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Smith Celebrates Anniversary in Paris

By Schuyler Clemente '07

In fall 1925, 32 enthusiastic Smith students arrived in Paris as the first members of the Junior Year Abroad program. Led by then-president William Allan Neilson, who believed that a junior year abroad could enrich the traditional four-year college curriculum, these women lived in private homes and took classes at the University of Paris, much as students do today. Many were curious how the "experiment" of sending women to study in a foreign country would turn out. Today, while much of the program has changed, the undeniable value of a year spent in a foreign country remains. "The experiment is a distinct success," noted President Neilson in 1926. This statement still rings true.

This past September, approximately 90 students, alumni, administrators and professors gathered in Paris to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Junior Year Abroad program there. The three-day celebration included tours led by local alumnae, a reception for President Carol T. Christ and a lecture given at Reid Hall, Smith's JYA headquarters in Paris.

President William Allan Neilson, center, posed with the class of 1927 juniors in Paris using the gates before the Chateau of Robecourt in Grécourt, France, as a backdrop. A reproduction of these gates had been cast in France and erected at the entrance to Smith College in 1924 in recognition of the service of the Smith College Relief Unit in France from 1917 to 1920. Photograph by Wide World Photos, courtesy of Smith College Archives.

Florence Fabricant '58, a food critic for The New York Times and recent recipient of L'Ordre du Mérite, a prestigious award from the French government, spoke at the opening reception and chatted with some students about their experiences. "The program isn't that different today than it was when I was there," she commented.

Fabricant credited her year abroad almost 50 years ago with giving her the tools to advance in the culinary world. "It made me extremely comfortable in the field," she explains. "I'd always been interested in food, and being in Paris didn't hurt that."

Fabricant offers some advice to the students who are currently abroad in Paris. "If they have an opportunity to do anything, do it.… I think it's a wonderful experience. This was an opportunity not only to experience living there but to live with a family, learn the language and soak up the culture."

This year 24 students are enrolled in the Paris program, under the supervision of Denise Rochat, professor of French studies. According to Adrian Beaulieu, associate dean of international study, the Paris program is extremely popular. "It's typically been first or second in overall highest enrollment," he says.

Beaulieu adds, "The diversity of students going on the program has changed," with students from more majors and academic interests than ever before incorporating the abroad program into their course of study.

However, much has remained the same for Smith students in Paris over the past 80 years. The 1925–26 group had a two-month orientation in Grenoble, and this year's students had a one-month orientation in Aix-en-Provence. Students still study at the Université Paris Sorbonne (although there are now many other schools open to them as well), and they still live in private residences.

Current students share another unusual bond with many of their predecessors: being in a foreign country while the United States is at war. The Paris program had to close in 1939 because of World War II, and it did not reopen until 1946.

Fabricant herself experienced a powerful political demonstration during her 1956–57 year in Paris. "America was not the most popular place because of the Suez Crisis," she says. The United States opposed Britain and France for trying to forcefully take over the Suez Canal. One day, one of her professors told her to go see what was happening at the Arc de Triomphe, and what she saw has remained with her to this day: a march with several hundred thousand people proceeding up the Champs Élysées, led by the president of the republic, and they were all singing the French national anthem.

"It was incredibly moving to see," recalls Fabricant. "It was amazing." In fact, Fabricant cited this event as the most outstanding experience of her year abroad. "It's one of those things. It's kind of unforgettable," she says.

Being an American abroad during the Iraq War creates new challenges, according to Sarah Martin '06, who is currently studying in Paris. "The war in Iraq is very controversial here and I am really surprised to have so many French people ask my views and accept them," she says. "There is a misunderstanding in the U.S. that all French people hate the U.S. for their choice, and that all Americans hate the French for their opinions."

Kait O'Neal '06 sums up her own Paris experience thus far: "This year abroad will help us all in appreciating another culture, as well as our own. Since being in France, I've learned to truly appreciate both of them. There are certain things that I do miss about home, but then I realize that being here is an experience of a lifetime. Every single day I look around me, especially when I walk out of my apartment building and look up at the Eiffel Tower, and have to tell myself I am living reality, that this is not a dream."

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