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Exchange students’ experience at ROMS

In this episode we dive into the experiences of three of our exchange students. Their backgrounds, what they found upon their arrival at UNC, and how the experience of being at the Department of Romance Studies helped them grow both professionally and personally. Don’t miss listening to these interesting testimonies of Luka, Elena and Gabriel, wonderful students who came from far away to work and learn with us.


H: Host

L: Luka Boodt

E: Elena Pena Argueso

G: Gabriel Porc


*Intro music

H: The department of Romance Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a place where the world meets, where diversity thrives, and where members of different cultures interact and learn from each other. Welcome to the ROMS podcast, a space where we give a more intimate look to our community, our professors and students, and to all the experiences and stories that happened here at ROMS. My name is Caro and with this episode we launch our first season.


E: [00:33:33-00:33:44] my mother told me, it’s like someone broke your brain in the middle and opened it. Not like. That. She told me that. And and it’s like that. Like, it’s like like the brain had like open ended.

G: [00:12:02-00:12:12] It’s extremely interesting because it’s probably when you’re far from home that you realize how it impacts, how culture just defines you.

L: [00:24:26-00:24:40] one of the things that have really enriched me is having those comparisons with people who are actually from the countries, because you can study them and you can have an opinion, but it’s so different when you’re actually meeting people and have that shared experience of being in the United States

H: These are the voices of Elena, Gabrielle, and Luka, three of the students that have come to ROMS through our exchange program to study and teach for one year. Here we are going on a journey through their background, experiences at the department and in the United States, as well as the lessons they take with them after spending one year here at ROMS.  Who is Elena Peña-Hueso? where does she come from? why did she come?

E: [00:00:37-00:01:43] before coming to to the United States, I did my degree in English studies. So I, I applied to to come here as an exchange student. And the University of Sevilla has an exchange program with UN See. So I applied and they accepted me. Before that, I lived in England and in Poland. And so I, I, I already had the experience of living abroad. And, and I returned to Spain and I just wanted to keep living abroad like a I had no preference really. So I came for a year and, and then I, I stayed here one year. I learned about the program and I was I was not sure about what to do now. So I returned to Spain and I decided to apply. And then I came back.

H: Spain native, Elena came for a year and then decided to come back to complete her PhD. Degree in the department. Her experience here has been full of amazement, learning, and growth, and we’ll know more details about it later on. But before that, we also have Luka Boodt, who came to the French program after a rich and intercultural prior experience in her academic and personal life

L: [00:00:25-00:00:39] my name is Luca, but I’m originally from the Netherlands, so I was born in, uh, in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and my family moved to France. So I grew up in a very multicultural background in the south of France, in a small village.

H: She went to a university not very far away from her hometown, in the closest big town in Montpellier where she’s been studying for the past six years. She is currently a master’s student in European and international studies, and there she had the opportunity to take part in an exchange program. She chose to come to UNC for a variety of reasons.

L: [00:01:02-00:01:47] One of them was the opportunity to teach because I was really interested in trying to figure out if I wanted to continue towards a PhD after the Masters. Um, and I wanted to have that experience of teaching before making any decisions. Um, and I applied to this program, um, two years ago now because I was supposed to come last year and then, well, everyone knows what happened. Covid happened, so I couldn’t come. And it was a bit of a struggle to decide whether I should add a year to my master’s program and come anyways or not, or just finish my studies and and move on. But I really, really wanted to come to the United States and I really wanted to have this experience.

H: Also from the French program, we have Gabriel Porc, another student with a very interesting background who arrived at UNC in 2021

G: [00:00:26-00:01:10] my name is Gabrielle Paul. I am a graduate teaching fellow in French in the Department of Roman Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. I am an exchange student from France. I am currently finishing a dual master’s in American Studies and Russian studies with a minor in political science. And I came to you and see, because of the opportunity with the partnership with my university. So the Sorbonne Nouvelle, the partnership that the Southern Nouvelle has with you and see. And so each year a student in American studies or American literature is recruited to teach French at UNCI and also attend classes at graduate level.

