... in Paris, France
Université Paris Dauphine, Paris, France
Paris. City of love, culture, and general strikes. A semester abroad in this city is probably an unforgettable experience for everyone. As a person in a wheelchair, you might even have a bit more to tell - especially with regard to the planning and organization of such a project. This is exactly why I would like to share my impressions and a few selected experiences of my winter semester 2019 with you today.
When my brother Tobias left for his first semester abroad in New York in 2014, it was already clear to me that I would not miss out on this experience. Even my disability - the rare muscle disease "spinal muscular atrophy" - will not prevent me from leaving Austria for a few months at a time, just like my brother, and to immerse myself in a new and exciting culture. My brother was accepted at Baruch College at the time, booked some horribly overpriced apartment online, an hour and a half away from the university, and boarded a plane. My semester abroad, on the other hand, required a lot more planning.
For me, the planning started long before the actual application phase. I usually compare this phase with a mountain of questions, which I could only climb slowly but step by step. Besides the probably most important question, "Where do I want to spend my semester abroad?” probably the biggest challenge was the topic of "personal assistance". Due to my disability I am dependent on an electric wheelchair. I manage my everyday life at the university, and to an ever-increasing extent my free time, with the help of so-called "personal assistants". These are people who, in simple terms, take over the work of my arms and legs and thus enable me to follow an independent and autonomous daily routine. Of course, I would need this support abroad as well, that was clear to me. Now it was up to me to find out how many people I would take with me, where I could find the right people for this, and above all I asked myself the question, "How will I ever be able to afford it?”
This is exactly where the Erasmus+ special needs grant comes into play, which was explained to me in several counselling sessions at the IO at WU. With the help of this grant, students are reimbursed for all additional costs caused by their disabilities. This is to ensure that disabled students have the same starting conditions as non-disabled students. There are no strict guidelines regarding the categories of expenses that can be subsidized, nor is there an upper limit to the amount of the grant. Moreover, the process has always been unbureaucratic and the advice provided by the OeAD and WU has been excellent.
Now that nothing stood in the way of my project, I had to find out where I was going to go. After a lot of consideration I decided to go to the French capital of Paris, one of the most wheelchair-unfriendly cities in Europe. With my two assistants Jozsef and Lena, I set off into the unknown in my car, which was packed to the last inch. I was nervous and excited; in retrospect, I'm sure there was the odd spark of fear. But the anticipation of my biggest adventure so far clearly outweighed the fear. After a 13-hour drive with a stop in Heidelberg we finally arrived. I lived in a new dormitory that had just been opened by the university at that time.
Especially as a person in a wheelchair, one is exposed to many challenges in Paris. Unfortunately, the old metro network is not yet accessible to everyone. Only one single metro line (there are 14 in total) can be described as accessible. For this reason - and because I wasn't as world-worn as rushing into Parisian traffic with my own car - I mostly took the bus. The travel times in the city were therefore much longer for me than for my friends. I am also pretty sure that I hold the world record for "most frequent getting stuck in an elevator in four months". France has serious problems with its passenger lifts. During my stay, I got stuck in an elevator in the dormitory, the Louvre, the university, and in the only barrier-free subway mentioned earlier.
The Université Paris Dauphine remains memorable. As exchange students, we unfortunately had little contact with French students during the lectures, as special international courses were offered for students from all over the world. These courses had the advantage of not being graded as strictly as the very demanding standard courses at the elite university. During a semester abroad one is happy to have a little more time to get to know the culture of the new environment instead of just studying for exams. However, the level of academia was also high in the international courses and the lecturers managed to convey the topics in an exciting and interesting way. At the university I got to know students from all over the world through the course design and was able to make friends with many of them. In addition to what I have learned, these friendships are one of the most important souvenirs from Paris for me.
All in all, the time in France was definitely a great enrichment. I learned how to organize myself, how to face challenges with discipline and perseverance and how to jump over my own shadow. As one of the few Austrians in a wheelchair who spent a semester abroad, I hope to support other people in starting such a project themselves. I am sure that I can save interested people a lot of effort in organizing their own adventure. This experience abroad will also benefit me in my further professional life. In addition to improved English and French skills, I have been able to improve my adaptability and problem-solving skills.
"Paris will always have a place in my heart, but the city will certainly not remain my last destination for an international experience. With the support of WU, OeAD and Erasmus+ I would like to pack my bags again soon. I can recommend you all to take advantage of this offer!"
Content by Jakob Schriefl. Thank you very much!
Université Paris Dauphine
Location: Paris, Frankreich
Population of Paris: ca. 2.148.000
Number of students: ca. 8700
Exchange level: Bachelor