors are an active part in how students mature and form relationships. They remember our clubs, our weekend plans, our roommates and siblings and hometowns, and the students remember them for life.  

At Sciences Po, even with the small class sizes, we’ve never spoken to our professors one on one. We don’t know whether Madame Pelissier has kids, or whether Monsieur Pourcher lives in Toulouse. An email to clarify dissertation guidelines for our International Relations class went unanswered for a week. Whereas in the US, a student-professor relationship presents an opportunity to share our private lives, in France, the professionalism of the classroom seems to divide students and professors more than even strangers on the street.  

Celebrities, too, reap the benefits of a more stringent private/public divide in France. Whereas in America we saw Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy from conception, in France, celebrities seem to keep their private lives private. For example, in 2021 in the US, a rumor spread on TikTok that “Call Me By Your Name” actor Armie Hammer had cannibalistic tendencies and a perverted internet footprint. This rumor became public knowledge over a week before journals and magazines picked up the story, thanks to the paparazzi and the culture surrounding sharing the private lives of public figures. In contrast, Stromae and Omar Sy don’t face weekly rumors of drug addiction, affairs, and plastic surgery. Our hosts don’t read French tabloids, whereas People magazine is in every waiting room in America. With the prevalence of social media like TikTok and Buzzfeed, which provide a daily stream of celebrity gossip, there is very little that stays private in the US. France and the US differ extremely in the regulations and norms regarding privacy on the internet.   



Every time we unlock our phones, there’s a clear reminder of the strict French regulations on privacy. We can’t open Google, Wikipedia, or Buzzfeed without reading a long disclaimer and accepting the site’s cookies. And not only do we except them once, but every time we access the website. Meanwhile, last year in the United States, there was a scandal related to Apple’s app store: an app for children, Talking Tom, filmed the users without permission and mined data from the devices. What a stark difference that in the US an app can access background information without any notification; but in France, accessing anything on the internet requires cookie permission. This is due to new guidelines of 2019 from the CNIL, The National Commission for Informatics and Freedoms. They recently confirmed that continuing to browse a website after its cookie banner is displayed is not synonymous for valid consent of cookie use in France. Operators that use cookies and trackers must now prove that they have obtained affirmative consent from the user.   

Here in France, we are protected by a European law called RGPD (Règlement Général sur la Protection des Données). This translates to General Data Protection Regulation, in which the French, and larger European population are strongly protected from the complexities of data mining of companies. Created in 2016, and put into effect in 2018, there now exists a framework for businesses to follow regarding the processing of personal data. This concept of safety has existed in France for over two decades, from when the internet was in its infancy. Despite these laws seeming to be easily put into effect here, on the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. is the only OECD country without a Data Protection Agency.  If we did have these laws like France, perhaps we would not have experienced Mark Zuckerberg testifying in front of the American government while the Americans feared for their data safety.    

Through these laws that are prevalent in everyday life for the French, while they are evidently missing from our overall protection in the United States, we can gain a direct understanding of the divide between private and public life. Before we came to France, we had limited safety on the internet, and we were forced to be comfortable with this. The concept of our private lives being easily mined and processed every time we access the internet has become familiar. But now we are realizing that this is not the case in France, for the value of the French private lives is more prevalent than in the US. Indeed, it is clear that the digital world of France is simply a demonstration of principles that already exist.    


As for the government and the laws, the question of public and private life is pretty clear. In France, compared to the U.S, the European Union establishes the policies that must be followed by the governments, and collecting any data and information on the population is strictly controlled. However, the government in France still strives to participate and improve the lives of French people. La “Sécurité sociale” for example is the same concept as the “Social Security Number” in the U.S but here, the government makes more efforts in helping french citizen and non-citizen residents to have access to health care and other types of social services. For example, the first time I went to the doctor here, I was almost shocked to see that I only paid 25 euros for a consultation, unlike the hundred dollars I would have to pay in the United States. As the French Government collects data – for example all the official acts – in order to create a data of criminality or medical records, they in fact invade the privacy of others in search for the overall protection of the French society. What the government does with the tax citizen pay is more than a concern for France citizen and when they don’t think that their privacy or the money is not well used, they don’t hesitate to make it known. At the Capitole, near the central place of the Toulouse city next to the City Hall, every Saturday the population of Toulouse protest because they think that their privacy is not well used with the question of the Health Pass or « Pass Sanitaire ». The government signed laws about allowing only vaccinated people to major public places in the city like the restaurants, cinema, some shops the stadium etc. which raised some concerns about how the government wants to control the population over an app.  

