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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Creating equal opportunity for sustainability students

Tim Nixon

16 Jul 2018

16 July 2018

“The Community College Study Abroad program coincides with a moment of French leadership in the field of sustainability with an emphasis on international collaboration, with many initiatives and programs aiming to strengthen cross-Atlantic exchange in research and academic fields related to sustainable development.”

For many years the study abroad field has been an expensive venture open only to students who can afford to study internationally for a period of time. With the Community College Study Abroad program, the French Embassy is encouraging mobility to students attending community colleges, who make up just 1.8% of U.S. students studying abroad. This interview with Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, Bénédicte de Montlaur, highlights how they have created an opportunity to equalize the “studying in France” playing field by introducing students to engineering and sustainable development topics, while enhancing their cultural experiences.  It’s an innovate outreach initiative between cultures which have had traditions of leadership on sustainability.  Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Tim: Briefly, what is this opportunity and who is it directed toward?

Bénédicte: Initiated in 2017 by the Cultural and Scientific Services of the French Embassy, this program is targeting community college students. We noticed that out of 18 million undergraduate American students, more than 40% of them are enrolled in a community college. However, only 1.8% of US undergraduate students in study abroad programs attend community colleges. So we feel there is a need to push for diversity here and make these students realize that studying abroad can be affordable and accessible.

Conducted in partnership with the Network of French Engineering schools “n+i,” this program offers a 10-day summer boot camp (June 11-20) for up to twenty students and a four-year degree-granting program starting in the summer for a limited number of highly motivated students.

Tim: What areas will students have the opportunity to study while enrolled in the program?

Bénédicte: For now, we have focused on engineering and sustainable development.

Engineering is one of the academic fields in which France stands out the most. French engineering programs (from the Grandes Ecoles, among others) are well-known for their rigorous curricula that position graduates for successful careers following graduation.

The country is also known for its legacy of engineering innovation—including high speed trains, called TGV, which are considered to be a technological success for their performance and commitment to eco-mobility. So this program provides the opportunity to benefit from one of the highest quality master’s degrees in Europe.

Moreover, following the July 2016 pronouncement from Emmanuel Macron, the President of the French Republic, that put forth the initiative Make Our Planet Great Again, encouraging international research and academic collaborations in the field of sustainable development has become one of France’s missions.

Paris especially has been active in the fields of engineering and sustainable development in recent years. The city is part of a network of 40 cities world-wide (chaired by the city’s mayor Anne Hidalgo) striving against climate change.  Paris is also ranked 3rd in the world in terms of sustainable mobility with criteria based on transportation costs, time spent in transport, air pollution and green transport—while no American city is in the top 10.

Also, for community college students, a training in science and engineering offers concrete job opportunities.

Tim: This program seems to be directed towards students who might not have the means to study abroad on their own. What advantages are there to diversifying the study abroad space? In the larger picture, what advantages does funding this program have to the French Embassy?

Bénédicte: This project is part of an initiative by the US Department of State and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the “Transatlantic Friendship and Mobility Initiative,” which was launched in 2014 to increase and diversify cross-Atlantic student mobility.

One of our missions at the Cultural and Scientific Services is to encourage and develop student transatlantic mobility, in particular from the US to France.

Elite colleges and universities already have study abroad programs and send many students abroad each year. In order to increase and diversify the flow of students, we decided to try attracting new population of students, targeting students from community colleges since 40% of the 18 million American undergraduate are enrolled in community college, but only 3% of the total number of American students seeking to study abroad are from community colleges. That’s a lot of students that we’re not reaching.

There is a lot to do on that end, and we feel like this is where we can make a difference.

In France in the early 2000s, one of the most renowned schools, Sciences Po, developed a program to reach out to students in the ZEP areas, some specific areas where students usually tend to not pursue this kind of long-term study. The Community College Study Abroad program actually echoes the overall French philosophy on the subject of academics, which wants to see advanced studies be affordable and accessible to all.

Tim: Why would students be attracted to this program?
Bénédicte: For several reasons: we believe that the short length of the bootcamp is well adapted to students who wish to get a taste of a new culture, an academic system and professional market, without committing heavily in terms of time and money. Also, for students who are not used to traveling abroad, traveling in group could be easier to manage.

The master’s degree diploma is conceived in such a way as to give the the chosen students tools to adapt to a new culture. The student begins with a series of French classes, some of them specialized to a specific academic field, so that the student will be able to understand their courses in French when they start.

