Montana State University

Study abroad students find purpose while volunteering in France

February 19, 2002 -- by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Maggie Thompson volunteered in an after-school program for immigrant children while studying in Montpellier, France.   High-Res Available

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Ann Ulvin pictured herself walking the city streets of southern France, taking in the sidewalk cafes and charming old buildings.

But not long after arriving in Montpellier for a year of study abroad, Ulvin--a Montana State University engineering student--had to revise her expectations. She felt isolated by her clumsy French. She had trouble adjusting to the cultural diversity, and she had too much free time.

Crocheting hats in her dorm room helped, but not until she began volunteering in a soup kitchen did Ulvin start to feel like she was part of the culture she had come so far to study.

"I'm so glad I did it," Ulvin said of her work at St. Vincent de Paul in Montpellier, a city of 350,000 people.

Ulvin and four other MSU students studying in France last year said they developed a sense of purpose when volunteering for local and national French humanitarian agencies. They were able to practice their French in unthreatening environments. They learned about marginalized parts of French society and the complexity of poverty. And the work was a godsend when classes stopped for four weeks during a student strike at the l'Universtité Paul Valéry.

"When our students go to France they can have a difficult time meeting French people," said Ada Giusti, an associate professor of French at MSU. "I wondered about how to help them integrate and become active members of the community."

It was Giusti who asked the students if they would like to volunteer with agencies such as literacy and after-school programs, soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Montpellier. Giusti had researched and volunteered for the organizations as part of a book she's writing on poverty in France where nearly 9 percent of the population--about 6 million people--are poor.

A search of other university study abroad programs yielded none that included volunteering in France. Giusti established hers with money from the MSU International Studies Office and the Modern Languages Department.

First she made sure the organizations were willing to host the students, that the volunteer sites had the proper insurance and were in safe neighborhoods. She checked that students would have access to public transportation to and from campus. She also made sure the experience would teach the students about French society and culture.

"I didn't want them stuffing envelopes in a back room," Giusti said.

MSU business student Evelyn Paz said volunteering in a homeless shelter for women and children put frustrations with her choppy French in perspective.

"Study abroad is not just about language and seeing cute streets--it's not about us," Paz said. "We had to give something to others. That made it easier to be there."

Tawnia Bell, who volunteered with Paz, needed the structure the volunteerism provided. At first it was nice to have more free time than she was accustomed to in the U.S, but later she needed to do something productive. The work left her with a "warm fuzzy feeling," knowing the sandwiches she made fed about 25 people each day.

The students all said their volunteering showed them that being poor or homeless in a socialist society didn't confer the shame it does in the U.S. They also began to notice the racism directed toward North African immigrants, gypsies and other marginalized groups in France.

Helping at a homeless shelter caused French major Dan Cross to begin reading French newspapers.

"We talked about everything during two hours of making sandwiches--politics, social problems," he said. "I realized how ignorant I was on those topics."

French major Maggie Thompson was moved by her experience in an after school program for immigrant children, many of whom were aware of living outside mainstream French society. In addition, one day a week Thompson served food to homeless people through a Catholic organization.

"One reason I went abroad was for a change of perspective," Thompson said. "And I don't think I would have had that change in perspective if I hadn't volunteered."


Contact: Ada Giusti, (406) 994-6442 or