Breanna Melville graduated from Iowa State in 2010 with a major in French and a minor in International Studies. In this interview, Breanna tells us about her professional adventures after graduation that have ultimately lead her to becoming a graduate student at Université Paris-Sorbonne in French Language, Linguistics, and Philology.
What are classes like at Sorbonne? Since I am at the Master level, classes are pretty small. We are required to take one or two “classes” that meet once a week for 1-2 hours each semester, then we are also required to take 2-3 “seminars” that meet for 2 hours each week. Classes typically are more interactive and have an exam at the end to determine your grade, whereas seminars are more like lectures and we usually write a 10 page paper and/or do an oral presentation about a subject we studied in class to determine your grade. As a research student writing a thesis, you try to take seminars that relate best as possible to what you are writing your thesis about. We also are required to take a langue vivante class/seminar! I am taking English (which is fun) because my teachers all have British accents and it is interesting to study my native language from the British point of view.
What classes are you taking? How long is the program? This semester I am taking a stylistics class which is a requirement, a seminar about the history and point of view of the French language (16th century until present), a linguistics seminar about the systematic history of the French language (20th century), and a seminar on English gardens and environment (17th century until present). Last semester I took a Phonetics, Morphology, and Syntax class as well as a research methods class, a discourse class (which were all requirements), and a color and culture in 19th century England and France class along with my seminars (seminars are usually year long). We have less coursework this semester so we can focus on writing our 60 page thesis or “mémoire” in French. The program is 2 years long, but each year has it’s own diploma: Master 1 and Master 2.
How are classes in France different from the coursework you took at ISU? (or are they different?) Classes are different from ISU because at the Master level we study French (and language in general) like an English native speaker would study English and language in general, so the French level of the student needs to be rather advanced and I had to take a French proficiency exam before being admitted to the Sorbonne. We also organize our papers differently. English speakers tend to be more linear and the French have kind of a three step process which was really interesting for me to learn; the French really think in a different process than we do. Also, since tuition cost is extremely low here compared to ISU, less money goes to the administration, which leads to a less efficient administration and less guidance for students. We don’t have student advisors, so students need to be very independent and self-motivated in terms of administrative things and coursework. Professors are there to help of course but they also have a lot of work to do, and they don’t want us running to them for every little need. That is is probably the biggest difference between ISU and the Sorbonne. Nobody tells you what to do here, you have to figure it out on your own and make the first step in finding help yourself! But if you are motivated the resources are there, you just have to find them.
How did your training / experience at ISU prepare you for the studies at a university in France? I had a great experience at ISU and all of my French classes improved my French level a lot after high school. My study abroad experience was also extremely helpful, as well as working at a summer camp in France the following year, since I was immersed in the culture and language everyday. I also really think speaking at French Table every week helped a lot too. Also, I really took advantage of all the great resources in the LSRC, I was probably there everyday! Finally, my Professors’ anecdotes about life in France and their experiences there also helped prepare me for my studies at university in France. Please keep telling those funny and useful stories!
How did you end up doing your graduate studies in France? After I graduated with my French major and International Studies minor in Fall 2010 from Iowa State, I spent a few months looking for jobs while working part time at Stomping Grounds; filling out job applications was a lot more enjoyable while sipping a frozen chai latte from work – yum! I was open to any type of job at the time and found a job in Dallas, but once I got there the job was not at all what I expected it to be (it was a Pyramid Scheme, yikes!) So do your research as a young graduate and don’t just take any job offered to you like I did!
After that happened, I decided to quit and move back to Iowa to do something I enjoyed while I looked for the job of my dreams. I had a lot of experience doing make-up growing up, so my friends advised me to work at a cosmetics counter. While I wasn’t using French everyday in my job, I did become a Business Manager at Lancôme (A really great French company!) and I gained wonderful leadership and team building experience while working there for almost three years.
As much as I liked working at Lancôme, I really missed not using my French day-to-day that I had worked so hard to improve at Iowa State, during my study abroad, and work abroad experiences in France during college. So I made the decision to follow my dreams and apply to the Teaching Assistant Program In France (TAPIF). I was accepted to teach English to primary school students for the Académie de Toulouse for the 2013-2014 school year. I was so excited to finally move to France!
After my year of teaching was over, I realized that I really enjoyed teaching and the French way of living and wanted to stay in France and continue to teach English. I had a hard time finding a job in France since I’m American, and in Europe it is just as hard for immigrants to find jobs as it is in the U.S. with strict Visa and Immigration regulations that make it difficult for employers to hire non-Europeans. Luckily, I found a family who wanted an American Au Pair to live with them and speak English with their kids. I was hesitant at first, but decided to take the job and I am so glad that I made the decision! The family was so nice and welcoming, and we even celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving together! It was really cool to share American traditions with a foreign family who was so open-minded about other cultures.
The family and I got along so well that they asked me to stay another year and renew my contract. I love working with kids, but I admit it isn’t my dream to be an Au Pair for a career; I desire to become a teacher. So I asked the family if I could go back to school and get my Master’s at the same time as being an Au Pair, and they were extremely supportive and said “oui bien sûr!” So I am currently doing a Master de recherche at Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) in French Language, Linguistics, and Philology. I love being a student again, and studying at the Sorbonne is an immense privilege and honor. I get to study with world renowned professors, have access to incredible libraries and online resources, and I get to enjoy the charming and historic 5th and 6th arrondissements of Paris. After graduating I hope to stay in France and teach English or return to the U.S. and possibly earn a PhD and teach French. We’ll see what the future holds!
Is there any advice you can give to current students of French? Speak and write in French as much as you can, seize every opportunity you can. Active French (speaking/writing) is a lot more challenging than Passive French (reading/listening). But including passive French in your everyday life outside of class will help improve the active. So read French books, watch French movies, listen to French music, etc. All of these resources can be found for free and/or online. Use your own personal interests to help improve your French. I know not everybody likes Flaubert or Proust, but if you like sports or fashion for example you can find videos or texts in French that will be much more enjoyable for you to improve your skills and feel less like a chore. I rented the Harry Potter books in French with interlibrary loan and it was really enjoyable! Also if you can study abroad I highly recommend it. Immersing yourself in the culture is truly the best way to learn. Also, if you want to use French in your career, learning French alone will not be enough in today’s competitive job market. I strongly recommend doing a second major or acquiring a second skill to go along with your French, it will be much easier for you to find a job after graduation. Finally, my last piece of advice is to remember that nobody will hand opportunities to you. You need to go out and find them. It will take time, but anything worthwhile takes time, so just be patient and do your best!