The Alien Student

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +
Alien Mailbox

Alien Mailbox

At university, I feel like an alien among students.

I have always had this idea that North American students were more independent than European students, and that they had already one foot in the real world because a lot of them were already working to pay school’s tuition. Apparently, this is just a stereotype.

It seems to me that students are a little bit older than French students when they start university. I’d say around 20 years old rather than straight-out-of-high-school 18 years old. Yet, at 26 years old, I feel old. Like another student told me last week: “you look, like, mature”. I’m still not sure how I am suppose to take it.

I’m only taking two classes because I’m working full-time. Since I already have a university degree and several years of work experience behind me, I don’t feel pressure in completing anything fast. I attend university because I want to. I made a choice, basically.

The sentence I must say the most often these days is “I can’t, I’m working”. Want to come work on the research proposal this afternoon? “I can’t, I’m working. After 5:00 pm if you want, I’m free”. “There is no class next week, all students must deliver their research paper at the secretariat which close at 4:00 pm”: “I can’t get there before 5:30-ish, I’m working”. “Why don’t you come around 11:00 am to solve the administrative problem with a counselor?” “I can’t, I’m working”.

And each time I say that, people look at me, thrown into confusion. They hesitate between “then what the hell are you doing at university” and “how do you do it?”.

I know there must be some other students working. I can’t possibly be the only one. When I took my first class this summer, there were more people my age who were working full-time. It is true that during the two regular semesters, Fall and Winter, it is almost impossible to work and take several classes. The schedule is the main problem: it is obviously made for people living on campus and attending classes full-time. I had a lot of troubles picking my courses for two reasons. First, because the admission process was hell for me. Then, because by the time I was accepted, I was left with very few choices. There is no way I can attend a class which has mandatory discussion groups between 9:00 and 10:00 pm: how am I going to go home that late, especially during winter? It is not practical either to attend lectures that are divided into three of four very short sessions each week. I’d rather attend a 3 hours long class than to come three times during the day for an hour each — I don’t think my employer would let me do that.

But above all the practical considerations, I feel like I’m living in another world.

I come to class after work, which means I’m usually wearing “work clothes”. Nothing fancy or extremely strict: just pants, a sweater and dark shoes. But when the class started in September, and when it was still hot, I felt like a nerd in the middle of a bunch of wanna-be strippers. Since when did mini-shorts and backless shirts become the students’ uniform? Gosh, I was once kicked out of class — admittedly in high school – because I wore jeans with holes in the knees! And can can someone tell the guys to take off their caps when they are in class? I can’t see the board when I’m sitting behind them!

There is a certain narrow-mindedness that drives me nuts. What most students seem to care about is how many pages term papers must be, how late you can deliver them and why it is not fine to base a bibliography on Google searches. Students also have an amazing sense of self-confidence that I certainly didn’t have. During the first class of a lecture this year, the prof explained that she requires all students to write a term paper on a subject of their choice, related to the lecture. She added that she wanted to read something personal. Suddenly, in front of the packed amphitheater, a student stood up and interrupted her: “can I write a paper on something that nobody has ever written about?”. I couldn’t help thinking: “good luck, buddy. You are a first year student of a subject you don’t even know about yet, an you already claim to do better than academics!”.

All students are certainly not like that. Most are quite nice, although I still can’t help thinking I live in a different world.

Maybe it’s cultural too. In France, we were taught to respect the profs and that our opinions didn’t really matter after all. Apparently, in Canada, students’ opinions do: I can’t count how many classes were spent with a student arguing the prof was wrong.

All in all, studying in Canada is a fun cultural experience, similar to finding a first job abroad.It’s just… different.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I study MBA. I wish I can also tell the people in the university, “I can’t. I’m working!” 😛

    BTW, I never like the word ‘alien’, as it reminds me of the horror sci-fi movies. In Singapore, resident alien is called ‘permanent resident’.
    .-= Khengsiong´s last blog ..3G – USA vs. Malaysia =-.

  2. Disagreeing with the prof is fine, but you better be able to back it up with facts(and something resemebling coherence)!
    I do think this is a strength of North American university educations-that is the attempt to inculcate the basics of critical thinking skills. I think this is why people come from all over the world to study here. It’s not a perfect system, and in the US constantly under assault by conservatives, but it’s one of the few things that hasn’t been chopped, exported, downsized or outsourced (yet).
    However,it’s REALLY expensive here-a semester at syracuse university will cost you 19,000 dollars for the tuition alone. Students in california were recently protesting 30% tuition increases-so even public educations are going to be harder to get.
    Study hard juliette…they’ll be a quiz on monday (as they say)…!

