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February 7, 2000

Unique study abroad program thriving after 20 years

By Barbara McKenna

Many years ago, UCSC French lecturer Patricia Fitchen found herself teaching an exceptionally talented and bright group of students. She wanted to give them more than just books and lectures to learn from. She wanted to give them France.

Fitchen came up with a plan to take students to Nimes, France, for a quarter, where they would live with host families and study with a faculty sponsor. Professor of literature and women's studies Helene Moglen, who was dean of humanities at the time, liked the idea and funded it.

Twenty-one years later the French Quarter Abroad program is thriving. Some 400 students have traveled to Nimes through the program, and another successful campus program that takes students to Morelia, Mexico, is modeled after the one in Nimes.

"I'm delighted we've been able to keep this program going," says Fitchen. "The difference it makes to our students is remarkable--it transforms their lives. Professionally, it opens their eyes to opportunities and interests that would not have occurred to them otherwise, and personally, well, there's nothing like living abroad at that time of your life."

Last spring, to mark the 20th anniversary of the program, the town of Nimes honored UCSC participants with a ceremony, presenting medals to the students and Fitchen. "It was really wonderful," she recalls. "All of the host families turned out, including two who had been hosting students since the program began."

There are myriad opportunities for UCSC students to study abroad through the universitywide Education Abroad Program (EAP), and, indeed, some 250 to 300 UCSC students do so each year. But the Nimes and Morelia programs are unique because they are operated and funded by UCSC.

Also unique is the structure of the program, which houses students with local families and provides instruction through a UCSC faculty member. All of UCSC's French lecturers--Fitchen, Miriam Ellis, Herve Le Mansec, Gildas Hamel, and David Orlando--have taken on this role over the past two decades. This spring, Hamel will lead the program.

After two days in Paris, during which they will attend a performance of Carmen; at the new Opera de la Bastille, Hamel says the students will travel to Nimes, a town about the size of Santa Cruz. Students will have lessons each weekday morning with Hamel and use the afternoons for studying and excursions.

Because Nimes is not a tourist town and because students spend their evenings with their host families, Hamel says, "They learn how to manage different social situations very quickly, something they can't really learn here. There are certain keys to use and once they've mastered them, no one recognizes that they are American. That's very exciting for them to discover and it motivates them to learn more and find other keys."

Also exciting, says Hamel, is that moment when students begin using the language instinctively. "Almost immediately you have students coming in great excitement because they dreamt in French the night before."

Charity Johnston, now a sophomore, participated in last year's program. "Academically, I took a huge leap, especially in conversational French because you're forced to use it all the time," she says. Johnston lives in Maison Francophone, a residential house on campus in which everyone speaks French, and she hopes to go back to France next year through EAP.

"On a personal level, I think I really grew in just being able to learn how to adapt to a different culture. The family I lived with was very exceptional. They were very warm and very traditional. Meals were very important. I definitely gained weight while I was there."

Along with weight, students gain language skills, cultural awareness, and lasting friendships. In fact, in a couple of cases, Fitchen says, they have gained even more. "People stay in touch. The relationships that have developed have been incredible. We have families visiting back and forth and we've even had cross-cultural marriages occur."

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