Students gain deeper understanding of French culture from virtual study abroad program

Students gain deeper understanding of French culture from virtual study abroad program

P rior to the COVID-19 pandemic, plans were laid out for 23 Georgia College students to study abroad in Paris, France, over the summer. Initially, these students were to explore the city’s sites, which included a dinner cruise on the River Seine and the Eiffel Tower lit up. They would’ve visited delectable eateries and museums, toured migrant neighborhoods, seen two of the most beautiful castles in the Loire and much more.

But, Dr. Sunita Manian, chair of the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Liberal Studies, and Dr. James Winchester, professor of philosophy, had to quickly shift gears this summer and find a way to provide a study abroad experience for students without actually going abroad.

“One of the best things we did was assign French films for our students to watch,” said Winchester. “These films and the French texts we read (Camus, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Césaire) gave the students a good look at how the French think and, in particular, how the French think about what makes a good life.” 

Garrett Harrison displays the books he read during the virtual study abroad program.
Garrett Harrison displays the books he read during the virtual study abroad program.

Professor Manian had collaborated with migrant and refugee organizations and arranged exciting interactions between the students and individuals in Paris. Instead, for the virtual study abroad students viewed French films like “Les Misérables.” This recent film is not the musical, but rather it portrays the resilience and brilliance of immigrants and their children in the Paris suburbs despite challenges they faced, including police harassment.

Manian and Winchester also collaborated with organizations and organized exciting interactions between the students and local individuals, like migrants and refugees.

“The students really seemed to like the films and readings we assigned,” said Winchester. “They often wrote much more than they needed to write. For example, they read a wonderful account of the lives and philosophies of the French existentialists. It brought home not only what the philosophers wrote, but also how they lived.”

The students also read “The Dud Avocado,” which tells the story of a young American woman who goes to Paris and has a good time.

“It is funny and full of adventure and gives the students a picture of how exciting Paris can be,” he said.

“While we were unable to be in France this summer, the readings—and films that complemented the readings—gave students wonderful insight into gender and culture as it pertains to France,” said Manian, who is also a professor of political economy and women’s and gender studies. “I actually found myself eagerly waiting for students to turn in their assignment, so I could read what they thought.”

Meanwhile, the study abroad to Paris is being rescheduled for 2021. If the students can’t go next year, Manian and Winchester will organize more lectures by people in Paris with whom the students would not be able to interact in person, such as Gilles Bonazzi at the Banque de France. They will also add more films to the courses.

“We are constantly thinking about how to make online courses better and have learned a great deal from doing it this summer,” said Winchester. “We were very impressed with the students’ writing and their engagement with the materials we assigned. We assign great textbooks that students will enjoy and provide them with a vision of how the French see the world. The students also became stronger writers and readers by doing the writing that was assigned.” 

“I am hugely thankful to Drs. Manian and Winchester for continuing to offer their classes. I very quickly fell into a routine that kept my curiosity piqued and my spirits up. I would recommend for all students to consider doing an online study abroad program if in-person study abroad programs are unavailable.”
– Savannah Todd

Georgia College senior Garrett Harrison, who is double majoring in philosophy and biology, feels the virtual study abroad program challenged him in many ways. It gave him new perspectives on life and the struggles of others.

“The books we read dealt with perspectives entirely new to me in culture, gender, sexuality and timeframe. I had to be open to grasping and engaging these perspectives, even when my initial inclination was to recoil from some of them. I was able to overcome this challenge by putting aside my own beliefs and remaining open-minded,” he said.

The virtual program also provided Harrison with a skill he plans to use in the workplace.

“Usually I’m guilty of procrastination. But the independent pacing of my online study abroad experience encouraged me to develop better time-management habits when it comes to school work,” he said. “This level of personal accountability will help me tremendously in any field.”

Junior Savannah Todd is also a double major in liberal studies with a European concentration and World Cultures and Languages with a Spanish concentration. She feels the virtual study abroad program taught her how to work efficiently, as well. 

Savannah Todd participates in her virtual study abroad program.
Savannah Todd participates in her virtual study abroad program.

“I was taking 12 credits of study at the time, so I was getting a little practice for juggling multiple deadlines for assignments that required me to digest source material quickly, engage with the sources critically and express my thoughts clearly,” she said. “I’m a research intern, so every day I utilized the same research process I used to be successful in the online study abroad program.”

Todd, who prefers in-person classes but feels her professors made the study abroad experience interesting by simulating what it would be like in a classroom.

“I think all my professors did a great job of simulating an in-class experience,” Todd said. “We still had opportunities to discuss our ideas with classmates and teachers. Drs. Winchester and Manian gave great feedback and participated in the online discussions, often giving individualized feedback and weighing in on threads.”

With the help of Manian, Todd helped create and took “The Global Influences on Monet’s Art” class. She deemed it an “empowering experience.”

“It was a joy to participate in,” said Todd. “Monet has been my favorite painter since I was 12 years old. The online French Study Abroad program gave me an excellent opportunity to research the relationship between Monet’s works and Japonisme.”

“I started with very little direction, but now have a clear understanding of how the historical events in Japan affected not just Monet’s work or the Impressionism movement, but also can contribute to discussions about the effects of Imperialism.”

Initially, Todd thought of the online France Study Abroad as a challenge, considering she prefers to share ideas face-to-face with classmates. However, she focused on being thankful for her professors, who worked diligently to engage meaningful discussions and broaden students’ horizons despite the pandemic.

“I am hugely thankful to Drs. Manian and Winchester for continuing to offer their classes,” said Todd. “I very quickly fell into a routine that kept my curiosity piqued and my spirits up. I would recommend for all students to consider doing an online study abroad program if in-person study abroad programs are unavailable.”

Despite the challenges posed in 2020, Drs. Manian and Winchester were not alone in their creative efforts. In total, eight Georgia College study abroad programs moved to virtual delivery, helping nearly 100 students experience the cross-cultural components of a study abroad program without leaving home. While not ideal, Georgia College faculty really rose to the occasion to ensure students stayed on track for degree completion and shared their passion for international education.