Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.
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.
Courtesy of Natan Leverrier / Office for Science and Technology, Embassy of France in the US
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Community college students say 'oui' to France – and science

breaking barriers

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. 

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.”

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