Part I: International Education Week in the Faculty of Arts

Going Abroad with Dean Lesley Cormack

Donna McKinnon - 18 November 2019

November 18-22 is International Education Week, which is celebrated in over 100 countries around the globe. During this week, we will be highlighting stories from students who have gone abroad as part of their program in the Faculty of Arts.

All interviews conducted by Sherilyn Trompetter, Senior Officer International, Undergraduate Student Services, Faculty of Arts.

Up first, our interview with Lesley Cormack, Dean, Faculty of Arts.

Hi Dr. Cormack! Where did you go and what did you do?

I went to the Université de Pau in Southern France for one year, where I earned a Diplôme d'études en langue française.

And did you have any French experience before that?

I had two full years of French at the University of Calgary. I needed French for my honours degree in History at the University of Calgary and I had taken French all the way through school as well.

When did you go?

It was after I graduated. I went to Université de Pau, which is right in the Pyrenees halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse. I could see the mountains from where I was staying. It was a pretty provincial university, but it had an international program and I was there with a lot of international students.

I thought my French was not bad, until I landed in Charles de Gaulle airport and I thought, I don't know how to say anything! So that was the scariest moment. Luckily, there had been an exchange student from Pau at the University of Calgary, and he'd explained to me how things worked at the Université de Pau, which was super useful. I stumbled my way to the student residence and was able to get one night and then went to the international office where they helped me find an apartment. No online searching! This was 1979, no cell phones, no nothing.

Why did you apply for this program?

It felt like an opportunity for an incredible adventure, and an opportunity to learn French better. And as a Canadian I thought that that would be a valuable thing to do, and a way to get to Europe. I was there from October to March and then my two girlfriends joined me. And then we backpacked around Europe from April till August, and I applied for a master's degree while I was in Europe. When I came back in August, I went directly to graduate school. We all loved Europe and we wanted to go and see everything, and this felt safer than just stepping off into backpacking on my own. But it also gave me this credential. I was accepted at UBC and at the University of Toronto and I went to Toronto partly because it was a program I really wanted.

I always remember the graduate advisor at Toronto who wrote me a note after I'd applied saying how interesting it was that I was in Europe. And so clearly it was useful. Much more important was that when I got there, I needed three languages for my graduate programs, and I was able to do the French exam immediately, so that was really helpful.

What delighted you about your experience?

Being immersed in French culture was really quite wonderful. And I would say the choice of where I went was very serendipitous because I went to a place where no one spoke English, so you really needed to get by in French. But it was the South and so people spoke slower and they were much more tolerant of helping foreigners. It felt like just a perfect place to learn French. But you know, I bought a bicycle and I would cycle out into the countryside on the weekends. The international group of students were really great, and we used to have potluck suppers. One of the guys was Japanese and he was a chef. He wanted to learn French so he could go and study at Le Cordon Bleu School in Paris. He made some nice meals for us.

Dean Lesley Cormack on a study abroad in France for International Education Week

Lesley riding around Pau, France on bike

How would you say that experience influenced you?

It definitely made me a more international, like I was more of a global citizen. Not just being in France, but also interacting with this group of international students. Lots of the people were from Britain, Germany and Scandinavia. There were three Nigerians who were super interesting. I had four roommates. There was a German, a woman from Hong Kong who was South Asian. She and I palled around a lot because we were in the same class together. There was the Norwegian. In the flat, we were constantly translating. We mostly spoke French, but we would have piles of dictionaries! We had the big flat, so we had the parties!

Dean Lesley Cormack on a study abroad in France for International Education Week

Lesley Cormack (far right) with roommates in Pau, France.

What surprised you when you got back home?

Nothing really, because I had been to Britain a whole bunch of times as a child with my parents. And so it wasn't like I'd never seen anything European. But when I got back to Canada, I immediately moved to Toronto which is almost like a different country than Alberta!

The most interesting thing when I look back on it is that this happened between 1979-80 and there was a big group of Iranian students at the university, and the revolution happened during that time. And I can remember that there was an outdoor café where all the students would congregate because you could have your espresso and smoke, because everybody smoked. And the Iranian students were clearly trying to make a decision about what they should do. The Ayatollah Khomeini had been in France and had gone back to Iran when the Shah fell, and they were deciding whether to go home to be part of the revolution. And while I didn't really interact with them, I remember it very clearly because I was suddenly immersed in geopolitics. Would I have even have known what was happening if I hadn't been to France?

What advice would you have for an arts undergraduate student who is considering a study abroad option?

My advice would be take it! It can be frightening. I would say I was afraid, especially when I landed at the Charles de Gaulle airport, or when I got off the train in Pau. I didn't know how to buy food, and I thought, what have I done? But it's really worth it. There will be people who will help you and you'll be so proud of yourself for just surviving. Going to the Université de Pau for a year allowed me to go to graduate school, because I was able to leave home and survive - and thrive. And then the second piece of advice I'd give is to be present; go to the place that you are and be in that place. Don't think of it just as a jumping off point to other places. You gain the most by authentically living in that place, buying groceries, going to the local shops, going to the movies even if it's in a language you don't particularly understand. This is a time you will never have again!

Check out our amazing Study Abroad programs here!