Working as an au pair, trying escargot: How a Colombian student is living life to the fullest in France

NEOMA Business School
France had gone from receiving 324,000 international students to 358,000 — an increase of more than 10.4% despite a pandemic on hand. One of the reasons Franco decided to bite the bullet and study abroad. Source: Camilo Velasco Franco

A world-class education. Rich culture. Diverse student population. A rich gastronomy. These are just a handful of reasons why thousands of international students flock to France each year. Study In France notes that from 2017 to 2020, France had gone from receiving 324,000 international students to 358,000 — an increase of more than 10.4% despite a pandemic on hand. 

This was also part of what drew Camilo Velasco Franco from South America to jump at the opportunity to gain an advanced degree at NEOMA Business School where he is currently pursuing an MS in International Financial Analysis – Asset Management. From working as an ‘au pair’ to experiencing the different cities in France and trying escargot, Franco is enjoying every bit of life in France.  

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From working as an ‘au pair’ to experiencing the different cities in France and trying escargot, Franco is enjoying every bit of life in France. Source: Camilo Velasco Franco

Prior to this, Franco completed his engineering degree in his home country in Colombia, where he was also a national bowler. He was also involved in several volunteering programmes to help the homeless despite being in the throes of a pandemic. Study International caught up with this former national athlete on what his life in France is like:

What made you choose to study abroad at NEOMA Business School?

As a former athlete, I am always seeking new challenges. During my engineering degree in Colombia, I started looking for opportunities to pursue my postgraduate studies abroad for an international exposure

I turned my “engineer mode” on and began doing a lot of research. I collected data and processed all of the information to get the best possible outcome. Since I already knew some French and like the language and culture, it wasn’t a difficult choice. 

What do you like most about France?

There are a lot of things I like about France — the culture, the architecture, the landscapes and of course, the food! However, what I like most is getting to know an amazing family that welcomed me when I worked as an au pair for them. 

I also had the opportunity to live in different cities — from the Alps to the North of France —  and learn about the culture where French people showed me nothing but love and support. It’s amazing how the French can be that warm when it’s -10°C outside in winter!

Tell us about yourself.

I played two sports at a high-performance level. I represented my region in the national championships for bowling and won medals. I also played football —  I was four when I became one of the best goalkeepers in my hometown within the youth category and won six trophies.

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“I also have a twin brother whom I miss so much. We are different in many aspects but we complement and support each other,” Franco says. Source: Camilo Velasco Franco

During my best and last tournament as a goalkeeper, I stopped seven decisive penalty kicks over three matches and won the trophy for less goals received in the tournament. I also have a twin brother whom I miss so much. We are different in many aspects but we complement and support each other. 

What have been your most memorable non-academic experiences in France thus far?

There are many. Mainly the experience with the family I worked for and the people I’ve met here. My first ski experience resulted in me falling a lot and having my jeans — I recommend not wearing jeans! — ripped in the crotch area — not the best situation to be in when it’s freezing.

During my first year of my master’s in Lille, I wanted to join a bowling team to get into the sport again and share the love for the game with others. This was memorable because I had the opportunity to win a trophy; I still keep in touch with the team members.

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Franco worked as an au pair for a family when he first arrived where he felt super welcomed. Source: Camilo Velasco Franco

Additionally, I had the chance to participate in CIFUN, which is an international cultural exchange for young French speakers from all over the world organised by the LIONS Club in France. I got to share and bond with people from 32 different countries which helped transform the way I see the world. 

Finally, I joined an association called the LEO Club where the main goal is to serve and help the community through different activities. Through this, I help make a positive impact wherever I go while forming friendships.

Tell us about your hometown in Colombia. Where would you take us?

It’s called Pereira, in the foothills of the Andes mountains known for its coffee production and for being part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. I would first take you to meet my family — they are lovely and welcoming, especially with the local food. 

I would then take you to visit the Salento village and the Cocora valley. Around this region there are lots of city tours, food tours and fiesta (parties). Be prepared to dance and have fun!

Have you explored the region in France?

I still have lots of places to visit, but I have lived in the Alps, the North, the Champagne region and currently Paris. Each of these places has its charms but the Alps is my favourite because its landscape is similar to my hometown — a lot of mountains and green areas. 

During the winter, the sunny days offer a magnificent view of the Alps covered in snow and the sunsets by the Lac Léman are a work of art. The food there is also delicious — the cheese and wine is something you can’t miss.

What’s the local food in France like? Tell us your most and least favourite.

I’m starting to get hungry while answering this. There is a lot I’ve discovered thanks to the people I’ve met. The “magret de canard” (duck breast) was love at first taste, while “escargots” (snails) are surprisingly good too. Other favourites are “carbonade flamande du nord” (beef and onion stew), the “raclette” (melted cheese dish), the “fondue savoyarde” (a fondue), and the list goes on and on. However, my black list would be the “andouillette” (tripe sausage), the “saucisson de cheval” (beef and lard sausage) and some cheeses. 

Is it hard for a foreigner to order food or strike up a conversation with the locals?

It could be difficult to order food in French but there is always the option of pointing what you want on the menu. Most people know some English, so ordering and having conversations is not that challenging. 

In my personal experience, you should always try and speak French as it can help build your confidence and help you to practice. I always ask to be corrected so I can increase my vocabulary and improve my language skills. I firmly believe that language is a bridge to other cultures so I always try my best to connect with the local people through it. 

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Food is one of the things Franco has been happily exploring and indulging in. Source: Camilo Velasco Franco

Tell us about some of the cultural sites you’ve explored.

To mention some, the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower, the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur and the Place du Tertre at Montmartre are full of culture and history. However, the two places I love the most are the Château de Versailles and the Cathédral de Notre-Dame de Reims.

Château de Versailles, very important in French history and is also a place to appreciate some of the art, furniture, decoration and huge gardens. The guided tour I had there was by far one of the most enriching experiences. As for the Cathédral de Notre-Dame de Reims, its architecture and context during the king’s era in France is very interesting.

What’s one thing from France you’re planning to bring back to your friends and family back home?

There are a lot of things that change when you live abroad. As the Colombian and French culture are very different, adaptability is key. I would say I would bring back what I’ve learnt about the culture differences as well as the recipes that I’ve learned so far. I would also like to share the weird and fun facts I’ve picked up along the way.

What advice do you have for international students looking to start a new chapter in France?

My advice is that you will not regret it! France is a beautiful country with a lot of multicultural richness and exposure to many opportunities related to studies, work and life experiences. It’s easy to reach other regions in Europe, where it would be more costly if you were in Latin America. 

Of course, you will face challenges, but keep your objective in mind and be determined. Challenges are what make us be a better person than we were the day before. I would say one of the best decisions I made in life was coming to France.

What’s one thing from home you miss and how do you substitute it?

My family is definitely what I miss the most! There is no substitute for it, but we are very close and speak everyday. They’ve been my number one support and keep me motivated by being proud of my achievements, I love them so much.