Undergrads discover joie de vivre in new Scholars in France program


A panoramic view of Paris in the morning from the top of the 59-story Tour Montparnasse. Lunch along Le Boulevard Montparnasse, where Picasso and Matisse might have enjoyed cognac in the cafes. An afternoon tour of Le Centre Georges Pompidou, an "inside-out" building housing a movie theater, a library and the Musée National d'Art Moderne. Later, a dinner of traditional French cuisine on Ile St. Louis.

For seven MIT undergraduates, this was a sample agenda during their 17-day IAP exploration of Paris through the new January Scholars in France program.

"My idea was quite simple," said program leader Edward Baron Turk, professor of French studies and film. "Choose a small group of our most motivated students of French and give them an opportunity to engage with French culture and life in an intensive, authentic and undistracted manner."

Their adventures, from the intellectual to the culinary, are chronicled in a web site created by the students at http://web.mit.edu/jsf.

Unlike other MIT programs in foreign countries where students focus on science, engineering or business curricula, this one--funded by an MIT alumnus and his wife who wish to remain anonymous--is centered on the liberal arts. The all-expenses-paid program allowed the students, who were chosen through a competitive application process, to totally immerse themselves in French language and Parisian culture through visits to museums, monuments, theater, operas and restaurants.

The students stayed in the Grand Hôtel Jeanne d'Arc in the Marais quarter. Their itinerary, created by Turk, included visits to Versailles and Malmaison, tours of the Pantheon and the Rodin Museum, and evenings at the theater and opera.

Also leading the students was Sophie de la Rivière of Université de Paris X, who presented a collegiate perspective of French artwork and architecture and introduced the students to the bustling nightlife of Paris.

"What I enjoyed most, what affected me the most on this trip, were the museums," writes Caglar Girit (a senior in physics and mathematics) in the web site. "I laughed, I stumbled, I stood perplexed in front of the works. And in general, I found inspiration. I discovered that I, too, had ideas--that creative works of my own had lain dormant ... Now I have a notebook with sketches, and the determination to actually realize instead of just conceptualize the works."

Cristian Cadar, a senior in computer science and mathematics minoring in French, appreciated not only the tourist attractions but also the chance to learn about French society and attitudes regarding friendship, family life, work, class structure, religion and other social phenomena. He wrote that his seven years of French study "can't equal the magic, the beauty and the intensity of these two weeks spent in the heart of France, in a city whose beauty and charm hopelessly seduced me."

The students also learned to eat and enjoy such delicacies as frogs' legs, escargots (snails) and ris de veau (sweetbreads, or cow brains).

"It's a good thing Professor Turk warned us to come hungry," writes computer science sophomore Josh Mandel of their meal at Auberge de Jarente, a cozy restaurant specializing in the cuisine of southwestern France. "This was my first experience with frogs' legs (and whatever anyone says, they do taste like chicken), and my first time eating cassoulet" (a casserole of white beans and meat served in an earthernware dish).

Turk called the January Scholars in France program a huge success. "It counteracts so many stereotypes of what MIT undergrad education is about," he said, adding that he knows of no other program like it.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 12, 2003.


Topics: Humanities, Literature, languages and writing, Global

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