Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Community college students say 'oui' to France – and science

A new program, sponsored by the French embassy in the US, aims​ ​to​ ​open​ ​​the​ ​classic​ ​junior​-year​-abroad ​experience​ ​to students who​ ​don't typically​ ​find​ ​the​ ​means or​ ​programs​ ​to​ study ​internationally. 

Courtesy of Natan Leverrier / Office for Science and Technology, Embassy of France in the US
Students from the US visit the Biogis Center, in Compiègne, France, while attending the 'bootcamp' part of a new program, Community College Abroad in France, during the summer of 2017.

Daniela​ ​Markovic​ ​worked​ ​hard​ ​in​ ​high​ ​school​ ​with​ ​her​ ​sights​ ​on​ ​college – and possibly studying abroad.​ ​But​ ​when​ ​faced​ ​with​ ​economic​ ​reality,​ ​she opted​ ​for​ ​the​ ​honor’s​ ​program​ ​of​ ​her​ ​local​ ​community​ ​college​, ​and​ ​accepted​ ​that​ ​a two-week​ ​trip​ ​to​ ​Italy​ offered by the program ​would​ ​have​ ​to​ ​suffice​. 

“Whenever​ ​I​ ​saw​ ​all​ ​my​ ​friends​ ​going​ ​off​ ​to​ university,​ ​and​ ​I​ ​was​ ​stuck​ ​at​ ​home – ​you​ ​can ask​ ​my​ ​mom –​ ​I​ ​cried​ ​so​ ​hard.​ ​I​ ​really​ ​did,”​ ​says​ ​the​ ​American​ ​undergraduate​ ​student.​ “I was​ ​expecting​ ​to​ ​go​ ​to​ ​university​ ​with​ ​all​ ​of​ ​my​ ​peers.”

Two​ ​years​ ​later,​ ​however,​ ​after​ ​completing​ ​her​ ​associate’s​ ​degree​ ​at​ ​Lone​ ​Star​ ​College in​ ​Texas,​ ​she’s​ ​gone​ ​much​ ​farther​ ​away​ ​than​ ​she​ ​imagined​ ​–​ ​to​ ​France.​ ​Ms.​ ​Markovic this​ week ​begins​ ​a​ ​four-year​ ​program​ ​that​ ​will​ ​ultimately​ ​see​ ​her​ ​earn​ ​a​ ​bachelor’s​ ​and master’s​ ​in​ ​engineering​ ​from​ ​a​ ​top​ ​school​ ​in​ ​France​ ​–​ not​ ​to​ ​mention​ becoming ​fluent​ in ​French​ ​and acquiring all​ ​the​ ​soft​ ​skills​ ​that​ ​come​ ​from​ ​living​ ​far​ ​from​ ​one’s​ ​comfort​ ​zone.

She’s​ ​the​ ​first​ ​American​ ​community​ ​college​ ​student​ ​to​ ​be​ ​offered​ ​a​ ​scholarship​ ​in​ ​a​ ​new program​ ​launched​ ​this​ ​summer​ ​by​ ​the​ ​French​ ​embassy​ ​in​ ​the​ ​United States.​ ​Community​ ​College Abroad​ ​in​ ​France​​ aims​ ​to​ ​open​ ​up​ ​the​ ​classic​ ​junior​-year​-​abroad​ ​experience​ ​to community​ ​college​ ​students​. Amid soaring tuition prices in the US, they ​make​ ​up​ ​a significant​ ​portion​ ​of​ ​America’s​ ​post-high​ ​school​ ​student​ ​body​ ​but​ ​rarely​ ​find​ ​the​ ​means or​ ​programs​ ​to​ ​do​ ​some​ ​of​ ​their​ ​studies​ ​internationally.

“They​ ​are​ ​very,​ ​very​ ​underrepresented,”​ ​says​ ​Cultural​ ​Counselor​ ​Bénédicte​ ​de​ ​Montlaur in​ ​the​ ​French​ ​embassy​ ​in​ ​the​ ​US.

In​ ​fact,​ ​39​ ​percent​ ​of​ ​all​ ​undergraduates​ ​in​ ​the​ ​2015-16​ ​school​ ​year​ ​in​ ​the​ ​US​ ​were​ ​at two-year​ ​community​ ​colleges,​ ​according​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Community​ ​College​ ​Research​ ​Center​ ​at Columbia​ ​University.​ ​But​ ​only​ ​2​ ​percent​ ​of​ ​them​ ​study​ ​abroad.

Countering perceived stigmas

Focused​ ​on​ ​students​ ​studying​ ​engineering​ ​and​ ​environmental​ ​science,​ ​the​ ​program – which​ ​aims​ ​to​ ​expand​ ​next​ ​year – ​also​ ​brings​ ​top​ ​talent from US schools ​to​ ​France,​ ​and​ ​in​ ​doing​ ​so,​ ​gives the​ ​American​ ​community​ ​college​ ​system​ ​a​ ​chance​ ​to​ ​counter​ ​enduring​ ​stigmas, sometimes​ ​even​ ​among​ its​ ​own​ ​students.

