For many Stanford students, studying abroad is an event. There are passports and visas to apply for, flights and storage units to order, language skills to brush up on or spontaneously acquire, immunizations and vaccines to update, international messaging platforms to set up and friends to meet up with one last time before jetting off for a quarter overseas.
But for students like Chloe Hamilton, every quarter is a quarter abroad. The spring the now-senior spent at Oxford was the closest she’d been staying to home for years, because Hamilton is an international student from France.
“I would come home basically most weekends, which was really good,” she said. Hamilton was finally able to help out her little brother, who is already considering coming to the U.S. for school. According to Hamilton, a liberal arts education offers a wonderful flexibility for exploration.
“[In France], when you’re 13 or pretty young, you have to make a choice between different types of subjects, and that limits you,” Hamilton said.
For example, once she chose to follow the literature path, Hamilton could have spent three or four years doing no math whatsoever. Upon arriving at Stanford, she had to catch up on material she hadn’t been exposed to for quite a while. Even for philosophy, which is mandatory in French high schools and composes a substantial portion of the national final exams, Hamilton had to rethink her approach.
“The Anglo-Saxon way is more focused on logic and on creating, developing, refuting and bettering arguments, whereas in France, Spain and Italy, it’s more like, ‘What did Nietzsche say,’ and you think about it and say ‘Okay that’s interesting, well what did Kant say?’”
Hamilton speaks softly as she explains all this, choosing each word with care. A beige sweater peeks out from beneath the folds of her black coat, and her rose gold necklaces, which match her rings and complement her blue eyes, are lovely in their simplicity. She manages to look graceful, relaxed and guarded all at once, blonde hair tucked neatly behind her ears and legs crossed.
“I really like everything that is visual in nature — I find a lot of happiness in paintings and going to museums,” Hamilton said, which makes me feel less bad about being so struck by her sense of style.
When she was younger, Hamilton’s father would spend hours contemplating paintings in museums, while Chloe would get bored after an hour. “I had this feeling when I went in — you know, apnea — like when you go underwater and stop breathing. But any learning experience is about discovery, and is full of tensions. I just also had to forget that I was living.”
It wasn’t that young Hamilton was thoughtless. Her fondest early memory is of living in Geneva, Switzerland, a place of peace and calm where she says you could almost hear the sounds of leaves falling. Almost. She spent hours obsessing over the tree in front of her house, noticing the details of its bark, admiring the shapes of its branches.
It was a far cry from Paris, which Hamilton calls the most beautiful city in the world to visit, but admits is sometimes difficult to live in.
“Once winter starts, it’s never light. It’s always dark. And it gets cold. There’s a sense of pleasure that’s embedded in the culture … but at the same time, when you really need to have a nine to five job or have to go to school, then you can’t really indulge in those things.”
By the time Hamilton was a high school senior, she was ready to come to California for longer than the Christmas holidays she was used to spending with her American father’s side of the family. She couldn’t have been more excited to come to Stanford, but as the year progressed she realized she was unconsciously adapting to some things she’d once thought were odd, talking differently, adjusting her social behavior to match those around her. And in other respects she had a harder time adjusting, which lent to feeling that she was somehow abnormal, unable to fit in with those around her.
“There’s a lot of solitude at Stanford … there’s a lot of focus on one’s goals and personal ambitions, and so it seems like people here are little single creatures that unite sometimes, and sometimes just do their own things.” She pokes her fingers in the air, like each motion indicates one person acting in isolation.
“In France, there’s less of moving in different directions. Everybody moves together.”
There are other differences too, of course. The French are more honest about how they’re feeling. If asked “How are you?” it’s not unusual to respond with “I’m not okay.” Chloe says that kind of pessimism can be unhealthy, but also points out that sometimes you want to talk about things rather than hiding behind “everything is great.” The constant pressure on campus can make to find oneself, even as it increases one’s desire for self-improvement.
There’s the way most international students have been raised to pay a lot of attention to the things they wear, with comfort not being an option. Flip-flops, hoodies? Those are for home, or the gym. But now, Chloe appreciates how the more relaxed Palo Alto dress code is a way to exert one’s freedom of choice.
Still, there are some things she just can’t accept about America, like the food.
“I get really mad when for some reason, something is labeled a croissant —” she sing-songs the word, kwuh-saunh “— and it’s actually some horrible thing!” She throws her hands up, the most animated she’s been all conversation.
Although Chloe sometimes takes a while to warm up to people, she lets loose a rare laugh when she talks about the good friends she’s made who have “changed [her] life,” from her sorority sisters to the people she’s lived with in French house. And when asked what advice she’d give her freshman self, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Get a warm blanket,” she says, wrapping her arms around herself and smiling. “It gets really cold, and it’s really nice to have that comfort. And … don’t stress about the little things so much.”
Little things qualify as midterms, exams.
“I’d give my mom some kind of reassurance that everything would be all right,” she said. “I would never have imagined the difficulty it would be for my family to let me go.”
Distance is more than the 11-hour plane ride, it’s being unable to talk about having a bad experience because her parents are usually asleep while she is awake, or waiting for hours for advice about a difficult situation, when there is so much that had to be left unsaid because only so much could fit into a phone call.
In the end though, Chloe is grateful for her experience here. “It’s a bit shocking, thinking about graduating,” she says. “It’s so weird because our entire life has been Stanford for so long. Four years, maybe even before that. It would be nice if we could just come back whenever.”
But who knows? Maybe if she comes back later for a graduate program, Chloe might finally get to own a full-sized metal locker, one of the last cool American things she has yet to experience. Like she said, there are some cool things about Stanford that can be found nowhere else.
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Contact Katiana Uyemura at kuyemura ‘at’ stanford.edu.