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.
Paris —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.”
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 “bootcamp,” 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.