At what point do the French sacrifice their privacy to the need of having social protections?   



It is clear that the relationship between private and public life and information manifests very differently in France than in the United States. More often, it can be observed that French society are big advocates in respecting people and their private lives – which leave French way of life very abstract. This is the explanation for why teachers seem more distanced from their students, or why the ‘juicy details’ on the latest French star are mostly unknown. The same works for the collection of information when using online platforms such as Google or Facebook, as the French government works to protect data. In the United States, this is completely the opposite as people seem to often intertwine both their private and public life together. In the everyday life of United States, people are more often very open and analytical about their public and private life. American people are open books because they know that some amount of privacy will be lost as a member of society. American people still believe in their own right to set their own rules to defining privacy. While we seem to be complacent with our constant minding and processing of our private lives, we also view that obtaining secrecy comes with sacrifice. “No matter what policies are enacted, however, it’s clear that hard choices will have to be made regarding how much we want to give up and how much we want to keep secret.” 



This semester in Toulouse, not only are the Dickinson students from all over the U.S., i.e.: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, California, but we also have international students who help bring a wide array of perspectives during class and small group discussions. A topic which the group finds particularly intriguing is the comparison between French and U.S. education. For this short article, we will explain these differences by sharing firsthand experiences. The most striking differences take place in the classroom, as well as the physical structure of the campus’ and navigating the support system for students with accommodations. Each one of the articles in this journal are experiences and observations that have informed the Dickinson students on just what it means to be an international student in France. The reflections are those of cultural differences seen through the eyes of students who study in the United States and are able to use cross-cultural perspectives to understand our word’s education systems.   


Since the start of COVID in early 2020, my outlook on learning accommodations while taking online classes and while living on my university’s campus have drastically changed. I always felt supported by Dickinson College and never thought about how other institutions give academic accommodations or, even, how universities in other countries do it. In fact, in Fall 2020, while taking classes completely online, I never felt the need to discuss my learning accommodations as standards for tests, quizzes, and turn-in homework had completely changed. In-person, lengthy, supervised exams turned into open note, 48+ hour timeline tests, and sometimes even adding bonus point options.   

During my first week of school at Sciences Po, Toulouse, I immediately realized I was no longer at a small American liberal arts college. Expectations of the students and their work throughout the semester seemed completely ambiguous comparatively, and I had no idea there was almost no concept of learning accommodations or academic support in a larger French university. Nonetheless, I was able to work with the Dickinson center to help talk to my professors if an issue did arise. Luckily, the professors were extremely accommodating. I partially think this is because COVID learning has changed standards for perhaps a stricter education system like the one in France. Most professors themselves have seemed to have taken advantage of the flexibility in testing and class time which COVID has given the education world. While this makes me happy for those who do need extra assistance with learning, I hope these changes in standards remain and are even applied to those who do not have learning difficulties.  


Courses in France as well as work given by professors have been a huge adjustment compared to what we are used to in the US. The French system is well known for its difficulty and strictness of courses, professors, and work in general, however, as students were not aware what that meant. While in the US, we were used to being given a great amount of work, at times feeling like there were not enough hours in the day to do the work. Here in France, we were faced with many more courses that lasted longer. In general, each class would be held once a week (rarely twice) lasting between 1 and a half to 3 hours. Professors rarely give work to be handed in, there are usually big assignments throughout the semester compared to daily work. Most classes are lecture based and not led by discussions in class, coming from a Liberal Arts College like Dickinson, this was a huge adjustment.  

French students are also more used to working on their assignments throughout the semester. They are also aware of how to prepare for the dissertations that they will be given at the end of the semester. Therefore, while it looks like there might not be much day-to-day work to do, French students are constantly studying and preparing for their big assignments independently. This is a norm in the French educational system as well as their strict rules on how work should be submitted. The dissertation is one of the assignments that best describes the French system as it is rigid, strict and must be done in a certain manner. It was shocking to find that at the end of the semester, students have to reflect on what they have done and write a dissertation on a topic a professor picks based on their course materials over the semester.   


