Study Abroad Students Find Purpose
While Volunteering in France
by Annette Trinity-Stevens
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'Universtite' Paul Vale'ry.
"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 --
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
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 afterschool 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
"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."
Annette Trinity-Stevens is the director of research communications at MSU.
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