  3. i’m sorry you feel out of place. i hate that feeling. most people like to feel part of a group, or at least accepted amongst peers. i hope that as you settle in to the school routine, you begin to feel more comfortable.
    its easy to forget how immature and “young” a person is at eighteen or twenty years old. really, most at that age have no life experience. and that’s good, because life should be open- each needs to discover the world and their place in it.
    a university is special when it has different kinds of students. students from different geographical, religious, cultural and racial backgrounds enrich the educational experience.
    so you represent those who have full time jobs, and have to manage several tasks at once. you are a wonderful role-model, because one day most of those students will be workers, or they will have families or other responsibilities. you are an example of a beautiful, productive woman who pursues her dreams.
    it’s the other students who should feel out of place.
    .-= Seraphine´s last blog ..The Best Attributes Express a Value =-.

  4. Salut Zhu,

    And here I was thinking that you might be starting to feel a little better… apparently, you are going to be still learning and adapting.

    It is another world isn’t it ??
    I wonder also if somethings have changed since when I was in college. I did not wear backless or mini clothes at all. I was there to learn as best as I could, not to be a model.I remember the syudents who changed classes on the “drop of a hat” if it seemed to hard or needed too much research.

    I remember too, students who used to work in my time. Often, it was on campus part-time jobs.Though I’m not sure about full timers.

    I say bon courage. I know that you are using each hour wisely, and studying to your best ability.It’s not always easy to juggle everything, and I give you credit for your ambition! And you will be on winter break soon!!

    You will make it.
    Bises xx

  5. Your life experiences have matured you – put you far beyond those other students in terms of civility, manners and outlook on life.
    You’re not an alien!
    .-= Beth´s last blog ..Enough! =-.

  6. The college kids in this town (syracuse) tend to “underdress” I find-everywhere. I’m a casual person (and 12 years out of college) but I would never were pajama pants and hoodies to class and around town. My wife said they’re officially called “lounge pants” and they’re some kind of trend. The hoodies are find but tank tops and sweat pants/workout clothes etc matched with flip flops have got to go. I do find it fascinating that in a climate like that of ottawa’s people would wear such un-functional clothing.
    Just think of yourself as more punk rock than these folks. i.e. If a person roams about thinking how cool they are, they probably aren’t.
    Hey you should do a post on cell phones/texting/etc.
    here in the states our land has been taken over by people texting/talking EVERYWHERE. I noticed less of it everytime I come to canada-just curious about you thoughts (and others).

  7. Interesting reflection about the similarity and differences. Since from Norway, I find your observations about France is very much like here, although I wonder if it is a change. You see, it is quite a long time since I was a student and now I am lecturing and the students are more casual, more informal and also debating or opposing. I think it’s a good change 🙂
    .-= RennyBA’s Terella´s last blog ..Blogger from Norway visit Brussels in Belgium =-.

  8. Great post, lots of things to think about! I think that some universities are more geared towards working students than others. For example, the university where I got my degree would really be almost impossible to attend while working full time because the classes are all scheduled during the day. The university where I was taking classes this fall, however, made a real effort to be accessible for working students. There were lots of classes that started at 5:30 or 6, most professors were willing to make accommodations for students who had work obligations, it just generally seemed like the university was conscious that a lot of people take classes who are not only full time students.

    A lot of kids think they are hot stuff, hence some of the attitude problems and the clothing issues. It is true though that in North America we are taught to think independently, question everything, and come to our conclusions. I will admit to being the kid who argued with teachers 🙂 Totally different than in France where the teacher is always right!
    .-= Soleil´s last blog ..Things I’ve done since my last post =-.

  9. Adding to thoughts about arguing with teachers, I was kinda notorious for that. In India, teachers don’t really like it, especially if they’re wrong. Theoretically, we were supposed to ask questions (and correct them too), but very people dared to, and some teachers gave me hell for it (seriously! I hate a few subjects just because of that).
    .-= Nigel Babu´s last blog ..Pushing 150 kg =-.

  10. Very true. I always have moments when I realize that undergraduates have a harder time than graduates (such as me) when it comes to time management and academics. They all have part-time jobs and so sometimes I cannot blame them to be like as if they have no time to allot for their studies. But then, that’s the north American culture, where students are independent, instead of parent-supported, that they have to juggle all these obligations in work and school.
    .-= Linguist-in-Waiting´s last blog ..The Axe Murderer and the Ice Princess Cometh =-.

  11. Really? Opinions don’t matter in France? I thought all Western countries are strong on personal opinions and thoughts.

    When I attend a new class I always want to find out how many papers we have to write and how many pages. I just want to get myself ready when the time the papers are due. Hehehe…I just want my damn grades :p

    Many girls dress up to school and wear tons of makeups. I just put on whatever I have and go to school…as long I have clothes on my back :p Also, don’t feel old in your class ’cause I just graduated at the age of 26. Hehehe…Plus I didn’t really made any friends in University ’cause most of them drink a lot and it was getting out of control.

