The City of Lights, romance, croissants, luxury … many images come to mind when thinking about one of the most visited cities in the world. Needless to say, my expectations for the city were extremely high.
After arriving the day after final exams in May for a Wharton International Program (WIP), we immediately visited the Eiffel Tower. I was half-asleep, feeling a bit nauseous and not thinking very clearly. That’s when it hit me: This grey metal structure reminiscent of a busy anthill with thousands of people shoving one other—this was the real thing, the instantly-recognizable landmark. This was no longer the plastic-looking copy I had seen hundreds of times in Las Vegas, my hometown. I was in Paris.
What do 29 million tourists in one city look like? What does it feel like to be a part of one tour among hundreds in Versailles? How about taking up an entire floor in a small, French restaurant? How does that feel? Now, I know.
With just four days to see all of Paris as part of our short international business course, there wasn’t much time to visit four attractions per day or to recover from two sleepless days. The high expectations I came with to the WIP, coupled with the reality of the experience, led to disappointment. (I hope you recognize this concept of disconfirmation from our Introduction to Marketing class.) Paris ended up being my least favorite of all the cities I visited this past summer. Looking back, though, I feel that I was perhaps biased by my expectations and by the unexpectedly bad weather in Paris, and now I realize that I do miss the availability of crepes and the twinkling of the Eiffel Tower on the Seine.
But thankfully, that wasn’t the end of my Parisian adventure.
In the following days, we visited the prestigious business school Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC); a small fashion institute; and some of the most respected luxury brands in existence like LVMH, Chanel and Hermes, along with a few beauty companies, L’Occitane, Sephora and L’Oréal. We met CEOs, directors, managers, interns and students who described in detail a picture of the luxury retail industry in Paris. We experienced the workings of those slick storefronts and impeccably made handbags. In those few short days, I learned more about luxury and retail than I ever could in a Huntsman classroom.
Despite being abroad, we had the privilege of working with wonderful faculty members Keith Niedermeier, adjunct assistant marketing professor [and director of the Undergraduate Marketing Program]; Susan McMullen, associate director of the Baker Retailing Center; and Hoi Ning Ngai, a former Wharton undergraduate advisor, who guided our learning, asked critical questions and got to know us personally.
In addition to this top-tier leadership, I met many peers who shared an interest in retailing and a love of fashion. This semester, I attend classes with seven out of the 19 others on the trip, which demonstrates our shared academic interests, and that in turn leads to shared professional interests and friendships. Going abroad truly opens your eyes, not only to the people around you every day but also to a new part of the world. You begin to realize the surprising differences and sometimes even more surprising, similarities, between cities almost 4,000 miles apart. .
Saying goodbye to everyone on the last day of the Wharton International Program was just the beginning of my journey in Europe. Instead of heading home, I went off into the unknown without a single bus, train or plane ticket to indicate my next stop. But I’ll save that for another post.
Editor’s note: Interested in exploring business abroad? Check out the 2014 WIP destinations to South Africa, Hong Kong and Macau, and Turkey and Greece at https://spike.wharton.upenn.edu/ugrprogram/advising/studyabroad/whartoninternationalprogram.cfm.