Study Abroad in Paris Inspired My Senior Thesis and Plans for a Ph.D.
By Daniel Lam
Daniel Lam ('17) is majoring in French studies and Biology. In this interview with the Global Education Office, Daniel tells why he decided to study abroad in Paris for a full year—two semesters plus a summer.
Why did you decide to do Duke in France/EDUCO?
As a travel enthusiast, during my sophomore fall, I decided that I did not want to stay in Durham for too long and that I wanted to go abroad for a year. Originally I planned to study in Paris for the spring semester and then in Copenhagen for the fall semester. Paris was an obvious choice as I really like French language and culture. Moreover, my French courses at Duke have all been really enriching and inspiring, especially a French politics course with Professor Christelle Gonthier and a cinema course with Professor Anne-Gäelle Saliot. As such, I wanted to explore what I have learnt in the country itself. After a semester there, I felt really satisfied with the experience and wanted to practice my French even further; that was why I stayed for the whole year in the City of Light.
How did your skills or knowledge change after doing this program?
Well, the changes have been immense. My French skills went from barely conversational to a level where I felt really comfortable talking to other Francophones. The homestay experience was definitely an important factor contributing to such a drastic change. Living with French families not only helped me practice my speaking and listening skills but also allowed me to pick up cultural knowledge that is quintessential in conversations à la française. For example, the French families I’ve been with usually love to talk about politics and arts at their dinner table so I have learnt a lot of new words as well as world knowledge through those casual conversations alone.
Studying at French universities also enriched both my language skills and knowledge of French culture incredibly. Very interested in linguistics, I took courses in French linguistics that have given me a more analytical view of the language, which I really appreciate. Also, making new friends with whom I was forced to converse in French was definitely nice too! The friends I have met are really nice and helpful.
Describe how your ideas and perceptions changed as a result of doing this program.
I did my study abroad there during a rough year of French history, flanked by two violent attacks in the capital. I was even there during the weekend of the attack in Bataclan. It was indeed a traumatic experience, but through the experience I witnessed so many things that I did not normally see during the halcyon days. People hugged strangers on the street to express their solidarity. The Saturday after, I walked with my host parents for six hours along the quiet streets of Paris where I saw the resilience of the city and its people.
I still remember my host dad reminding me that during hard times like this, though some people want to make religion or immigration the culprit, it is important to consider rights from wrongs and to stand together instead of to blame and divide. Although I have learned this lesson many times, it was that particular context and my amazing host family that inculcated it in me even further.
How did/will this program affect your career interests or next steps after graduation?
A year in France taking French linguistics courses and traveling to different parts of the country and the continent reaffirmed my passion for world languages and cultures, so that I decided that I want to become a linguist to further explore the wonders of languages around the world. Some of the courses I took in Parisian universities were so cool, especially a course on the history of French language, where I actually learned Old and Medieval French. Thus, I am now really interested in French and Francophone linguistics.
I went to Haiti over the summer and learned some Haitian Creole there. My senior thesis is on a comparative complexity analysis between Haitian Creole, French and some other languages. I will go on to do a PhD program in Linguistics after graduation and I am certain that my year in France is definitely a major factor contributing to my acceptances to some competitive programs. And of course, I will continue my research on French and Haitian Creole.
What advice do you have for other students considering this program?
I’d say that firstly, do not fear the homestay experience. It is probably my favorite part of the program. You get to enjoy living in a family with a culture totally different from yours. Yes, there will be challenges at first but those challenges only help you to bond with your family further and to understand their culture better. Such an experience will help you be more comfortable integrating into foreign cultures and comprehending why people do the things they do, a skill set that I feel is really important in our troubled world nowadays.
Also, consider staying for a second semester, especially if you are considering a major in French studies or a humanities discipline. First semester, you are only a visitor dabbling in the language and the culture and getting excited visiting all the tourist attractions. It is the second semester when you really feel like you are a part of the society itself and you feel more comfortable with your language skills too; and that is definitely an invaluable part of cultural exchange. And you get to eat delicious French cheeses and drink inexpensive French wine for a whole year; who doesn’t like that!