“Community​ ​college​ ​in​ ​the​ ​US​ ​has​ ​suffered​ ​the​ ​reputation​ ​that​ ​it’s​ ​not​ ​the​ ​higher education​ ​of​ ​first​ ​choice,”​ ​says​ ​Katharine​ ​Caruso,​ ​associate​ ​vice​ ​chancellor,​ International, Honors, and Engagement Programs ​at​ ​Lone​ ​Star College.​ “But​ ​within​ ​the​ ​last​ 10 ​years,​ ​we’ve​ ​been​ ​turning​ ​that​ ​previously​ ​held​ ​concept on​ ​its​ ​head.”

Courtesy of Natan Leverrier/Office for Science and Technology, Embassy of France in the US
Community college students from the US visit the Pavillon de Manse, Chantilly, France, in the summer of 2017.

Markovic's scholarship includes​ ​a​ ​preparatory​ ​year ​to​ ​master​ ​French​ ​and​ ​French​ ​methods​ ​of​ ​study,​ ​and​ ​then three​ ​years​ ​of​ ​work-study​ ​to​ ​help​ ​finance​ ​a​ ​degree​ ​from​ ​the​ ​n+i​ ​network​ ​of​ ​the​ ​country’s 50​ ​top​ ​engineering​ ​schools.

As​ ​she​ ​now​ ​begins​ ​her​ ​year​ ​at​ ​​CESI Graduate School of Engineering in Saint-Nazaire,​ ​​17​ ​other​ ​community college​ ​students​ ​have​ ​returned​ ​home​ ​to​ ​school​ ​from​ ​a​ ​“bootcamp”​ ​this​ ​summer,​ ​the second​ ​prong​ ​of​ “​Community​ ​College​ ​Abroad​ ​in​ ​France.​”​ ​Its​ ​goal​ ​was​ ​to​ ​give​ ​students “a​ ​taste​ ​of​ ​France,”​ ​says​ ​Ms.​ ​Montlaur,​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​whet​ ​their​ ​appetites​ ​for​ ​the​ ​kind​ ​of scholarship​ ​Markovic​ ​is​ ​now​ ​pursuing,​ ​which​ ​several​ ​have​ ​said​ ​they​ ​plan​ ​to​ ​do.

The​ ​“bootcamp”​ ​was​ ​a​ ​10-day​ ​visit​ ​with​ ​“the​ ​environment”​ ​as​ ​its​ ​central​ ​theme,​ ​so​ ​the group​ ​learned​ ​about​ ​France’s​ ​air​ ​quality​ ​control​ ​and​ ​its​ ​lighting​ ​management.​ ​They walked​ ​among​ ​the​ ​gardens​ ​at​ ​Versailles,​ ​past​ ​the​ ​Luxor​ ​Obelisk​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Place​ ​de​ ​la Concorde,​ ​and​ ​did​ ​the​ ​most​ ​Parisian​ ​of​ ​all​ ​things,​ ​picnicked​ ​on​ ​the​ ​Seine.​ ​“It​ ​was​ ​like being​ ​a​ ​kid​ ​in​ ​a​ ​candy​ ​shop,”​ ​says​ ​Elena​ ​Bolotova,​ ​a​ ​second-year​ ​student​ ​at​ ​Tunxis Community​ ​College​ ​in​ Farmington, ​Conn.​ ​Others​ ​called​ ​it​ ​“glorious”​ ​and​ ​“lifetime​ ​experience.”

Markovic,​ ​who​ ​was​ ​raised​ ​in​ ​Houston​ ​and​ ​is​ ​the​ ​child​ ​of​ ​refugees​ ​from​ ​Bosnia,​ ​says​ ​that such​ ​escapades​ ​are​ ​not​ ​always​ ​associated​ ​with​ ​life​ ​at​ ​community​ ​college.​ ​“At​ ​my​ ​high school​ ​there​ ​was​ ​this​ ​saying,​ ​‘If​ ​you​ ​are​ ​going​ ​to​ ​Lone​ ​Star​ ​you​ ​are​ ​going​ ​to​ ​13th​ ​grade,’ ” she​ ​says​ ​on​ ​a​ ​Skype​ ​call​ ​after​ ​finishing​ ​an​ ​intensive​ ​morning​ ​of​ ​French​ ​lessons​ ​in​ ​the seaside​ ​community​ ​of​ ​Royan.

