This article is part of the CGIS Blog's Faculty Feature highlight, where we bring you the voices of faculty who have teamed up with CGIS to provide excellent faculty-led study abroad opportunities for U-M students. CGIS helps professors bring unique experiences to life through these programs based on current campus interests and needs. We hope you enjoy this faculty perspective!
Where can students study that will give them an immersive experience rather than feeling like a tourist? That was our goal when searching for a program to replace our previous summer study abroad program in Saint Malo, France. After visiting several programs in non-touristy cities that offered a variety of content courses as well as homestays, we settled on Grenoble, France because of the well established CUEF (Centre universitaire d’études françaises). In addition to the variety of course offerings, students had choices of weekend excursions to Marseille, Lyon, Annecy, Avignon, Chamonix and Mont Blanc, the Chartreuse distillery, the Vercors mountain range, the Chateau de Vizille, and St. Antoine l'Abbaye for "Les Nuits médiévales".
The first year of this program in 2001, I directed and worked with 27 adventurous students who took courses ranging from French 232 to an upper-level writing class. Several of these students are featured in the Grenoble video I made after that first summer to promote the program.
Some highlights from those first years? Students’ excitement after overcoming their fears while canyoning in the Furon river; Our visit in 2002 to Valchevrière in the Vercors mountain range where students walked through the remains of this village burned down by the Germans in 1944 because of its proximity to a strategic lookout point for Resistance fighters; Students sharing in class their individual interviews with Grenoble inhabitants who were alive during the 1940’s when the Italians, and then the Germans, occupied the area.
My job at that time consisted not only of teaching but also greeting students upon their arrival, leading an orientation, working closely with and paying host families, and organizing certain excursions. However, the most challenging part was being available 24/7 for students and worrying about their well-being. One weekend evening, I received a call from a student in tears: “I’m in Mont St Michel and I don’t want to be here! I want to be at the Normandy beaches! ... I don’t want to be here! There's just a monastery!” Fortunately, I was able to help this distressed student talk through her options and return to Grenoble.
Our program has evolved over the past 22 years, with a variety of course offerings, a modified partnership with the CUEF, and a reduction from 8 credits to 6 to allow students more time to explore. We also have an on site partner who has taken on much of the responsibilities the director had the first 10 years - a much welcomed change so that directors don’t have the constant stress of being available 24/7 for emergencies.
The courses I teach abroad could never be replicated on campus in Ann Arbor because I design the course around the culture and history of the location. For instance, my course on the German Occupation of France focused on how the topography of the Vercors mountain enabled young French men to hide in 1943 to avoid the law forcing them to work in German factories. Furthermore, the neighboring city of Lyon was home to important Resistance fighters, such as Jean Moulin, and Lucie and Raymond Aubrac. When visiting the Montluc prison in Lyon where Moulin and several others were imprisoned, one student approached me, eyes gleaming, to share that she’d just entered a cell where a person she had researched as a class assignment had spent their last days.
Resistance is an important theme in Grenoble where inhabitants threw tiles from the roofs onto the heads of government troupes on June 7th, 1788 - La Journée des tuiles - considered by some historians to be the start of the French Revolution. Students can learn more about this period while visiting the French Revolution museum at the Château de Vizille.
One of the highlights of the program has been a partnership, initiated by my colleague Lorrel Sullivan, with an Association of retired people to play pétanque. Students quickly catch on to effective techniques and become comfortable joking around with the locals in French, enjoying friendly banter, and a mutual commitment to beating the other teams.
A conversation in 2019 with students studying business and management at the Charmilles school in Grenoble was especially powerful as students shared their perceptions of each others’ countries and cultures along with topics on patriotism, racism, and identity. After speaking for several hours, students exchanged Snapchat accounts and even reconvened on the evening of July 4th to spend time together and play games such as “Never have I ever….”.
We now offer a popular Spring French 230 intensive program in Grenoble that I implemented in May of 2012. That summer, students visited a local farm and had the opportunity to feed and milk the goats while also learning about the fabrication of fromage de chèvre. Through these excursions and visits to local outdoor markets, students come to appreciate the connection between what we eat and how and where it’s made, and the concept of terroir.
In May and June of 2022, I had the opportunity to teach our first French 232 course offered in Aix-en-Provence, France, a city where I spent my junior year taking classes at the Université de Provence. Although I’ve changed immensely, the city hasn’t as much. The cours Mirabeau lost many of its amazing platane trees, but its fountains from the 17th century still flow and continue to be a source of incredible beauty.
Given that Aix was the home of Paul Cézanne, learning about him, visiting his workshop and going to the site where he often painted the Mont Sainte-Victoire were a must.
Teaching abroad necessitates a versatility for the instructor as we constantly adapt our lessons to students’ daily experiences, local events, elections, etc. Yet, it is incredibly gratifying to witness students’ satisfaction at having had a profound conversation in French with their host family or their ability to make connections between what they’re living and what we’re reading and discussing in class. It is also a privilege to be with them as they work through frustrations and grow as individuals. As these programs continue to thrive, I hope that we, as instructors, work to integrate our activities in the classroom with what is unique about that particular location, helping students to use their language skills to better understand this new place and culture along with their own.
Want to learn more about Kathy's experience with faculty-led CGIS programs in France? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you a U-M faculty member interested in leading a study abroad program with CGIS? Find more information on our Faculty & Partners page.