Paris, Institut d'Etudes Politiques
At 20, Géraldine is the youngest of Smith College's American studies international students, but the research she has done, as well as her understanding and appreciation of Smith's mission as a foreigner, and interests in issues that are not in France's mainstream reveal her maturity. Her interests in international relations reflect her academic background: she is a student at Institut d'Etudes Politiques, also known as Sciences Po in Paris, one of France's most prestigious universities, which is known for its studies in political science. She decided to study at Smith because of its strong reputation for gender studies as well as that of the Sophia Smith Archives. Her academic interests are indeed primarily in women's studies, as well as in international relations and security.
Géraldine's interests in international relations evolved from growing up reading French newspapers. She is interested in the European Union, as well as the Afghanistan war, and her research at Sciences Po combined the two to investigate the effects of the United Nation's "Blue Helmets", or peace building soldiers in nation-building efforts, particularly on women. Nation building tends to mean building schools, or other infrastructure and facilities to better living conditions in developing nations. In Afghanistan, the solutions to ending the war are a mix of nation-building and military force. Some believe that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan. Géraldine agrees with that belief, but her research findings on nation building are very troubling.
Among the usually extraordinary improvements in women's social status through educational and vocational empowerment, Géraldine learned of feminists' raised claims of horrifying reports of the Blue Helmets. Among the appalling claims were reports that the Blue Helmets raped Afghani women, elicited prostitutes, and ultimately spread AIDS. Despite the fact that these are soldiers for the United Nations, Géraldine says that the Blue Helmets have the same training other soldiers receive, which emphasizes masculinity and fosters homophobia. This segment of my interview with Géraldine put into perspective a conversation I once had with a Pakistani acquaintance. She said that a great fear Pakistanis have is of American military invasion. She could have meant for any number of reasons, but after learning about the UN's Blue Helmets, I felt like I could better understand now that I learned of some real consequences.
It takes special students to come to Smith. I usually believe that their openness and understanding of how much Smith offers make them different from most girls. Géraldine is no exception—in fact she might just be one of those exceptional few because even though Géraldine was very well informed about Smith's history and reputation among the elite Seven Sister Schools, France does not have women's colleges. Clearly, she was still independent-minded enough to decide to study here. Though the American academic system is quite different, Géraldine has really liked her experience at Smith so far. Whereas in France there are increasingly more institutions that follow the American college system, institutions have more students. Meanwhile, classes are primarily in lecture format, and professors are not as accessible. Along with how supportive and nice students and professors are, Géraldine told me she has felt the strong house community bond.
Since Géraldine's first language is not English, we also talked about her background in English and Japanese, as well as the different types of French in her home country. Like most students in France, Géraldine started learning English in middle school, and then took German in high school. She also learned Japanese at a very strong institution called Centre National d'Enseignement à Distance, or CNED. I was curious about different French accents, because Géraldine has one of the lighter ones I have heard. In Paris, people do not have a strong accent, yet in the East, there might not necessarily be a German accent, but there is a "German way of saying things." That part of France, Géraldine says, feels like a completely different country. In the West, such as around Brittany, there is a Gaelic influence. In the South, there is an Italian influence. The people are very expressive, and instead of kissing each other once on both cheeks, kiss on the cheeks three times. Our discussion of different accents and French subcultures led us to my questions about the stereotypes of the French's perceptions of Americans, and vice versa.
I have heard scornful American views of France because people believe the US historically have had to "bail" France out of wars, and in return, the former believes the latter less cultured. When I told her some American acquaintances' accounts of French people who would not speak to them in French, and asked Géraldine whether she thinks France and the US have a slightly hostile relationship, she said no. If there are any tensions, it is because America does not want to be the only country at war in the Middle East and has looked to France with no avail. In response to acquaintances' experiences with French people during their travels, she said she would find it surprising if waiters refused to speak to Americans in French. On the other hand, much of the popular music in the US is extremely popular in France and around Europe, like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Beyonce. In addition, Woody Allen films are very popular as well. An example of what France does look down upon though, are the affairs of Hollywood.
Géraldine's account of France is only one out of the whole population, but her fairly extensive travels make me inclined to believe that I have gained a slight but authentic glimpse into parts of French culture. Finally, I asked her where her favorite place in France was. Her reply? "You're never done with Paris."
By Kim Fong '14, Global STRIDE Fellow
As part of the Global STRIDE fellowship, the fellows interviewed and profiled international students in the college's graduate program in American Studies, to help familiarize them with people who have made cultural transitions.