H: Coming to the United States was not his first time away from home, but it has definitely been a unique experience for him

G: [00:01:34-00:02:14] it’s not my first study abroad. When I was an undergrad, I went to Russia. So I was already kind of familiar with experiencing a new culture, having a new language, a daily on a daily basis. But so in a way, I was prepared, I think, to come and also, like it’s been five years of studying American society in politics. So but still coming here was very different from everything you can read in the books. So it was actually funny to I had this feeling that I was a baby and I had to relearn everything.

H: That’s perhaps one the most fascinating aspects of living abroad; that feeling of being a baby, of looking at many things and experiencing different processes for the first time.

G: [00:02:14-00:03:10] The first time I went grocery, grocery shopping, the cashier takes your product and puts them in the bag. And I was like, This is not something that we do in France. I want to bake something, but my oven uses a Fahrenheit and I’ve never used Fahrenheit. So I had to ask a roommate to have the oven working. So just like basic things that even people. Yeah, my housemates told me it’s the most basic things, but like what is interesting that you, you can’t do them not because you’re stupid, but just because of these cultural differences. So that was very that was very interesting to experience. Yeah. And then it’s just I guess you have the daily life. So the bank, the social, social services or health services, everything that you need to understand how things work here


H: in that same sense, Elena’s experiences were full of surprises and lessons; the cultural shock for her touched various aspects of her daily life.

E: [00:08:28-00:09:35] here in Chapel Hill is great with the buses, but I didn’t need the bus during the week. I was like, I want to go to places during the weekend and it’s in the weekend when here there are no buses. So for example, for me that didn’t make any sense. So like and then what do people do during the weekend? But the thing is that here people have cars. So then I some years ago, a couple of years ago, I bought a car and then my life changed not but that was something at the beginning. Like the I felt in an island in Chapel Hill, even if there are a lot of things to do at the same time, you know, when especially that first year that for me it was like I’m going to be one year in the States. So I wanted to do things the weekends. No, and to go to Durham was an adventure. And then I learned that it’s just 20 minutes by car, but it was an adventure for me.

H: Not only did the importance of having a car in the United States surprise her, but also other aspects of the urban settings and social interactions, which were hard to grasp at first.

E: [00:09:53-00:11:23] And another thing that surprised me a lot and I have not been able. Too articulated until some months ago was that they are like, for example, there is a place where the bars and restaurants are. There is another place like a mall where you can go and you you have shops and then there are other places. But just for one thing. So if you want to go to a bar or restaurants, there is an area or if you want to do shopping, there is another area. For me, that is the thing that still shocks me because I am used to be in places where in one street you have everything, you have a bar, you have a restaurant, you have a shop, you have like many different generations interacting. I don’t interact here with other generations like my generation is. I am 32. So yes, I have these students in class that are ten years younger and some colleagues that are younger or older. But if I go anywhere, I’m just with people of my age doing things that people of my age do, but I don’t see older generations and that still really shocks me. I still.

H: For Luca it was a little bit different. She had previously been to the US for brief periods of time, which helped her somewhat

L: [00:03:58-00:04:41] I spent two summers as a seasonal flight attendant with Air France. So I spent a lot of time all over the world, including the US. I’ve been to Boston, New York, San Francisco, Chapel Hill, obviously, uh, and a lot of other places. Uh, I think I did Houston at some point, but it’s always very short stays, so I was always here for 24 or 48 hours. I did feel that like it helped me with some of the cultural differences early on because I was already aware of how to tip and how to address servers and not be surprised when they come by and grab your drinks and like want to do a refill and you’re just like, I don’t need more coke. Your coke is already way too big for me. So I think that like I had some grasp on that,

H: Although these prior experiences made it easier for her to adjust, there was one specific thing that was very difficult for her

L: [00:06:22-00:07:18] it went pretty easily. Like I was a little nervous about finding housing, but I found, like, we found a house pretty quickly, moved in, had to get all kinds of furniture and stuff. That was fun. Um, but really, I don’t think it was such a big difference for me. It was like I really considered it as an adventure, and I was very, uh, I wasn’t very stressed going into it, I feel. I’m sure that you’ve heard this already from other people, but like the one thing that I really have had a hard time adjusting to is the food. And I’m a baker, so my bread is fine. I’m not missing French baguettes because I make those myself and I make Russell and I make all the stuff I really need on that end. But the cheese and the wine and the veggies are just not the same quality and not as easy to find. And so there are some things like that that I really, really miss.

