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Abby Conners, Paris FSI Spring ’15 reflects on her IFE experience and the role of French language fluency in her career trajectory.

Like the majority of people who pass through IFE during or after their undergraduate years, I identify strongly as a lifelong francophile and aspiring Parisian — despite growing up in the deeply not-Parisian suburbs of Chicago and attending a university in southern Virginia.

Guided by this lifelong interest in French culture and a geeky obsession with the particulars of French grammar, I chose to double major in International Relations and French & Francophone Culture at the College of William & Mary. In a probably inevitable turn of events, I found my way to Paris with IFE during the Spring of 2015 at the behest of a college professor who presented it as the "only option" for someone looking to be challenged academically and immersed completely in the language.

In the interest of full transparency, the semester was academically demanding, professionally out of my comfort zone, and altogether not easy. Not infrequently did I stress eat baguette while fretting over preliminary drafts of my semester-long project, the notorious mémoire. My mémoire, "The Efficacy of Participatory Democracy in Pantin Today" evaluated both the academic literature on the role of participatory democracy in creating social cohesion and my anecdotal experience as an intern with the Department de la Démocratie participative, de la Jeunesse et du Développement des quartiers in Pantin, France.

For geographical context, Pantin is located outside of the periphery, northeast of Paris. Approximately 25% of the population is not native to France, per the most recent census. With respect to social cohesion and a unified cultural identity, this puts Pantin, and the surrounding community, in a challenging position. I worked specifically on the installation of a Conseil pour la Citoyenneté des Étrangers. The Council for the Citizenship of Foreigners (prettier in French, non?) was designed to be a venue for non-EU citizens to engage with community politics in absence of the right to vote in local elections. It is worth noting that in France EU citizens, while not allowed to vote in national elections, are permitted to vote in local elections. This puts non-EU citizens at a unique political disadvantage but also fosters a vested interest in creating opportunities for other types of engagement. I had kind, passionate colleagues and the city of Pantin was exponentially more charming than my initial Wikipedia search could have indicated.

While I have always loved French language and culture, throughout my undergraduate studies I became increasingly aware of the Francophone identities that exists outside of France, an enduring effect of colonialism. I am grateful to my education for giving me the language to explore and discuss these complex and, oftentimes, difficult dynamics. I am grateful especially to IFE for the gift of fluency so that I can more effectively connect and collaborate with a diverse community of French-speakers worldwide. My early career has focused on trying to find answers to the question of how to meaningfully increase access to those who lack it: either for North African immigrants to their adopted community in Pantin or for women to quality healthcare in Senegal.

Currently, as an international development professional supporting global health projects in Francophone Africa and the Caribbean, my understanding of these areas and an ability to speak the language is my strongest professional asset. It is not possible to overstate how critical, non-negotiable, and invaluable this skill has proven to be. I had the great fortune of being employed by my current organization immediately following my graduation in 2016. Practically, French fluency is an in-demand skill and, as a result, I was an especially competitive applicant.

Now from Washington, DC I lead meetings and problem-solve in French with colleagues all over the world and have been afforded incredible opportunities to travel internationally. Throughout the years, I took academic and professional opportunities as they’ve been available, only later seeing how they’ve been woven into a cohesive personal narrative. I can still remember the visceral anxiety of having to approach unsuspecting commuters at the metro stop in Pantin with an eager (see: aggressive) "Do you have a few minutes to talk about the Conseil de la Citoyenneté des Étrangers?" (en français, of course). But, I can see now that this experience gave me a voice, an ability to express myself fully in another language, and confidence that I had something of value to say. I’ve become a less fearful communicator, later having facilitated workshops in Burkina Faso and interviewed potential team members in Niger.

What was once a natural knack for French grammar and a lot of Muzzy tapes has transformed into a way to cultivate closeness, connection, and cross-cultural empathy. I haven’t completely worked out how the next five or ten years of my life will look, but I do know that these priorities and the shared language in which they are rooted will inform them.

Iron really does sharpen iron, and challenging cultural exchange grows us into better students, professionals, and people in the world. I am grateful for it and je remercie l’équipe formidable chez IFE!

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