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The High School Diaries
By Lizzie S., YES Abroad 2019-2020, Senegal
Lizzie has been keeping a log of her high school experience in Senegal so far, including memories going back to the first few weeks of school, making friends, and getting used to academic life as a gap year participant. Get a glimpse of Senegalese school life through Lizzie’s “high school diaries.”
Yes I graduated high school… yes I’m on a gap year… and yes I’m going back to high school, this time as a junior! I go to Cours Sacre Cœur, a local lycée that follows a traditional Senegalese-French curriculum. I am in Première (the equivalent of being a junior) because they tend to be less stressed than the Terminale (senior) kids, who are super focused on their preparation for the French Baccalauréat exam, which, like the SAT, determines future opportunities, but unlike the SAT, is usually only taken once.
The front of our school, although I have yet to actually enter through those gates or go into that building!
This week has felt so long… and it’s only Thursday. As I start to settle in, I’ve had some really great moments. I have joined chorale, and it has become my absolute favorite thing! I’ve also had many moments where I’ve found myself smiling and laughing and being simply happy for no reason. With this being said, nothing seems to be coming easy for me.
The one thing I’ve noticed is that everyone already seems settled. I think culture must be similar all along West Africa because even other new kids, from the general region, have made friends seamlessly. I didn’t even know a lot of my friends were also new this year until recently—they all just seemed to know what they were doing. The girls here are unique in the best way!) and just seem to be happy all the time. They have so much energy and will scream, run, jump, and dance whenever they are given the opportunity. I think it’s beautiful to see all of my friends so happy, especially when they hug or hang on to each other or sit in each other’s laps. As much as I want to be like them and act like them, American culture is almost the exact opposite of Senegalese culture in terms of personal space and how you express your happiness and excitement. My time in American high school has ingrained in me a way of holding myself that has been hard for me to shake even when I want to scream and run and jump with them!
I have been incredibly fortunate to have come to a country where everybody is so kind and welcoming. People here love just talking and being in each other’s company, which I love too, but have found that these times have become one of the more tiring and sometimes even stressful times, not just because of the culture, but also because of the language barrier. Making friends in another language is hard. It is hard to fully connect when I can’t express myself in the way I want to. I seem to stress a lot because I feel awkward when I don’t know what they are saying and I am just standing there. Thankfully, even with all of my worries, my friends still like having me in their group (even though they wish I spoke more), and for this I am so grateful. I just wish I could feel as normal around them as I do my American friends.
School itself has also been tough. I was the type of person that would be upset if I didn’t get an A on the test, and although I have lowered my expectations, I don’t feel like I understand enough of my classes to even get passing grades. Other than classes, just going to school from Monday to Saturday (and most days until 5pm) has been difficult because I am doing more school now than what I was doing when I was actually in high school. Anyways, school is a roller coaster, and I’ve had tough experiences, but they’ve only made the good moments that much better. With so much change comes so many emotions, and I’m sure I just need to give myself more time to settle into school life.
It has been about a month since school started, and I have learned a lot! School has definitely been better than my last entry! Every day is different – and every day is still a roller coaster – but I have definitely found myself slowly settling into a routine, though I often have to take things one day (and sometimes even one hour) at a time. Most importantly, I have been coming around to the idea that everything that I run into, both good and bad, is a learning experience!
I now want to reflect a little on what I’ve experienced the past month and also give a little bit of context to the place I’ve been going almost every day. I decided to include some observations as well as some experiences from the past month and I broke everything up into three groups: school basics, school culture, and classes.
Honestly, I love the culture here. Everyone is open and truly kind. Every day, everybody greets each other. If one person has a snack or drink, they will offer it to everyone in the vicinity. Even in my friend group, they will buy each other water and snacks just to be kind. I mean this isn’t a perfect world, and I have heard my friends say that they don’t particularly like some people, but there are no fights or picking sides – they keep it as a personal problem and move on.
There are friend groups, but they are not anything close to cliques. Everyone is welcome into every conversation, and there really does not seem to be any sense of popularity or social judgement that determines who your friends are. This has made me realize how challenging American school culture can be. Even at my high school, which was a pretty accepting community, there were unspoken rules of who you could and couldn’t speak to based on who your friends were and what people thought of you. I didn’t even realize I was carrying that weight on my shoulders until it was suddenly gone.
My friends here in particular have been wonderful and so incredibly helpful. I still eat lunch and spend every break with the group from my first day. Whereas I used to find this time kind of stressful because I couldn’t participate as much as I wanted and didn’t quite feel like myself,, now it feels normal for me to just kind of hang around and listen, which has allowed me to relax a lot and even look forward to my time with my friends. I have also been getting better at using this time to practice my French. My friends are amazing and have been finding different ways for me to be a part of their group, such as playing games, talking directly to me rather than expecting me to add to group conversations, and translating the main idea of the conversation so I can follow along.
Other than my lunch friends I have my class friends. The girls that sit around me in class are great. There are many times when we have to be in class and stay seated even when there isn’t a teacher, so we use this time to talk. They have given me song, movie, and TV show recommendations and have done my hair on many occasions. Celeste, the girl who sits on my left, has been my personal guide to the French school system. She helps me with dictations, tells me when I need to switch pen colors when taking notes, tells me if I am not writing clearly enough, asks me every 20-30 minutes if I understand what’s going on, and will repeat instructions and homework assignments if she sees my blank face and knows I don’t understand. I am so thankful for her because I realize how much work she does for me. There have been so many times when I ask myself why she keeps helping me. In the U.S., if you are new and don’t speak English, people often try and help you at first, but for the most part you are on your own. Language takes a while to learn, and most Americans (myself included until recently) don’t fully comprehend this because we are rarely in a position where we can’t use our English. I admit Celeste has made feel a little guilty for not having done more to help my international friends back in the U.S. At least I now know how I can be of best help when I return.
Cats around the world love getting in the way of getting homework done!