The COVID-19 pandemic has put a dent in international exchange programs, but some are still running. Elisa Fontaine, a junior from France, managed to study in America this spring despite the restrictions.
The inspiration to travel abroad came from her mom, Fontaine said.
“My mom went to Cambridge for a year in her third year of studies. It’s an experience that stayed with her and she talks about it a lot, and she really got a lot out of it. And so I wanted to do it too,” Fontaine explained.
Fontaine thought about studying in England, too, but decided against it after Brexit. That’s when she heard about an opportunity to go to America.
“The program is called ISEP (international student exchange program), and it gives you a choice of a lot of universities in America,” she said.
In France, Fontaine studies law at the University of Lille, so she wanted to find a university that would mesh well with her previous academic credits. At first she planned to go to Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey; Saint Vincent was her second choice. But she has found ways to take the courses she needs.
“I tried to take classes that would be like the ones I had in France. I didn't find them but I still found some law classes. I have two constitutional law classes,” Fontaine said. “I have a class with Dr. Foss that I really enjoy. All of my teachers are so interesting and they tried to help me get into the groove and everything. I don't really have the background and culture that you need to understand everything, so it was a bit hard for me at first and that’s okay.”
Her French university experience was very different, though.
“My home university is much bigger than Saint Vincent, and so we are usually in auditoriums, like 300 students listening to one teacher all taking notes. The teachers don't really want to have an exchange with the students, they just take the notes, read them out, and you listen and you take notes. Here we have such a closer connection with the teacher, and it’s not a lecture, it's more like a discussion,” Fontaine explained.
In other ways, though, her home region was not so different from living in a small town outside Pittsburgh. Fontaine doesn’t actually live in the city of Lille—she hails from a town called Hem, in the suburbs, with about 20,000 inhabitants.
“It’s a bit rural, since we have fields, a lake and the countryside just out of town. But we also live 15 minutes away from Lille, with all the infrastructure of a big city,” Fontaine said.
In her free time in France, Fontaine loves theatre and dance.
“My true passion is theater,” she said. “I’m in a group, we have a professional director. Every year we do a different play. Two years ago was a play about the war in Lebanon; it was really powerful. Last year was a Shakespeare play translated into French.”
She also enjoys Latin dancing and salsa. Fontaine hoped to join the Swing Dance Club at SVC, but that proved impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions. Now, she says, she only goes to the gym, but that isn’t so bad because her home university doesn’t have a free, public gym like Saint Vincent.
Fontaine has a sister in France, two years younger than she is.
“We’re really close and she’s studying to go into med school,” Fontaine said.
But she also misses her cat.
“I have a black cat called Indie, like Indiana Jones because he’s a little adventurer. And, yeah, I miss him. I think he’s 8 now.”
Still, Fontaine has felt welcomed in America.
“I didn’t think people would be so welcoming. I feel like people are so much nicer than in France. Everyone smiles and everyone would just talk to me so nicely and I feel like in such a small amount of time I really fit in,” she said.
Getting used to American life has required adjustment, though. Mealtimes in France are very different.
“You eat dinner at 5:30 or 6 like in France, that’s [like] nursing homes. We eat dinner at 8, so that was weird.”
She was also surprised by America’s multicultural environment.
“Everyone talks about their Italian grandpa, their Irish grandma, and it’s really important to them because it’s their roots. And it’s not the same in Europe because we don't really have roots. My country’s been the same for like 400 years, in the same place,” she said.
Saint Vincent is only one small college in a huge country, of course. Before she returns to France, she hopes to visit Niagara Falls, Washington, D.C., and maybe even a Florida beach—if the pandemic allows! But she has beat the odds so far, and hopes to do it again.