Paris Center Stories: Student Voices

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Reid Hall Annual Report 2018-19.


V.L. Hendrickson
May 18, 2020

A semester studying in France can give students a new perspective. But a semester — or even a summer — at Reid Hall can change their lives.

Take Margaret Vlietstra, who spent the Spring 2019 semester there. Vlietstra, currently a senior at Barnard College with a double major in French and Theater, said she thinks about her time in Paris every day. And her studies at Reid Hall gave her the confidence to return to France after graduation.

“I feel like I gained the fluency I was hoping to,” she said. “But I also feel like I planted roots there for a little bit. Going there, I wanted to test whether it would be possible for me to live abroad in the future. I became incredibly independent and affirmed that I really could do that.”

Vlietstra spent part of her time at Reid Hall translating a French play into English as her directed research project. That work “solidified” her plans to apply to graduate school for translation. She intends to apply for programs in Europe, but first hopes to return to France as part of the Teaching Assistant Program organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the U.S., she said.

Eva Rose Tesfaye also did a theater-related research project. The Columbia senior, who is an English major with a concentration in French and Francophone studies, wrote a play “retelling the myth of Narcissus.”

In Tesfaye’s version of the Greek myth, Narcissus is a dark-skinned black woman from the Caribbean, while Echo’s character is more of a male aggressor, she explained. She looked to traditions of the Caribbean region, as well as Voodoo mythology, to help reinterpret the classic story. She wrote the play, plus a 15-page explainer, entirely in French.

Over the course of her year at Reid Hall, Tesfaye was also able to see “Jaz,” by one of her favorite playwrights, Koffi Kwahulé, a native of Côte d'Ivoire. She and a classmate not only saw the performance, but were able meet him after the show.

That’s one of the many ways the courses at Reid Hall — including core classes like Music Humanities and Art Humanities, as well as others like Black Paris, a study of black artists in the city — use the city as an integral part of their syllabi. Paris becomes a classroom for students as they see shows, tour museums and attend concerts.

“And it wasn’t just Paris; it was all of France,” said Vlietstra, adding that her cinema class trip to the Cannes Film Festival was “something I’ll probably never get another chance to do.”

Students at the Cannes Film Festival

Jordan Allyn, a Barnard senior who is an American Studies major, also noted the trip to Cannes was a high point of her semester at Reid Hall. The class, which was limited to eight students, spent a week in the French Rivera town seeing premieres and attending movie parties, even getting to walk the red carpet.

Allyn said she was also at the Musée d’Orsay on a regular basis, working to memorize 100 paintings for an art history class at Sorbonne Université. Rigorous academics were at the center of Allyn’s experience, whether it was in-class translations or learning the very specific structure of French research papers.

The same was true for Alan Burnett Valverde, a Columbia College senior and an English major. His directed research project concentrated on structuralism in French popular culture. Although he wrote his project in English, he defended it in French.

“I found that one of the most valuable parts of the experience. It gave me a taste of what it will be like to defend a dissertation,” said Burnett Valverde, who is currently applying for Ph.D. programs in English, plus a few in Comparative Literature.

In addition, he finds the translation skills he honed at Reid Hall invaluable. Part of his study focusses on French philosophers and theorists, who are often quoted in the texts he’s exploring.

“Often if I’m reading in Spanish or English, there’s no translation for the French,” he said. “But I don’t need it.”

Students from the Art and Music Humanities Summer in Paris Program (UGE l Paris, 2019) touring the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam

While based in Paris, students also got an opportunity to travel, visiting nearby countries like Germany, Portugal and the U.K. Many of them had international friends that made them welcome in their homes, letting them see the countries more like locals.

“That was hugely formative. I wasn’t just a tourist, but I got to live with families and experience the cities more like they do,” Allyn explained.

She came away with lifelong friendships, she added, with both Reid Hall students and others she met through the Sorbonne and other study programs. For her, Reid Hall was a perfect home base from which to explore Paris, France and all of Europe.

“I appreciated the juxtaposition of Reid Hall, which was comfortable and safe, with this new city and all it had to offer,” she said.