This case study describes the experience of a student with acquired brain injuries who studies abroad.
The following case study was taken from: The Learning and Residence Abroad Project (LARA), a consortium of UK universities with a particular interest in residence abroad for modern language degree students, http://www.lang.ltsn.ac.uk/lara/saintetienne.html (information extracted and accessed January 2007)
Sebastian, a European Business Studies Student who has brain injuries from a road traffic accident, spent ten months in Saint-Etienne under the ERASMUS programme.
I went to France at the end of August 1996. I was the only one from my university going to Saint-Etienne. At first it was daunting because I didn’t know anyone there, but I met up with six other UK students and we hit it off straight away. There weren’t many English-speaking students there, but it was good to have a few friends, because I was the only overseas student in my class; all the others were French. They were all very kind to me and helped me, but it’s nice all the same to have a few people who you can talk to in English, especially at the beginning.
I met one of the French tutors before going to Saint-Etienne; she had come to my university to visit French students. She really looked after me, and sorted out my accommodation by getting me on the ground floor, and she told all the other tutors that I was disabled and that I needed extra help, like extra time for assignments. Once I arrived, she invited me to her house for a meal and we went over all the things that I had to do as there are a lot of things to sort out. All students in France can get housing benefit, but you’ve got to apply for it and you’ve got to do several other things when you first get there. You have to go to the police station as you need a Carte de Sejour. After doing all these things you feel "Well, if I can do that, I can do lots of other things." It’s good really, because you have to get straight into it.
Before I went, the disabilities officer at my university helped me out, in getting me funding for the care that I needed over there, such as note taking, and help with shopping and cleaning my room and things like that. I sent a letter from my doctor outlining my disability. I sent one to the tutor and one to the International Office, so they knew my disabilities. I wasn’t too sure if I’d be able to do the course, but I talked with disabilities officer and he really encouraged me, as well as my course tutor, who also helped me. Also, my course tutor got students who had already been there and they talked to us and told us about the places to go – that made a big difference. I was worried about going so far away from home, but my brother came over with me first, and my tutor came to see me at Christmas, so I was well looked after.
My French was reasonable before I went to Saint-Etienne as I did it at GCSE and University, but I did also have some private tuition before going. Once you’re over there it’s very different because it’s very quick. You’ve got to keep it up. Even now I shall need to keep it up and listen to it.
I got there, I didn’t have any problems because of my disability because everyone was so supportive. I just had the same problems which anyone faces, such as going shopping and not knowing the words. I had the problems of living in a different country and culture.
I said from the start that because of my disability I didn’t think that I would be able to do the exams because at my university I have extra time for exams and I thought that in French it would be too complicated. The exams were not compulsory, so I said that I wouldn’t do them, but I would do all of the presentations and coursework. My hours were shorter than other students. Normally you do 16 hours a week; I think I did 12 hours a week, and that was because of my disability. I get tired if I do too much. At first three hours of French is very, very hard. Because I’d already done two years here at University, the course was very similar, only in a different language. I knew what they were talking about and that helped.
My tutor in France organised for me to go to classes in French for foreign students. In these classes there were students from all over the world. There were trips organised and I went on a few of these. The atmosphere was brilliant, and I think they were the highlight of my time in France. The social life was excellent! I had French friends there as well, and I went to football matches, and volleyball, and basketball. And the pubs over there are open very late! The thing that I liked least was the accommodation; it was very old and the rooms were very small, very basic. However, it was just a few minutes’ walk from the University. Most of the French students go home at the weekends, so at the weekends it was very quiet. In saying that, there was a very good atmosphere amongst all the overseas students. I made very good friends, and British friends, because, you know, you’re in a foreign country so you’ve got to stick together. You’ve got to make the effort, though, to go out there and make French friends.
I had said from the beginning that I wanted to do a work placement and get experience of working in a French company, and I managed to do a work placement in the last two months. The university in France gave me addresses and telephone numbers, and I phoned up and arranged it. This really helped my French to come along. Studying is one thing, but working, with people giving you tasks and talking to you, is totally different. I worked in the marketing and finances of a local magazine, so I found out all about the area. I was very nervous. My work placement was just the mornings because of my disability. I didn’t get paid; for all students it’s very hard to get paid placements.
To go and do all this, you need to be able to ask questions – not to worry about asking questions and making mistakes. I think that I’m more confident now. The advice that I’d give other people is to try to make a contact before you go away. It helps to have met them, like I did, and to have a telephone number, so you’ve got someone you can talk to and is willing to help. And it’s important to make sure that everyone’s aware of your disability in advance.
My stay in France was not always easy, but it was certainly an excellent experience and I made friends with French and other foreign students from all over the world. I now have a much broader outlook as well as being fluent in French.