H: Although the cultural shock is part of the experience of traveling to a different country, arriving here at UNC, and specifically at the Romance Studies department also implies finding a great support system that in many cases surprises our exchange students, so here we have Gabriel’s experience with that

G: [00:04:07-00:05:57] I would say two things. The first one was the mentor mentee coffee that we had. So I met Jordan, who is my mentor, and it was it was I thought it extremely great to have this point of contact who was able to show you around and explain how the university works and someone who has the same position as you, who teaches kind of almost like who has taught the same classes. So this like this contact that we you can have with other graduate students in the department was very crucial in the adapting to adapting to to the country. And then I think the teamwork that we have in oh, teaching, like with the coordinator of one on one one or two. So when I I’m working currently with Laura Dempsey. And so this little teamwork that we have sort of like the, like family that we, we created and and that just gives it’s just a huge support to have like not only like, yeah, superior like the hierarchy, but like you really. I think like we really had this sense of little family that I had like, yeah, especially working with other instructors for one on one one or two was extremely beneficial and the entire process of learning first how to teach, but also just more broadly living in the US like you know that you still had people to help you or talk to if anything went wrong or so that was that. That’s one of the landmark I think.

H: Elena also thinks that the system in place is one the most wonderful things she found at her arrival

E: [00:24:42-00:25:56] before coming, you already have a support, you know that you have someone to contact that is not a faculty, not not staff, but someone that is also a student. So that is a that is really good. Sure. And then, um, then we have the coordinators of the courses we teach. We take the course of almost 700. That is like the pedagogy course in that course is the same semester when we start to teach. So it complements perfect. No. And you are there with other students, that is for them also the first year. So they always say no, the people that do with you. Romo 700 no. That’s your cohort, that’s your group. And it was amazing because there you are with the people that study French, the people that study Portuguese and Italian and Spanish. So it’s a it’s a very diverse group and and you are all know. So it’s amazing. [00:19:05-00:19:56] And when I came here the same, like, I mean, here people are like, like super nice. No, like it’s something that everybody says and it’s the first thing that that you see and that you feel people are really welcoming. And the only thing that I can say, it’s because it’s the truth. Every single person on the way, like from the beginning to now, everybody has helped me. It’s I. It’s it’s. Like when it’s happening in the moment, you don’t really see it that clear. But now when I think about the beginning and now like, wow, like everybody has helped me a lot.

H: As for Luca, everybody has also been a great support for her during her experience at UNC; starting with Gabriel, who arrived at the same time as her,

L: [00:08:37-00:09:14] I arrived here with Gabrielle, and we’ve been each other’s support system in a lot of ways because we’ve been experiencing pretty much the same things at the same time. But overall, I think the best support system I’ve had from the department has been the colleagues, the older, more experienced teachers. We have an amazing language director of preview who’s also from France. So she’s experienced all these sh ocks 20 years ago and she’s very aware of how that goes, and she’s been very supportive with that. We’ve had a lot of very fun chats with our other coordinator as well. So that was probably for me the biggest support system I’ve had coming here from the department itself

H: Luka also found the administrative system here to be an important part of the support she recieved upon her arrival, as well as something that she found to be very different in comparison to her own university back home

L: [00:09:15-00:09:42] everything is very well organized. I compare this with like the administration at the university back home where it’s just like, well, maybe they’ll be in their office or maybe they won’t be. And here, like, you’re just ringing the bell and and someone’s always there to, like, answer your questions and they always try to, like, be supportive and helpful. And I’ve really enjoyed that cultural difference. That’s a very positive one. The organization and the quality of the organization on that end is really nice.

