Through the Looking Glass: Going to France to see Hanover

by Charlie Blatt | 2/9/18 2:55am

2218specialissue_courtesyeliburakian
Source: Courtesy of Charlie Blatt

This column was featured in the 2018 Winter Carnival Issue.

During my sophomore spring, I spent 10 weeks alongside 15 other Dartmouth students on the Paris Foreign Study Program. We were immersed in language and culture through our homestays and classes. Prior to leaving for the program, I could not have been more excited, imagining stereotypical visions of strolling down the Champs Élysées with a croissant in hand.

Looking back on my experiences in France almost two years later, my FSP marks a clear moment of transition in my Dartmouth experience. This moment is best summarized through a quote by the late-19th-century British writer G. K. Chesterton that professor Paul Christesen shared in the first class of Classics 1, “Antiquity Today: An Introduction to Classical Studies.” Chesterton noted, “Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both; but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking [London]. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

Christesen’s point about Chesterton was that it is helpful to study ancient Greece and Rome to better understand contemporary society, but I thought that the quotation struck closer to home. My experience of Dartmouth College and how I have attempted to innovate over my four years at the College on the Hill are inextricably linked to my time spent seeing France through American eyes.

I was woefully unprepared for the reality of spending 10 weeks separated from my loved ones by an ocean. Though there were many delicious croissants to be had in France, I consumed far more sitting alone while doing class readings than while strolling down the Champs Élysées. I loved sitting in Place des Vosges and people-watching at the Musée Rodin, but I was wholly estranged from the familiar and found myself alone with my thoughts for 10 weeks.

I am naturally quite terrible at French, but I delighted in learning a second language. Yet love of acquiring a new skill did not translate in Paris, neither literally nor figuratively. It is hard to communicate, “All of my friends are in Hanover,” “I am struggling with unfamiliar emotions” and “I am not fulfilled by my classes,” while trying to bond with my host family and improve my French. I began to collapse inward, my usual extroverted personality disappearing. I went back to my homestay apartment and sat by myself each day after class, further isolating myself from the others on my FSP whom I perceived as having an amazing time.

However, during this period of intense introspection, I began to do exactly what Chesterton suggested. I started to see America and my role as a government major in a new light. Each morning as I rode the metro to school, I would listen to the American news, immersed in the amazing diversity of the Parisian commute while hearing about the 2016 American election, criminal justice reform and the occasional human interest story about an escaped zoo animal. I began wandering the many winding streets of Paris listening to “This American Life,” hearing Ira Glass’ commentary about my own country contrasted with the sights, sounds and smells of France. When I mentioned to anyone that “J’étudie la science politique,” the first question I would get in response was, “What do you think of President Donald Trump?” In discussing American politics with those I met in France, I began to think deeply about my country’s values and how I can contribute to what it means to be an American interested in government and foreign policy.

What I took away from my FSP was not deepened knowledge of France (though I can tell you a great deal about Baron Haussmann’s architecture and Charles Baudelaire’s poems), nor improved French language skills (though I am a far better French speaker now than before I left for Paris). Instead, I left France with a sense of purpose surrounding my passion for politics. Upon returning to Hanover for my sophomore summer, I threw myself head-first into my studies in the government department. I devoured the reading for professor Jeffrey Friedman’s course Government 85.29, “Lessons From America’s Foreign Wars” and started doing research on a term paper that would ultimately become a published journal article. I began preparing the Dartmouth College Democrats to hit the ground running for fall 2016 campaign work. Most importantly, I reconnected with other government majors who were as excited as I was to discuss issues ranging from national security to Hillary Clinton’s portrayal in the media.

Campaign work and my government classes had always been among my top priorities, but by going to France, taking a step back and “set[ting] foot on one’s own country as a foreign land,” my view of myself shifted, a form of personal innovation. Instead of studying government research, I wanted to do it. Instead of learning about how campaigns worked, I wanted to take a leadership role in one.

My experience of an FSP serving as a turning point for personal innovation at Dartmouth is not unique. I recently chatted with my freshman roommate and friend Anissa Gladney ’18 about her experience on the Linguistics FSP in New Zealand during her junior winter.

Anissa arrived at Dartmouth intending to be a pre-med neuroscience major and linguistics minor. But as she continued her pre-med studies, she found herself unfulfilled and worried that she was spending her time pursuing a career that she would not ultimately enjoy.

“Before I went [to New Zealand] I decided that I was going to give myself this time for the first time in all of Dartmouth that I hadn’t taken a pre-med class to only work on linguistics and see what happens … the term was good, and when we got to Tonga and did field research at the end of the term I thought that I would be doing a disservice to myself if I never got to do [that] again,” she said.

Upon return from her FSP, Anissa changed her major to linguistics and is writing a thesis on the intonation and speech patterns of black students in creative contexts. She plans on eventually pursuing a Ph.D. and conducting further linguistics research.

“I decided that I didn’t want my life to be a means to an end, the end being that maybe when I’m 34 and I’m finally a neurosurgeon I’ll like my job, as opposed to liking what I’m doing now,” she said.

Anissa’s FSP provided her with a similar introspective opportunity to arrive back in Hanover with a new perspective, goals and determination.

It seems striking that a set of freshman roommates who spent three terms together in a cramped double on the third floor of French Hall could both look back at their Dartmouth experiences and point to their FSPs as a turning point in how they viewed themselves, their passions and what they wanted to do with their lives. Yet because of her FSP, Anissa had the courage to change her intended career, a complete personal innovation, while I left my FSP full of gratitude for my loved ones and filled with a renewed sense of purpose.

It may not seem like I “innovated.” I went right back to my studies in government, which I had loved before I spent a term in Paris. Yet going abroad allowed me to gain clarity on how I wanted to spend the remainder of my Dartmouth experience, focus on the things most important to me and create deeper bonds with my friends.

To spark this innovation and to see the big green forest from the trees, I had to go to France in order to see Hanover.