NYU Paris’ suburban dorms show students the real Paris

Studying abroad should help students experience a new culture, not a new NYU bubble. When I was assigned to a suburban dorm, I learned to love the city even more.

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Suhail Gharaibeh

Two new residence halls at the NYU Paris site, La Defense and Bagnolet, are a 40-minute train ride to the city center. Although the distance initially bothered some students, others are enjoying a departure from the NYU bubble. (Staff Photo by Suhail Gharaibeh)

Stephanie Farmer, Staff Writer

PARIS — NYU students are city people through and through. Students on the New York City campus thrive in the urban setting, walking out of the classroom into the ever-present rush of people. Most students didn’t apply to NYU for frat parties, grass lawns or small college towns. However else one might categorize NYU, one thing is certain — it is not a suburban school.

Even beyond the New York City location, all of NYU’s study abroad sites are designed to immerse you in the heart of an international city. For example, NYU Paris, which is where I’m studying this semester, is just down the street from Notre Dame Cathedral. The centrality of all of NYU’s locations is the institution’s main selling point, so you can imagine students’ frustration when most of them were forced to become commuters.

Twenty days before NYU students arrived in Paris, the NYU Paris residential life office announced that two new dorms were being added to the original set of housing options. Because the new dorms were announced about a month after the original housing application was due, students had already decided between the two original options. These were both on the campus of Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, a huge college in Paris that brings together students from all over the world, located on the edge of the city. Since NYU makes it nearly impossible to live off campus, which would be cheaper and closer to its academic buildings, the students expected to live in one of these two dorms. 

However, once the two new dorms were added, everything changed. Students who were initially excited to live on the outskirts of the city were now being told there was a chance they would not live at Cité Universitaire, and would instead have to live a 40-minute metro ride from campus. The two new dorms, La Défense and Bagnolet, stand on opposite sides of Paris. La Défense is located in the financial district of Paris, full of stockbrokers and the local Parisian Sternie. Bagnolet is a neighborhood full of families located on the outskirts of Paris. It's the very last stop on the 3 Metro line, and the residents seem to speak very little English.

There were a lot of complaints about the housing situation, and the NYU Paris administration quickly stumbled to apologize. There were Zoom meetings with Paris and New York’s housing teams, promises of priority in the future and the classic NYU gift card for free food — reminiscent of the GrubHub mania that occurred during quarantines. 

When I received my assignment to live at Bagnolet, I was nervous. The thought of going to a continent that I had never been to before with only one semester of the language under my belt and trying to navigate the suburbs terrified me. But when I arrived, I started to see things differently.

After nearly a month in Paris, I have to betray my pro-city stance and advocate for this suburban dorm. Studying abroad is about immersion, culture and escaping one’s comfort zone — living in an NYU bubble is the opposite of that. These unique dorms force residents to interact with native French speakers and encourage you to see more of the city — and some might even say they’re spacious.

Dorms like Bagnolet and La Defense are filled with people from every walk of life. The chance of your next-door neighbor being an NYU student is very small. When you ride the elevators, you learn the customs of the “bonjour” and “bonne journée” which follow every encounter here. 

CAS senior Julia Yang has experienced this firsthand. A computer science major spending her last semester at NYU Paris, she originally planned on living in Maison de l'Île-de-France and spending time in the city center. However, the banlieue, or suburb, of Bagnolet gives her the opportunity to participate in one of her favorite hobbies: badminton. Outside of the city, there is green space and room for outdoor activities that city residents don't have access to. Because Yang lived in the suburbs, she was able to join a local team near her dorm.

“The clubs in Paris fill up fast,” Yang said. “But luckily there was still space [in Bagnolet], and it's been a great way to practice badminton and French at the same time.”

At the heart of the city, students who were assigned to the original housing at Cité Universitaire have been disappointed. One Steinhardt junior living in MIDF, who wished to remain anonymous, experienced the worst part of city living — maintenance issues. After only two days in the dorm, the shower drain flooded her entire bathroom and leaked into the hallway. The issue continued for a week; she was unable to use the shower, and green gunk began to ooze out of the drain and stink up her whole room. A week later she was moved into a new area on the Cité Universitaire campus and repeatedly told to wait to see what would happen. 

It caused her immense anxiety to worry about the puddle of water that might be waiting for her every time she returned to her dorm. During the ordeal, NYU offered little help. The student was forced to handle the issue on her own, made only more difficult by the language barrier. All of this sent her over the edge.

“I don't like to make a scene,” the junior said. “But I was so frustrated, so mad.”

The issue was a huge disappointment and an incredible hurdle for her to handle on top of the culture shock and other challenges that students face when they move to a new country. She had asked for the comfort MIDF promised to provide but was instead met by anxiety, isolation and instability.

Because NYU students pay much more for university than most local Parisians, we expect to be treated with NYU-level maintenance, security and convenience. However, there was no one to help this student on weekends with the possibly dangerous scenario of a flooded living space. In one of the many NYU housing apology sessions following the initial housing announcement, we were promised 24/7 security, so it was shocking for the student to find empty reception desks with no help in sight. 

“[Bagnolet is] a better deal for the price,” Yang said. 

She also mentioned that the rooms are significantly bigger — and with NYU’s hefty price tag, just a little bit of extra space goes a long way. 

So yes, although my bedroom is lit by the arches of the McDonald's across the street, when I look past it I can see the very tip of the Eiffel tower shimmering at night, its light shining into my room and over the entirety of Paris. I get to watch it from a distance and see Paris as more than just a playground for American students to devour for a semester. Over time, we all come to appreciate the train rides to campus and the beauty of the city beyond the comfortable city center. This is the true study abroad experience. Every day, I see a normal Paris.

Contact Stephanie Farmer at [email protected]