H: There is also a particularly important aspect of their exchange program that Luca, Elena and Gabriel talked about, and it was the teaching responsibility that they had here at ROMS. A new, challenging, enriching, and rewarding experience for all of them. Here are Luca’s memories of it:

L: [00:09:53-00:10:30] It’s very intimidating to walk into a classroom when you’re. I was 24 when I got here. I mean, it’s better than if I had been 23 as planned, but I had students who were 22 like during the first semester as an exchange student, you teach both one on one. So the introductory course and French. 255 So it’s a conversation one and like it’s interesting and I think it’s really good that it’s grad students who are from France teaching that because there are so much cultural details that are input into that course and there is so much discussion on politics and and on cultural differences. So that made it really interesting for me to hear from my students as well

H: She clearly remembers her first class as both an intimidating and a rewarding experience

L: [00:10:35-00:11:11] I remember walking Gabrielle to his class because he was teaching the hour before me and I wasn’t. He was teaching at 11 and I was only teaching at 12, and he was shaking and I was and so I was with him and like we went to the room together and got everything started, you know, the PowerPoint and everything and like told each other to take a breath and that everything would be fine. And I didn’t have that because he was teaching at 1205, like he finished his class at 1205. I was in another building. So I went to like my building shaking and by myself with no other teachers from the department around me and like in a completely different building away from DI.

[00:11:12-00:11:51] And I remember really like walking in there and being like they might think I’m a student, another teacher, and what am I going to tell them? Like I’m, I know what I’m supposed to teach today, but what if what if it doesn’t work? What if they don’t respect me? What if, like, I was very stressed and I actually really got to enjoy it? Like after the first 15 minutes, I think it’s like the, the first class in 255 is, is very fun. It’s a lot of, um, they’ve had a short text to read about cultural differences surrounding friendships and relationships. So there are a ton of jokes you can make with that. And I had a very, very nice group that really made me feel, uh, amazing


H: For Elena, the teaching aspect of the program added to her educational experience and made her feel more responsible about her role at the department

E: [00:06:32-00:07:04] my previous experiences were more like as student like and here I, I got more, more responsibility, like teaching my own courses, studying for the Ph.D. It was another thing. It was like now like I felt like I had to do things in a more serious way, if that makes sense.

H: As for Gabriel, teaching became something that, despite coming in with no experience, is now a part of the future career he would like to pursue

G: [00:06:33-00:07:39]  this experience has enabled me to teach at a university level, to be in this work environment, like being this teamwork environment with professional doctors, which is not something that I, I had the chance to do and all that before even graduating from my masters, which is really not something that you can do in France. So on this professional side, you have this first this first aspect. The second one would be that I specifically came in this program and you and see to have this teaching experience rather than just a study abroad that I had already done. And now I know that I would like to pursue a Ph.D. and to be able to teach again and to make teaching as a great part of my future job, because this is really something that I like to do. So that just like makes me realize that, yes, this is, I think, what I would like to pursue

H: All these experiences are great treasures he will take with him back home as lessons he learned and skills he acquired, all of which will enrich his future professional life

G: [00:09:48-00:11:41]  To be confronted to another workload and another way to to study. Meaning that I pursued two masters. And the workload that graduate students have in the US is very intensive, very readings oriented. And I think like you just gave me keys to be more adaptable and being able to manage more my better my time. Also because we are graduate students in French, we don’t have to we don’t really have to manage this teaching life and student life. So you have to find like like to be even between the two so that there was a crucial and this is probably why the first semester was harder because you need like I needed like several months to get into the rhythm. And then once again, if I had this opportunity to teach even like political science courses and in France, and even if it’s not the communicative approach that we use to teach languages, I see so many ways to implement pedagogy in political science, like by having this experience of teaching French like scaffolding, building a full lesson, explaining the thing, how do you how do you make students aware of their mistakes? And so everything that I’ve learned here, either by studying pedagogy or teaching so either by the class like offered by the department or the opportunity given by the department to teach, I think that it’s much closer, actually, what you can think between studying like teaching French and teaching political science, you can find like a lot of parallels.