Growing interest from schools 

That’s​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​reasons​ ​community​ ​colleges​ ​are​ ​eager​ ​to​ ​get​ ​involved​ ​in​ ​more international​ ​exchange​: Montlaur​ ​says​ ​many​ ​have​ ​since​ ​contacted​ ​them​ ​at the embassy to​ ​learn​ ​how​ ​to get​ ​their​ ​students​ ​abroad.​ ​Yet​ ​Community​ ​College​ ​Abroad​ ​doesn’t​ ​just​ ​benefit​ ​the participants.​ ​It​ ​also​ ​helps​ ​to​ ​bring​ ​new​ ​ideas​ ​to​ ​France.​ ​

Montlaur​ ​says​ ​that​ ​although France​ ​has​ ​a​ ​reputation​ ​for​ ​its​ ​top-notch​ ​engineering​ ​schools,​ ​most​ ​of​ ​the​ ​17,000 US​ ​students​ ​who​ ​come​ ​to​ ​France​ ​each​ ​year​ ​study​ ​language ​and​ ​other humanities.​ ​“We​ ​want​ ​to​ ​encourage​ ​them​ ​to​ ​study​ ​science​ ​in​ ​France,”​ ​says​ ​Montlaur.

The​ ​“boot​camp,”​ ​in​ ​fact,​ ​took​ ​place​ ​in​ ​June,​ ​just​ ​as​ ​President​ ​Trump​ ​pulled​ ​out​ ​of​ ​the Paris​ ​climate​ ​agreement,​ ​and​ ​French​ ​President​ ​Emmanuel​ ​Macron​ ​appealed​ ​to American​ ​climate​ ​researchers​ ​to​ ​come​ ​across​ ​the​ ​Atlantic.​ ​

For​ ​Matthew​ ​Stromberg,​ ​who finished​ ​his​ ​associate’s​ ​degree​ ​in​ ​engineering​ ​science​ ​at​ ​Norwalk​ ​Community​ ​College in Connecticut, the​ ​timing​ ​was​ ​nothing​ ​short​ ​of​ ​“momentous.” “There​ ​is​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​stuff​ ​happening​ ​politically​ ​[in​ ​the​ ​US] ​that​ ​makes​ ​me​ ​uncertain​ ​about the​ ​future​ ​of​ ​environmental​ ​progress,”​ ​he​ ​says.​ ​“You​ ​realize​ ​that​ ​regardless​ ​of​ ​whatever is​ ​happening​ ​here,​ ​other​ ​countries,​ ​or​ ​at​ ​least​ ​France,​ ​is​ ​on​ ​the​ ​right​ ​track.​ ​It​ ​helped reaffirm​ ​my​ ​commitment​ ​to​ ​what​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​study​ ​and​ ​what​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​do.”

Exposure to new ideas 

It’s​ ​about​ ​far​ ​more​ ​than​ ​the​ ​science​ ​though.​ ​Mr.​ ​Stromberg​ ​says​ ​it​ ​was​ ​exposure​ ​to different​ ​values​ ​about​ ​education,​ ​particularly​ ​how​ ​much​ ​more​ ​affordable​ ​a​ ​college degree​ ​is​ ​in​ ​Europe,​ ​that​ ​is​ ​a​ ​lasting​ ​takeaway.​ ​As​ ​with every​ ​student​ ​interviewed,​ ​he​ ​always planned​ ​on​ ​completing​ ​a​ ​four-year​ ​degree​ ​and​ ​chose​ ​community​ ​college​ ​for​ ​the​ ​first​ ​two years​ ​due to​ ​budget constraints.​ ​He​ ​transferred​ ​to​ ​the​ ​University​ ​of​ ​Virginia​ ​in Charlottesville this​ ​year​ ​to​ ​complete​ ​a degree​ ​in​ ​environmental​ ​engineering​ ​and​ ​science​ ​and​ ​wants​ ​to​ ​pursue​ ​a​ ​PhD.

“A​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​people​ ​in​ ​this​ ​country​ ​don’t​ ​like​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​of​ ​supporting​ ​anything​ ​seen​ ​as​ ​a​ ​social welfare​ ​system​,”​ ​he​ ​says.​ ​“But​ ​if​ ​you​ ​have​ ​an​ ​educated​ ​populace,​ ​that educated​ ​populace​ ​will​ ​create​ ​new​ ​ideas,​ ​and​ ​inventions,​ ​more​ ​jobs.​ ​It​ ​is​ ​investing​ ​in​ ​the long-term​ ​prosperity​ ​of​ ​your​ ​society.”

Of​ ​course​ ​he​ ​was​ ​faced​ ​with​ ​the​ ​negatives​ ​of​ ​French​ ​culture​ ​too​ ​– ​just​ ​not​ ​as​ ​much​ ​as he​ ​was​ ​expecting. “The​ ​aspect​ ​of​ ​the​ ​waiters being​ ​jerks,”​ ​he​ ​says,​ ​“that​ ​was​ ​very,​ ​very​ ​accurate.”  But, he adds, “That​ ​impression​ ​that​ ​you​ ​get​ ​that​ ​the​ ​Parisians​ ​are​ ​snotty​ ​...​ ​it’s largely​ ​not​ ​true.”

This article has been updated to reflect that the 17,000 students who come to France to study each year are all from the United States. 

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