    Well, I hope your next semester will be better 🙂

    I read this:
    And I thought about you ’cause you go to U of Ottawa.

  12. Hey Zhu,

    I know what you mean: I work since I was 17 years old and when I went to college (I was 20 then) I felt like an Alien too, because I found all the kids immature *nodding*. You are not old (if you are, what am I at 32?)…you are improved! 😉

    “I felt like a nerd in the middle of a bunch of wanna-be strippers” – ROFL ROFL ROFL this was a good one!!! Loved it!

    “Since when did mini-shorts and backless shirts become the students’ uniform?” – super trash! In my college there was a dress code, so students could not attend classes in such attires.

    “Gosh, I was once kicked out of class — admittedly in high school – because I wore jeans with holes in the knees!” LOL you too? LOL those good old days! LOL

    Girl, this is the beauty of cultural diversity: adventure, shock, adventure, shock, adventure, adventure, fun, fun fun…. ;D

    Awesome post!

    .-= Max Coutinho´s last blog ..The Lusosphere: Macau =-.

  13. @Sidney – I wish I wasn’t! 😆

    @Khengsiong – To French, “alien” just means “ET”. I only learned the original meaning in the US, when I was once a “refused alien”.

    @Rich B – I see what you mean. I actually do value arguments and disagreements, let’s just say I wish it was done in a smarter way. For example, this summer I kept on arguing with my macroeconomics prof, because it was really into the “beautiful capitalist society” and I.. well, you know.

    But I think it was done in a playful and respectful way. I don’t like when students start arguing too much about the workload, the quality of the class, the assignments etc.

    I already find tuition expensive here (about $5,000 for a year I think). I just don’t see how can education be fair and accessible in the USA. This is crazy.

    Did I do well on my quiz? 😉

    @Seraphine – I’m not sure I am the best role model 😆

    Maybe it’s just this university. I worked with the other uni. in Ottawa and found the students were a bit older, from more diverse backgrounds and with various profile.

    I still like going to university though. It’s just a funny cultural shock to me!

    @barbara – Thank you for these words of comfort!

    It’s not that bad actually, plus it was my choice and I’m happy anyway to be studying again. The subject is interesting too.

    I am surprised to see that students are less “independent” than we are told in France. I guess it’s somewhat of a stereotype.

    @Beth – I like being a French alien 😉 I was a “refused alien” in the US once 😉

    I guess I did change a bit. That said, even at 18, I didn’t feel very close to the stereotypical student lifestyle. Well, I don’t drink for a start!

    @Rich B – Oh, yeah, the pyjama! Same here, some students are obviously living on campus and only get up for classes 😆 The guy sitting by my side the other day was still wet from his shower (well, at least he showered, I guess it’s good!).

    I know about the climate, it’s cold! But I saw a guy wearing shorts and sandals tonight again. It’s barely 5C.

    @Cynthia – It’s exactly that! I never really argued with my teachers in France, because you know the motto: “passez votre Bac et on verra”!

    @Nigel Babu – Oh, I do. But probably not every student kind of fun.

    @RennyBA’s Terella – I think European countries in general are a bit more conservative when it comes to education.

    @Soleil – You are right on with the difference with France. I never really realized it till I studied here. Oh, and if the students are francophones, they actually say “tu” to the prof – can you believe it??

    Ottawa U. is for young students, that’s for sure. They already though I was a “mature student”. But I didn’t have too much choice.

    @Nigel Babu – Same in France, and same in China as far as I know. I guess both systems have their strength and weaknesses!

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – But on the other side, I wouldn’t like being at university all the time. At one point, I toyed with the idea of studying full-time for a few semester and now I realize that I need the balance of working. I’m over the student years I guess.

    @Max Coutinho – It is less common in France to work as a student though, because finding a job as a undergrad, even a small job, is very though. Is it common in Portugal?

    Don’t you miss those grunge years? I’d give anything to wear grungy jeans every day again!

    @Bluefish – I’ll read the link in a minute 😉

    I can’t blame you, I guess this is how you pass: by picking your classes carefully and do what the prof ask for. If you are studying full-time, you can’t really afford to not care about your grade.

    I want to pass too!

    @Lizz – I do play big sister a bit, I must admit 😉

  14. Hey Zhu, I remembered my Aussie lecturer came over to teach our class and he thinks Asean students are conservative unlike the Aussie students who challenges the lecturer.

  15. Zhu,

    Yes, it is common in Portugal to study and work at the same time. And now, due to the Bologna agreement it is even easier (before, kids had a full-time job and take classes at night, only after the 2nd year; now, kids can work part-time and take classes either in the afternoon or in the morning, even in the 1st year).

    I miss those grunge years (even though my style was no grunge – I was Dark), kids were more creative and stylish…today, kids are vulgar.
    .-= Max Coutinho´s last blog ..The Lusosphere: Macau =-.