H: Not only has the exchange program helped Gabriel become a better academic, but also it made him reflect upon his own culture, and how it has shaped him

G: [00:12:02-00:12:55] It’s extremely interesting because it’s probably when you’re far from home that you realize how it’s impacts, how culture just defines you. And and it’s everything in the daily life. It can be friendship. So I think that French people would be able to sit down at a table and and just, like, talk for 2 hours without actually doing something. And I have this feeling that it’s much more it’s much more difficult to do here. Like to not have an activity. When you were with someone, we would spend, I don’t know, 3 hours at a restaurant just talking. And at some point, like like the waiter will come and say, is everything okay? Because they think that there is an issue. And it’s just like all this little things that you realize that even though we are like Western countries, the culture is so different. [00:13:04-00:13:21] the external reflection that I can have on my own culture and on my own self, like the way I behave with people. Just like, yeah, this experience made me aware of that and that is just like so mind blowing sometimes.

H: For Luca, looking back on her whole experience at ROMS also makes her realize all the valuable lessons she learned as well as the interesting experiences and interactions she was able to have

L: [00:24:26-00:24:49] one of the things that have really enriched me is having those comparisons with people who are actually from the countries, because you can study them and you can have an opinion, but it’s so different when you’re actually meeting people and have that shared experience of being in the United States, which is a very different system that in some ways makes no sense to me still. And to have that shared background to talk about those things for sure.

[00:25:38-00:26:17] I’ve met people from all over. I’ve met people from Latin America with opinions about politics happening back home. I’ve met people from Spain, I’ve met people from Italy, and I have that back home in some ways. I mean, I did grow up in a very multicultural environment, but it’s been amazing to actually get to have that common ground of discovering the states as like a backdrop to talk about home. And that’s like made me able to look on things with a little more distance and a little more analysis and then a little with like maybe slightly less emotion than you would otherwise.

H: For Elena, the lessons have also been great. The cultural diversity she has been exposed to has made her look at the world in a whole new way

E: [00:32:50-00:33:44] I have learned to be more patient with me and with the rest. And I think that the, the cultural diversity that the department has in the university too, uh, so I have learned to, to be patient, to understand, to basically, um, to be aware of how many differences that can be. But they are not. But on the contrary, they are good. Um, I remember that my mother told me when I went back to Spain, my mother told me, it’s like someone broke your brain in the middle and opened it. Not like.

[00:33:45-00:33:45] That.

[00:33:47-00:33:56] She told me that. And and it’s like that. Like, it’s like like the brain had like open ended.

H: Just as with Gabriel, this experience for Elena has also been one that changed her perspective towards her own culture and origin

E: [00:48:19-00:48:49] before I was I had been in Poland and England and then here, like two weeks after being here for the first time, I was no longer Spanish, I was European, I was European in that like now when I am with when I meet with someone from France or from Germany or from Italy or from Portugal, we look to each other like we are not any more different countries.

H: and to close our episode, Elena has a message for prospective exchange students, this is what she would tell them:

E: [00:38:03-00:38:44] they have to come. They have to come because if you are not sure, much better, much better, you have to come. It’s the best thing that someone can do really. Like even if you don’t like it in the end. Good. Like you have to come. You have to go abroad. You have to try. Like if you have the opportunity, it is the best to speak another language, to know another language, and to learn about other cultures and to adapt myself to other places has been the best thing that I have done in my life.

H: With this wise message we finish our first episode of the ROMS PODCAST. A portrait of important, intimate, and beautiful experiences of the exchange student’s at our department of Romance Studies, and also an invitation to prospective students to apply and look for the opportunity to come and grow- both personally and professionally. This episode was written and produced by Paola Cadena Pardo, one of our faculty members, the sound design was also made by Paola; editing and hosting by Caro Register, and music by Mike Forristell. Don’t forget to follow us on Spotify, Apple podcast, Google podcast, or your preferred app, that way you will know when our second episode is released. Adios, Chao, Au revior, and we will see you next time