France and England: Gaining World Experience through University Study Abroad
I had the opportunity to study at two excellent schools: the University of Grenoble and the University of London.
A friend from France had highly recommended the city of Grenoble and its university, with its lively and active student life, and good wheelchair access. He was right on both counts. Later, when I decided I wanted to obtain a master’s degree in art history, London was a natural choice because of its many museums and arts institutions. I also knew that I wanted to carry out my graduate studies in an English-speaking program.
University of Grenoble, France:
L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques
I spent my sophomore year in Grenoble, France, even though my own university and the University of Grenoble did not have an exchange relationship. I easily convinced the office of study abroad programs to allow me to enroll in the University of Grenoble, as its staff was interested in developing a relationship with the university there. Likewise, the University of Grenoble was open to my attending as a non-degree student without being part of a formal exchange program. As I was pursuing a double major in French and International and Comparative Studies, I decided to enroll in the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP), or Institute of Political Science.
Grenoble and its Universities
Grenoble, with a population of about 150,000 inhabitants, is located in a valley amid the beautiful and towering Alps of western France. It is about an hour’s drive from Geneva, Switzerland, and a few hours by car from Paris and the Provence region of southern France. The surrounding mountains climb to over 2,000 meters and the range of leisure activities is enormous, in summer and winter, including about twenty ski resorts. With more than 50,000 students and more than 2,000 teachers and researchers, the Grenoble campus is one of the largest in France. It consists of several campuses. The IEP is located on the edge of town on the campus at Saint-Martin-d’Hères, and is served by the city’s bus and tramway transportation systems.
Because of its large student body, I found Grenoble a fun and exciting place to study. When not hanging out in one of the city’s numerous cafes, or buying fresh fruits and vegetables at the weekend market, I would attend cultural performances at Le Cargo, Grenoble’s main performance arts center. Grenoble provides a great place to meet not only French people, but also students from all over the world, as thousands of foreign students flock to the university every year.
Before I began my coursework at the IEP, I took a three-week intensive French language course at Centre Universitaire d’Edutes Françaises (CUEF), the center for French language studies. I highly recommend taking these courses offered by CUEF as they presented opportunities to meet other exchange students and allowed me to get comfortable with my new surroundings before plunging into the rigorous studies of the IEP.
The IEP is a small institute, consisting of just a few hundred students. I found most of them to be warm and friendly, so it did not take me long to feel at home. As all coursework is in French, I found the first few months demanding and challenging as I tried to keep up with the lecturers and take notes. When it came time to study for exams, though, my French classmates were more than willing to photocopy their notes for me. This was a pleasant surprise, as I did not expect such generosity from such driven and focused students.
Access in Grenoble
Grenoble prides itself as being an innovative and progressive city. Although its attitudes towards individuals with disabilities are more accepting and inclusive than what one encounters in many other French cities, the city’s level of access falls short of the standards achieved in the United States. Based on my experience, I believe a wheelchair user can enjoy living and studying in the city quite independently. The tramway, which serves the campus of St. Matine d’Hères, is accessible, with flat access for wheelchairs. It also runs through the city center, to the train station and to several neighborhoods and suburban shopping centers and residential areas. Much of the city center, which is closed off to vehicular traffic, had been repaved before my arrival and provides flat, smooth surfaces for pleasant wandering and window-shopping. Many of the public buildings, such as post offices, banks, museums, cultural centers, as well as shops and restaurants, have good access. Handicap Info 38 is a regional center providing information and advice for people with disabilities and their families, and can provide information for people with disabilities traveling to Grenoble.
While I cannot assess the entire university system, I can report that the building that houses the IEP is wheelchair accessible, with a ramped entrance, elevator and accessible restrooms. The campus of St. Martin-d’Hères was generally, though not completely, accessible during the time I spent there in the 1990s. The classrooms where the CUEF courses took place were located on this campus and were accessible by elevator and ramps.
Attitudinal barriers can be just as limiting as architectural ones, and I happily discovered that the Grenoblois were as open and accepting as I had heard. I met many wonderful people and made some very good friends. One friend, a sports lover, took me to the mountains for a day of monoskiing. I tried adapted skiing for the first time, and I have never eaten so much snow in all my life!