This is the opportunity for a community college student to get a high-quality diploma in one of the network n+i’s engineering schools without going into debt, since the program is co-financed by the French Embassy and the community colleges and their foundations, as well as the paid internship that will complete the four-year program.

In addition, the present topics, engineering and sustainable development, offer many potential job opportunities for the students.  Finally, the French Engineering degree is recognized by AACRAO (a US entity for the recognition of international diplomas) as the equivalent to the US master’s degree in Engineering.

Tim: Do you see this program as an opportunity to bring a new demographic of students into the sustainability field?

Bénédicte: This bootcamp is a great opportunity for community college students interested in learning about sustainable initiatives launched in another country such as France. For instance, this year the students attended different conferences and visits about public transportation, including a meeting with Keolis, the largest private sector French transport group, a visit of the construction site of the future train station CNIT at La Défense, and a visit to POMA, a world leader in ropeway transportation. Other visits included Buttes-Aux-Cailles, the first swimming pool equipped with a digital boiler, urban and connected beehives in downtown Paris, and a meeting with EVESA, which is in charge of the lighting system of Paris.

Living, studying, and working in another country offers a new and different perspective for young students, and can be an eye-opening experience that has a direct impact on their lives. In fact, one of last year’s participants has already switched majors to focus on biomass after a series of visits related to that topic during the Paris bootcamp.

France is a leader in the field of sustainable energy and engineering, so this experience is giving students a world class education in their field of study, while exposing them to a new language and culture. And since it’s free, they won’t accrue additional student loans.

Tim: How will this experience contribute to their success in future organizations and as an individual?

Bénédicte: On the professional side: French engineering programs (from the Grandes Ecoles, among others) are well-known for their rigorous curricula that position graduates for successful careers following the end of their studies. Because it integrates business training, foreign language study, and communication skills, the Diplôme d’Ingénieur prepares recipients to deliver creative solutions within their professional environment.

Moreover, choosing French as a second language has its own benefits for these American students. It develops the students’ language skills, which confers upon them numerous cognitive and social benefits. French is the language of the US’s trading partners: France is a major exporter and importer of American goods, and Canada, a neighbour of the US, has 9.2 million French speakers.
French is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations and is, with English, one of the two working languages of the U.N. in New York and Geneva, which makes it a valuable second language.

So if they decide to start or continue learning French, these students will ultimately be more marketable, especially in an increasingly global economy: they will tend to have a better understanding of another culture and working system, and they will also tend to have higher starting salaries and greater opportunities to study and work abroad.

On the personal side, this unique experience will allow the students to discover, some of them for the first time, a whole different culture than the one they’ve experienced in the US. In our bootcamp, we gave a lot of importance to cultural visits (to Versailles, the Eiffel Tower and French restaurants, among others). We wanted to make the experience as enriching as possible in a short period of time.

Some of the students let us know that this first experience, as short as it was, was enough to develop an affinity for the country and its culture: “Making new friends added to my comfort because having others around you share your experiences made it feel like anything you said, someone could relate too. Every bit of history we learned about France made me feel connected to this country. I felt so welcomed by all the schools and the industries we have had the privilege of visiting,” said 2017 alumni Nicole Conrad.

We believe this experience will broaden the perspective of these students, while adding a unique experience to their resumés that we hope will make a difference in their career.

Tim: What are some challenges that you can foresee with integrating students into both a place and an area of study that may be completely foreign to them?

Bénédicte: Just like any students studying abroad, there is always a fear of not immediately integrating  in the local community. This is why our bootcamp includes a few weeks of intense language learning, specialized to the academic field.

We hope this will provide them with the tools to better understand the French language and culture and will ease their integration into the community.

Tim: How might this program and others like it influence global sustainability and diversity?

Bénédicte: The Community College Study Abroad program coincides with a moment of French leadership in the field of sustainability with an emphasis on international collaboration, with many initiatives and programs aiming to strengthen cross-Atlantic exchange in research and academic fields related to sustainable development. For instance, among the 2017 grantees for the Thomas Jefferson Fund—which supports collaborative projects between French and American researchers—was a partnership between the Stevens Institute of Technology and the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées in Strasbourg, whose project focused on combining satellite measurements and numerical flood prediction models to save lives and property from flooding. We will continue to push for cross-Atlantic collaboration and support on that end.

Note: Allison Callanan & Ashley Torres, Interns at Thomson Reuters Sustainability, were significant contributors to this article.

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