In 1962, along with 10 other Washington University students, I boarded an aging student ship in New York bound for Strasbourg, France, to participate in the university’s first Junior Year Abroad in France. In 1984, as a WUSTL lecturer of French and director of the Internship in European Business Program, I boarded a jetliner to Paris with 12 other Washington University students, a trip I was to repeat for 23 years. That initial transatlantic crossing in 1962 launched me on a year of discovery and on a career that now in 2013 has given me a 50-year perspective on study abroad.
In France, those of us in that inaugural study-abroad program were mostly on our own. The protective role played by universities now barely existed then. We had no one to go to with minor problems, and no Washington University representative came to Strasbourg after the first week. Certainly no study-abroad program these days would allow its students so much independence and so little supervision. In retrospect, though, I greatly appreciate the freedom we enjoyed, for it helped us build our self-confidence and maturity.
In the early 1960s, too, the only study-abroad option involved spending an entire academic year away, which made for slow and sometimes sporadic contact with home. Long-distance telephone calls were expensive: $12 per minute within the United States and prohibitively expensive from France to the U.S. My only contact with family and friends for 10 months was handwritten cards and letters, but in spite of an intense period of homesickness, I never considered returning home. Today, WUSTL students studying abroad often communicate daily with family and friends via email, cell phones, Skype and so on. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that my lack of contact with home forced me to integrate more readily into French culture and to find friends, and even romance.
Unlike most students in recent times, those of us in early study-abroad programs were woefully ignorant of the wider world. Few American families took vacations in Europe and even fewer took their children on foreign trips. None of our group had traveled outside of the United States, and I had barely traveled outside of Missouri, so the ease of travel from one European country to the next was truly exciting for me. By contrast, many of my recent French students either are non-American or have already visited foreign and non-Anglophone countries.
Washington University in 1962 was rather conservative and locally focused. I knew little of European history, perhaps destined to live out my life wearing blinders. In France, however, those blinders came off, whether I liked it or not. I got a crash course about World War II and about the French–German relationship. Since the Franco-Algerian War ended in 1962 with the Evian Accords, I quickly became aware of a conflict still present in contemporary European and French consciousness. And thanks to that year, I was exposed early on to what was to become a significant pattern of migration: African people moving northward in search of a better life. Above all, the year taught me that there are other ways of speaking, other ways of thinking and other eating habits, as well as a multiplicity of important topics of discussion and ways of functioning in society. All of us on that trip simply became much less provincial and ethnocentric.
There is a saying that one cannot expect a fish to be able to describe water because water is all it knows. Clearly my year as a study-abroad student in France expanded all my horizons: personal, social, intellectual and political. And it left me with a fervent wish that all young Americans could be afforded a similar experience for at least several months, preferably in a non-Anglophone country, the result of which may certainly be a more enlightened United States.
Lynne Breakstone, PhD, AB ’64, MA ’67, is senior lecturer in French and author of Crossing Cultures: in English et en français.