Vive Vanderbilt en France
For nearly 50 years, students have returned from the French city of Aix-en-Provence changed by what they experienced. Now Vanderbilt in France (ViF), the study-abroad program that transformed them, has evolved as well.
Today’s ViF program has adapted to contemporary students’ needs and gives them a more global view of France and its people, says Associate Professor of French Virginia Scott, who served as professor-in-residence for summer 2008. “A critical topic among people who teach French is ‘why French?’” Scott says. “Because of global trends, many students want to study Spanish, Arabic or Chinese.”
That shift has challenged ViF to find new relevance and appeal. Key to meeting that challenge has been the establishment of a resident director of the program in France. Maïté Monchal, who became the resident director in 2005, is credited with revitalizing the program and instituting new initiatives.
ViF is Vanderbilt’s oldest study-abroad program. Begun in 1961 by the College of Arts and Science, ViF cultivated language fluency and cultural understanding. While those aspects remain, ViF now strives to be international, innovative and focused beyond cultural exploration.
Cannon Kinnard, BA’08, spent a semester with ViF, refining his French during a four-month internship at La Provence, the newspaper in Aix. Providing internships is a recent ViF innovation. They enable students to put a practical edge on their language skills and gain international work experience. ViF students also have done internships at Ballet Preljocaj, Marseilles’ children’s hospital and Aix schools.
Following his internship, Kinnard became the first ViF student to spend a semester at the Institut de Sciences Politiques (Sciences Po), a Paris university. Vanderbilt and Sciences Po now have an agreement to exchange up to five students annually.
Today, Kinnard is pursuing graduate studies in journalism at New York University (NYU). “The head of admissions at NYU said he was impressed I’d worked at a newspaper abroad,” Kinnard says. “My experience in France was mind-opening and a fluid study in cultural differences.”
Living and Learning Language
Exposing students to different experiences has long been a hallmark of ViF. Marion West Hammer, BA’69, remembers her ViF days fondly. “It showed me a whole new culture,” says Hammer, now a Memphis, Tenn. middle school teacher of French and English. While in Aix, she lived with an older couple and became part of their extended family. “It helped me to be more open to the different ways people think.”
Although ViF students no longer board with local residents, they do interact with them. “Now we rent apartments around the city. Each has three or four ViF students and one or two French students,” Scott says. “The native speakers tie our students directly to student life. At the same time, the students form life-long bonds with each other and the city.” To provide a complementary view of life, several nights a week, students eat dinner with local host families.
“The stories told at the dinner table by my host family offered me first-hand
insight into their deeply-rooted love of the language and culture of Provence.”
~ Corinne Hartong
Senior Corinne Hartong spent summer 2008 falling in love with Aix. “The people I have met evoke all the elements that I now associate with the culture of Provence: colorful exuberance, respect for provençal traditions, love of cuisine and lively, long meals, and care for the earth,” she says. “The stories told at the dinner table by my host family offered me first-hand insight into their deeply-rooted love of the language and culture of Provence.”
The program’s life-changing impact was spoken of often during the first ViF alumni reunion, which took place in Aix in June 2008. More than 50 past participants, including three pioneers from the first session in 1961, traveled to France to celebrate the program, share memories and discover the ViF program that today’s students experience. They participated in activities alongside current students, enjoying trips, language and cooking classes, and long, laughter-filled dinners with host families.
In its 40-plus years, the program has evolved, but some aspects of ViF remain consistent. Students still attend classes taught by French faculty at the Vanderbilt Center located in a historic building in Aix. They experience trips to Nice, the Luberon, Avignon, the Pont du Gard and Marseille, plus excursions to museums and theater performances, French cooking classes and a week in Paris. Fall and spring sessions draw students with some level of proficiency in French although they do not need to be French majors. The summer session includes non-French speakers.
In a new partnership initiated by Monchal, those students with greater proficiency can take classes alongside native French speakers at the Université de Provence in Aix. “MaÏté capitalized on our long history in Aix by creating internship opportunities, as well as relationships with the University of Provence so that our more proficient students may take courses there,” Scott says. “Her work makes it possible for our faculty in French to serve as professors in residence, teaching and doing research, instead of administrating.”
Citoyens du monde
For junior Fabiani Duarte, the program opened his eyes to “the power of communication, of connecting with people at a basic human level and the amount of respect, candor and human connection that engenders,” says Duarte, who used his French this summer while working as a congressional aide. “It’s important for Americans to be citizens of the world, to be able to communicate on a basic level with people.”
Increasingly, ViF serves students with interests in disciplines other than language. ViF includes a summer dance component and a two-week music program in which the Blair School of Music collaborates with the European Academy of Music. In spring 2009, the program will explore an alliance with a center for Islamic studies in Aix. This link could attract religious studies students who want to study Muslim faith and culture.
To reinforce the relevance of French and French culture internationally, ViF has added a spring semester week of study in the North African nation of Tunisia, where French is spoken. “Marseille is the gateway to North Africa and French-speaking countries there,” Scott says. “French isn’t just France, and we want to distinguish ourselves by having our students experience the greater Francophone world. By refining and recreating ViF, we’re able to create new niches for ourselves and our students.”