As students studying abroad in France, we interact with many students from all over the world, most of the students are a part of a program called Erasmus. This program is offered as a cultural exchange, and a way to earn credits for one’s respective university. Erasmus is funded through institutions contributing to the European Commission and in return students are granted monthly stipends for living. The overall goal of the program is to have university students’ benefit from other cultures and gain international experiences through their education. It is clear that many students benefit from the Erasmus program and participate in a cultural exchange, being that it is often expected by their university, or in the culture of education. Unlike in the United States, in which studying abroad is seen as a privilege rather than an expectation. There are opportunities for studying in different countries, but there is a wide range of accessibility to such programs depending on the university. It is understandable why students in the United States and students living in a European nation experience varying levels of mobility during their university years. European universities benefit from the proximity and accessibility of the continent, as well as the reciprocated relationship between many of the nations.   

The Erasmus program allows students to experience cultural exchanges and mobility across countries in a direct and supported way. Students gain the benefits of being supported financially, to some degree, as well as the programs connections to housing, and education. The educational exchange may not be greatly different from their home nation, but in this exchange, they are able to learn about new norms, different languages and a different way of daily life at a young age. University students in the United States do not have the same access to mobility, it is often that one must plan for studying abroad prior to choosing a university. This is not always the case, but seeing as universities widely differ in their access to study abroad programs it can often mean students must plan in advance for the opportunities. Although students in the U.S. do not always study abroad during their college years, it is common for students to attend a school outside of their home-state/region. This means they are able to experience a cultural shift, although it may not be as drastic as being in a different country. Students in European nations have access to universities in proximity to their home regions and through the Erasmus program they have access to a plethora of schools outside of their domain.   


All students in the Dickinson Program for the fall 2021 semester are studying at the Toulouse Institute of Political Science. Although this University is within close proximity to Toulouse Capitol 1 University, the structure of the campus is limited to a 4-floor building. One of the big questions posed to us throughout our stay has been the question of the “big American campus,” referring to the big green quads and large classrooms in various buildings on a concentrated piece of land. In France, this is obviously not the case, as shown by the campus Science Po. This limited space has resulted in international students following courses at a distance due to the lack of classrooms. The campus offers a small café in the same building, but the library and cafeteria are a part of the larger campus across the street. In comparison to the campus of Dickinson and those of America, it’s hard to really qualify the campus of Science Po as a “campus” in those terms. However, in France, it is very much a campus, even if there are those that are bigger such as Jean Jaurès and UT1.   

In addition to the physical structure and layout of the campus, the structure or the framework of the teaching differs greatly from the style of the United States. As mentioned in the previous argument: “autonomy and learning in class and at home,” the French system is rigid and strict, but why? The structure of the courses highlights this, as Professors organize courses oriented on content and systematic ways of doing things. There is less of a rapport between student and professor, less interaction between student and student. Independence is the result of a structure based upon two or three assignments per course that count for your entire grade. However, though it may seem “loosely structured,” the ways in which assignments are completed is where the strictness appears. Professors rarely call roll as the semester continues, and never comment on absences, which in turn, results in students skipping courses, and ultimately add to the space between student and professor, student and student.   



Our experience has been shaped by the educational system whether it be through the expectations of students and professors, the accessibility of learning accommodations, the cultural exchange with Erasmus students, and the structure of the university itself.  All of these aspects of learning contribute to our living abroad experience and plays into how we view French and American intercultural experiences. We have seen that the differences in accommodations for students are vast, yet the influence of Covid has actually aided the progress in this domain. We also see the stark differences in mobility of students from nations as part of Erasmus, and other students. How the ability to study abroad is extremely encouraged and made possible by a network outside of a university. Specifically, and most drastically we noticed how class structure and student preparation, as well as the relationship between students and professors is a large shift from what we are used to in the US. And finally, the physical structure of university and the aspect of “a campus” reflects the organization of a university and reflects new differences as well 

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