  16. Are you from India? or am I from France? 🙂 Well most students who work are doing on-campus jobs, so its not really a ‘job’. However, once they finish school, they do have a section called “work experience” on their resume which I find very useful for first job. They also know how to deal with customers and people and processes – such things were absent at my university so after 4 years, I came out like an innocent puppy.:) But seriously, at 10PM? That’s gonna be tough in Ottawan winter!
    .-= Priyank´s last blog ..Gajar Halva: Carrot dessert =-.

  17. Alien mailbox is cool!

    Even without working full time, I imagine that taking classes with kids who might still have a lot of maturing to do would be a bit of a weird experience. College was fun for me… and I can imagine taking some classes again in the near future, thinking of taking them at the local community college. Possibly some language classes or finance/small business classes.
    .-= Seb´s last blog .."Attack of the Rabbats!" Movie Poster =-.

  18. Hey Zhu, good on you girl, I deeply respect what you are doing. Alot of the scene sounds like the Y+ generation, many of us worked through school. My sister did her BA at UofO and worked a very full part time job through her degree! Bon chance ami! x

  19. Heya!

    I find your observations very interesting as I am a graduate student at a university in France but I did my undergraduate studies in New Zealand. I find university life here very different to NZ!

    In NZ it costs around US$3000-4000 per year for a NZ student and more than $10,000 for international students – a lot more than the 500€ I pay here in France. In NZ most of us take out a student loan to pay for our course and living costs, and at the end of my 5 year education in NZ I owe around 25,000€ to the government! I had very full days at university and worked in the evenings and weekends to supplement my loan.

    As a graduate student in NZ, I could show up to uni whenever I wanted to work on my thesis but now in France I am required to be sitting at my desk at uni from 8am to at least 7pm!! I work also, so I sneak off for a few hours a week to teach English at the Lycée.

    In NZ I found the profs more approachable and relaxed than in France and if I had a question or statement my profs in NZ welcomed my input, and our relationships were more as friends than in France where I find it very difficult to approach the profs and speak openly as adults about the topic. There seems to be such a hierarchy where I’m a lowly student and not capable of intelligent discussions!

    Don’t worry, at 26 I feel old when I go to the main uni campus! I once went along to a uni party and someone commented that I looked old!

    Bon courage!
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Thanksgiving =-.

    • Thank you for your comment!

      University is has about the same tuition fees than in NZ, and indeed, I miss France for that. I even got a scholarship in France, so I was paid to study – it would never happen in Canada. That said, my university’s services (or lack of) sucked big time and our building was full of asbestos… that’s what I keep on telling myself everytime I pay my Canadian uni. bill 😉

      I can’t believe they make you sit at a desk. That’s crazy! Plus, from what I know of writing a thesis, sitting in an office for 9 hours a day doesn’t exactly help writing it… just weird. I mean, most people don’t work from 8 am to 7 pm!

      Teachers in France are anything but your “friends”. I only realized that in Canada, because here students are very casual with the profs and I could barely ask a question to mine in France. French teachers don’t treat their students as “equal”, they feel so much above you all it’s not even funny. I grew up in that system and I got used to it but… I like the Canadian system best for that.

      Good luck on the thesis! What is it about?

  20. Our building here is condemned – no one apart from the staff and students are allowed in our building because it’s “unsafe”. Go figure why we are still allowed in here, I guess because we are insured!

    My thesis is about the physical vulnerability of urban areas to volcanic mass flows. I studied a volcano in Peru as my case study and I was supposed to also go to Guadeloupe but I’ve run out of time. My thesis has been an absolute nightmare and I can’t wait to finish!!

    Another thing I’ve found about French students is that they have so much direction. They know exactly how their lives will turn out, which course they’ll take, which firm they will work for and don’t have such a desire to travel. All my friends here will do post-docs and the director of the PhD students was shocked when I said I have no idea what I’ll do after my PhD! I just take things as they come but hopefully that has me moving back to the Sthn hemisphere although this will be determined by my British Boyf!
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Noël =-.

    • Same here. I studied at Dauphine and well, it wasn’t exactly clean nor safe.

      French are taught to choose their career very early. I remember, there was so much pressure when I was 17 or 18 to choose a path and stick to it. Come to think of it, I think that’s why I left France. I wanted freedom and I don’t “fit in boxes” easily. I was terrified to make a mistake and to choose the wrong “orientation”. I had no clue what I wanted to do (still don’t!) and it amazes me that most of my friends didn’t hesitate twice and didn’t change program or anything.

  21. I know how you feel, it’s difficult to be a mature student and to care more about the content of the course than that of your wardrobe.
    Good luck with it!
    .-= Em´s last blog ..Rain and Snow =-.

Leave A Reply