London, England: Courtauld Institute of Art
What can one say about London that is not already known? It is a truly cosmopolitan city, rich in history and tradition, full of dynamism and energy. My desire to experience life in one of the world’s great cities, and explore its art collections, drew me to London. Early on, I realized that graduate study in London would present more challenges than the previous one: I would really be on my own, without a home university to support me; I would be the first wheelchair user to attend the Courtauld Institute of Art; and I would be living in a huge and only partially accessible city for two years. However, I was up for the challenge.
London and its Universities
The University of London, Britain’s largest university, was founded by Royal Charter in 1836. It is a federation of colleges and institutes, which together provide a wonderful choice of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs, continuing professional development and advanced research. I decided to attend the Courtauld Institute of Art, which constitutes both an art gallery and school of art, and provides degrees in art history and art conservation. Housed in beautiful, historic Somerset House in central London, it’s only a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and the theater district of the West End.
Many master’s programs in England can be completed in one year, but because I lacked an undergraduate degree in art history, I was required to complete a one-year postgraduate degree program before continuing to my Master of Arts degree. Thus I ended up staying two years at the Courtauld. Like the IEP in Grenoble, the Courtauld Institute comprises a small, self-contained community of a few hundred students, who receive a lot of support and individual attention from professors and tutors. Students from many countries come to the Courtauld, creating an international atmosphere.
City and University Access
While I loved the experience of living in London, for a wheelchair user it was not without its frustrations and difficulties. Once accepted into the program, my first hurdle was finding housing. For several months before my arrival I corresponded with the Courtauld’s academic registrar (the person responsible for assisting students with special needs), and various accommodation offices, trying to find an accessible place to live. At the last minute, they offered a roomy wheelchair-accessible apartment in one of the university’s student housing complexes. I think I was quite lucky to have found anything at all, because only a few accessible student accommodation options exist in the whole of London.
Next, I faced the issue of how to move about the city, as public transportation (underground and buses) is not generally accessible. Wheelchair users can use the accessible taxis, which have ramps and do not require one to get out of one’s wheelchair, but these are expensive. Special door-to-door transportation services for people with disabilities are available, but these proved as unreliable as the ones in the United States. I decided to buy a car fitted with hand controls, which I then resold at the end of my stay.
Once I had the car, the next step involved acquiring a disabled parking tag, at the time called the Orange Badge but now referred to as the Blue Badge. This permit allowed me to park in regular metered spots for several extra hours without paying. Parking spaces in general are scarce in London, though, and disabled spots are even more rare. In addition, the use of the Orange/Blue Badge is restricted in central London. One advantage to having the car, however, was the freedom to leave the city on weekends and visit outlying areas.
Accessibility at the Courtauld Institute is reasonable, though not complete. I gained access into the building via a ramped side entrance, and could access all floors via the elevator. The main floor has a large, wheelchair-accessible bathroom. The second floor in the library can only be reached from a flight of stairs, but the librarians were always happy to bring down any resources I needed. Since I had to drive, they designated one of the few parking spaces on the side of the building for me. In that sense, I was quite privileged, because not even the professors got parking spaces!
Whether studying in Europe through a structured exchange program or without institutional support, the key to a successful experience involves doing as much research and planning as possible before arriving in the host country. I found that this greatly reduced my level of stress and allowed me to enjoy the experience more fully. There are a lot of resources available to help plan a trip, and nowadays, many of them can be accessed from the Internet.
Later I worked in the education department of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). I think my exchange experiences have helped me on several levels. They have given me a global perspective on the world and a certain ease in engaging with people from a range of cultural backgrounds. This perspective has been useful in the museum field and at WWF, both of which involve interacting with or representing other cultures, whether within the United States or throughout the world. Also, international experience always looks great on a resume, and I am sure that mine has been an asset in my job search.
Finally, as a person with a disability, traveling and living abroad has given me confidence, especially because my work often brings me into contact with colleagues who have done the same. Navigating a world where the nondisabled community may have lower expectations of a person with a disability, I have found that my international experience has helped me to be taken more seriously – and seen as more capable – by colleagues and prospective employers alike.