I left home on Jan. 17, 2008, to study in France. But I also had left home the previous September and May, and before that at least once a year since 2003. But then leaving home is a familiar routine to most college students.

My own nomadic travels began somewhat earlier, as my parents divorced when I was 16. For my entire life, our family lived at 325 Edgewood Road – a white farmhouse with acres of woods, fields and horse pastures. The divorce led to six homes in three years as my parents tried different living arrangements. Just when things began to settle, I left what I knew as home for 2115 Summit Avenue.

After one year in Murray-Herrick Residence, I found a new home off campus on Wilder Avenue. Then my junior year, home was on Iglehart.

Is home where your parents live – the place you can leave your dirty laundry? Or is it the room you rent, or your best friend’s apartment?

But home also was on the seventh floor of Selby Hall where my friend Stephanie lived. And at times home was Loras Hall where I worked as an intern, or The Aquin room where I spent every Tuesday. Even the College of St. Catherine, where I took classes for my studio art major, felt like home. After all, “home” is a complicated concept for college students.

Is home where your parents live – the place you can leave your dirty laundry? Or is it the room you rent, or your best friend’s apartment?

Among students, “I’m going home next weekend” could mean going back to school or back to one’s parents’ house. If there is confusion, we might say, “I’m going home-home,” a hyphenated explanation that most students understand, yet actually sounds less clear.

On Jan. 17, I wasn’t really sure about my own concept of home, but I didn’t think much about it. I had moved easily from one home environment to the next – from south campus to north, and from one ACTC school to another. But on Jan. 17, I left for a new home in Aix-en-Provence, France. “A semester abroad will change your life,” I was told.

In France, I was stripped of everything. I didn’t feel like myself. I lacked the abundant resources I had in my life at St. Thomas and in America. The student who stepped off the plane no longer had free food every other day in the quad. I didn’t have special access to the video editing lab or the yearbook office. I didn’t have Dad’s cell phone number on speed dial. Everything changed. In the States I had made my friends laugh, but abroad no one understood my jokes. “France-Shannon” wasn’t even funny.

That wasn’t all. Two months into the trip my laptop broke, which I found to be a catastrophe worthy of at least a two-week grieving period. By this time, everything that had made up my sense of home either was gone or an ocean away. If all those things had made me who I was – the core elements of my self – then who was I when those things were so far away or missing?

I prayed. Donne-moi quelque chose a faire, et je le ferai, or God, “Give me something to do and I’ll do it.” I sent off the prayer and repeated it every day so that God would know I was open to whatever he might suggest.

While I was waiting for an answer, I walked around Aix. It was hard. Even buying lunch was an ordeal: What do I want? What is that? How much does it cost? How do I pronounce it? And afterward, if I had successfully purchased a baguette for quatre-vingt-dix centimes (which is a fancy French way of saying “90 cents”), I tried to remember if I had used the polite vous form. Oh, how I had taken for granted how easy my American life had been!

But I also experienced that je ne sais quoi of French culture that everyone talks about – the light, the bread, the cheese, the wine, the four-hour meals. Being so disconnected from everything familiar left room to take in France. I took thousands of photos and videos. I went to the opera, dance performances and art museums. I journaled. I did whatever I could to capture the entire experience; to make it a part of me.

I made good friends in Aix. I established a new routine and embraced a new rhythm. I loved it. And I experienced more “culture shock” coming back to the States than when I landed abroad, just as people had predicted.

“Wow, in Aix our streets are not this wide,” I mentioned to my friend on one of my first days back. It was as if I was seeing Midwestern streets for the first time.

“What do you mean, ‘our’ streets? Are you French now?” he replied.

My slip of the tongue made me think. What or where is my home?

In France, a person’s house is his maison, but to reference one’s home, you would say chez-moi, which is more like, “my place.”

So home is where I feel comfortable, appreciated and connected. Home is where I feel like I “fit,” because I’ve invested so much of myself. It’s where I’ve developed strong, deep relationships. Home is my family and where they live in Wisconsin. Home is France and its calm rhythm.

And home is here, again, on the St. Thomas campus.

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