— Elisabeth M. Sauvage-Callaghan
In the fall of 2013, I was asked by the Chair of the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh if I would be willing to direct their Summer Study Abroad Program in Nantes, France. I immediately accepted. To my great delight, I ran the Pitt in Nantes Program in 2014, returned as its director in 2015, and will direct it again this year. I found directing this program both challenging and rewarding.
The Pitt in Nantes Program
The Pitt in Nantes program lasts six weeks, from mid-May to the end of June. It is carefully organized and handled extremely professionally by the University of Pittsburgh Study Abroad Office. By the time I left the mandatory orientation session, I was fully aware of my responsibilities as a director – and a little scared too, because I knew what might go wrong in such a program.
Students travel to and from Paris on their own. After their arrival, they go through a first orientation, spend three days in Paris, then leave for Nantes, a medium-size city located close to the Atlantic coast of France, south of Brittany. They are given a second orientation in Nantes – dealing more specifically with living with a host family – and go on a tour of the city. Host families then pick up their charges. Students have one “free day” to get settled in Nantes, then classes begin.
Students take two classes. Classes meet for 1.5 hours a day, Monday through Thursday. Weekends are, thus, three-day weekends, although on two Fridays there are mandatory excursions.
In both of the last two years we had about sixteen students. Most were mid-career at Pitt, with majors as diverse as business, engineering, anthropology and yes, French (many were dual majors or had a French minor.)
1. This is a high-pressure program. Running a study abroad program is definitely not a “nice free trip to ___________” (add any country name here). As the program director, I am 100% responsible – 24/7 – for every single one of its participants. Should anything happen to anyone, I must handle the situation and be able to use all local resources to do so. I know that the chance of a very serious problem arising is rather slim, but it is still a possibility.
Further, teaching two intensive classes for six weeks is a challenge. Covering a rigorous curriculum in six weeks’ time is tricky, especially when some students assume that a summer abroad program is a vacation.
2. Students as “fussy” customers. The Pitt in Nantes program is pricey, and students demand their money’s worth, which I believe they fully get. Occasionally, though, issues emerge:
- Last year, a few students complained about the fact that the French 3 and 4 levels were combined (Pitt has been doing this for years, and does it for its Italian program as well; no one had ever complained about this before.) We had to explain that things have to be different in Nantes than they are at Pitt, because we have fewer students in an immersion setting. Luckily, this happened on the third day of classes, and all was resolved immediately.
- Students also tend to complain that the Nantes-based instructors teach and grade differently than their Pitt teachers do, and that “things are not like at Pitt.” In the end, though, no one has ever contested a final grade. And, the two French instructors who teach in this program are top-notch — and incredibly nice to boot!
3. Issues with the host family. We had problems with a host family this year. This was aggravated by the fact that the student involved was too shy to confront her host mother about the situations that were causing her problems. Thank God for the highly diplomatic staff member who acts as liaison with host families!
4. Irresponsible student behavior. Although I haven’t seen a drinking issue in my time with the Nantes program, this has been a problem at times in the past (a few years back, a student was sent home for excessive imbibing…). Excessive drinking can be a serious problem during study abroad programs.
This year we did have a student who missed three mandatory field trips due to his negligence. Needless to say, I was not happy – and let him know that!
5. Students who do not take advantage of the “immersion” experience. There are always students who stay cooped up in their rooms. Many would rather Skype with their friends in the U.S. or be on Facebook than talk to their host families or explore the beautiful city of Nantes. One student this year came out only for meals, and never got up until noon. There was next to no contact with the host family.
1. There is nothing like teaching French in France
- Being in the country and in an immersion situation provides a French instructor with a million opportunities to enrich course content. Class can be brought to the city, and the city/country to the classroom. I was able to bring a couple who had run a small business for over 20 years to my French Business class. They explained — in French, of course! — what their business was and how they had started it, and described the challenges and rewards of being small business owners in France.
- In a language skills, conversation, or business French course, it is possible to turn “what is happening now in Nantes or in France” into a much more meaningful topic of discussion.
- Students get to practice their French every day in very authentic and meaningful situations, and one gets to see their proficiency improve exponentially over the course of the program.
2. The culture, the culture, the culture!
- By living with a host family, students get to experience the pace of ordinary daily life in France. Many have host siblings who are still in primary or secondary school, and they get to hear about their lives, too.
- Students get to explore Nantes (and the rest of France) at their own pace. They get to shop in supermarkets for their lunch fare (their refrigerator at our host facility was filled with various cheeses, all kinds of charcuterie items and, of course, the perennial jar of Nutella!).
- Students stay in Paris for three days, and go on two full-day field trips – one to two Loire Valley châteaux, the other to Mont Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo. They get to see quite a lot just on this part of the program!
- The program director receives a $1,000 cultural allowance that can be used as the director sees fit. This year, I used it to take students to see two plays, to visit a bread bakery owned by a master baker, and to visit a chocolaterie. The Art History professor took her class for tea at a beautiful art nouveau restaurant; we held a pétanque tournament; and the entire group went to a Moroccan restaurant for a couscous dinner. Students loved those special and enriching events.
When I bid adieu to my 2015 student cohort, I was pretty much spent, but I knew that each one of my students had undergone a transformational experience.
I wish more of our Clarion students could enjoy and benefit from such a program. The biggest obstacle for most is the cost, and we still have too many students — even language majors! — who are very reluctant to travel abroad, or whose parents will not let them leave the United States. I hope that Clarion University will try to tackle these barriers and help turn our students into citizens of the world by creating a university climate that encourages and makes studying abroad possible for all.
Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan (formerly Elisabeth Donato) is an Associate Professor of French at Clarion University. She likes reflecting on her teaching practices. Her goal is that her students become proficient in all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and, most of all, fall in love with the French language, the French people, and the francophone culture. Her research focuses on French popular culture.