Continued Excellence in the Face of Challenge

In the face of the pandemic, Séverine Martin, Director of Undergraduate Global Engagement | Paris, creates new opportunities for Columbia students in France.

Editor's note:

This article appears in the Reid Hall Annual Report 2019-2021.

July 05, 2021

Columbia’s Undergraduate Global Engagement program in Paris (UGE | Paris) has significantly expanded its purview through its partnerships with such peer universities and cultural institutions as the École du Louvre, Nouveau Collège d'Études Politiques, the Alliance Program, and the Musée d’Orsay. Over the past two years, these partnerships, innovative curricular offerings, and the development of a robust public programming portfolio, have allowed the program to create opportunities that are unique in study abroad by bringing together scholars, artists, and public figures of the highest repute with its students. These combined efforts have made UGE | Paris one of the best and most visible study-abroad programs in France. 

All in all, given the challenges of the past year, we are proud of the programs and opportunities we have been able to put together for students to keep them connected to France.

In the summer of 2019, we co-developed a groundbreaking course on racial prejudice in the history of art thanks to the illuminating doctoral research of Denise Murrell. She was able to foreground the paradox of the invisibility of the black model with the central role that black figures played in the development of modern art. Her work, which led to a major exhibit at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia, New York and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, was transformed into a Paris-based seminar where students had the privilege of receiving private tours of the Orsay exhibit. This proved to be deeply moving for students and was a source of envy for many of our peers. It makes up one of the six global core courses created since 2016.

In the fall of 2019, we launched a credit-based undergraduate research opportunity with the Institute for Ideas and Imagination, culminating in a student and faculty meeting with Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger. It is worth mentioning that one of the participating students, Redd Ingram (AY’18-19) later received the 2021 Columbia Leadership and Excellence Award.

In addition to curricular enhancements, we have developed co-curricular programming that focuses on topics relevant to contemporary issues in French society. Developed in partnership with other Columbia entities at Reid Hall, as well as with relevant cultural institutions in France, these events – open to the public – have contributed to the dynamism of our academic curriculum. Examples of these events include guest talks by such prominent artists and writers in residence at the Institute for Ideas and Imagination as Tash Aw and Edouard Louis.

We also created a fall film series entitled “Les rencontres du Festival de Cannes” inviting a prominent film director whose work has recently been recognized in Cannes. In this series we have had three Palmes d’Or (highest distinction awarded by the Festival’s committee): Arnaud Desplechin, Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet. 

Intensive Writing Seminar

Of the many events I am proud of, the student encounter with Maryse Condé (New Academy Prize in Literature, 2018) followed by the keynote speech of Christiane Taubira (former Minister of Justice 2012 – 2016 and Member of the EU Parliament 1994 – 1999) stands out in my mind as an example of the scale, impact, and prestige the program has gained in recent years.

Just as we were gaining traction and momentum, the inevitable cessation of activities brought about by the pandemic continues to uniquely affect study-abroad programs. From accompanying our students in their shift to hybrid and then online classes, to the cancellation of all our summer and fall programs, and finally to finding creative solutions to continue engaging students – each presents its own set of logistical, financial, and sometimes governmental challenges.

From an academic perspective, we have kept the program alive through our “Virtual Paris” classes, with two global core offerings in French and English, and one course offering on Representations of Paris in American Cinema. This has ensured an academic continuity of the program during the pandemic in a way not achieved by any of our peer institutions in Paris. The success of this program is best captured by the testimonial of one of our students who enrolled in all three courses.

“Thank you again for working so hard to create such a great Virtual Paris experience for us! I really could not think of a better way to maximize online school. These have been some of the most stimulating, engaging, and exciting courses I have taken during my time at Columbia and I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to work so closely with such incredible faculty. Despite the context of the pandemic, I truly am having a wonderful semester!”  Kenzy Metter (CC’23)

It is worth mentioning that since the lack of student mobility not only affected U.S. students coming to France, but also French students going to the U.S. In this respect, we chose to act as “ambassadors” of sorts, positioning the program to play a pivotal role for French students wanting to experience a Columbia education. In the Spring of 2021, we thus partnered with the Alliance Program to launch an intensive university writing seminar in English for French students.

Of all the new initiatives we have developed, we are most proud of the 29 virtual internships offered to students last summer. In this summer’s new iteration, we have been able to partner with such prestigious organizations as the OECD, the Éditions Flammarion, and we are continuing our partnership with Columbia’s Center for Technology Management.

In addition, we have two online academic series; one is a webinar on urban planning and city diplomacy developed in partnership with Sciences Po. The other is a weekly French language exchange focused on contemporary topics with guest speakers. These conversations are open to Columbia students as well as students from peer institutions.

And last but certainly not least, we developed a six-week online performance series called “Dance and the City.” The series, led by former Institute Fellow, Hiie Saumaa, allows participants to “virtually” dance through the streets of Paris, from the banks of the Seine, to Montmartre, the Jardin du Luxembourg, and of course Reid Hall. Participants in this series have come from all over the world.

All in all, given the challenges of the past year, we are proud of the programs and opportunities we have been able to put together for students to keep them connected to France. The lack of student mobility has highlighted more than ever the importance of studying abroad as an opening on the world. Similarly, we have realized the importance of reciprocity and the role that Columbia in Paris can play as a platform for the university’s international presence and visibility through partnerships and exchange. As we plan for the future, we are counting on a renewed enthusiasm in study abroad as well as the continuation of some virtual programming to continue our trajectory of engaging with a more diverse and global audience.