Students arrive in St. Brieuc after a very long day of travel: the plane ride to Paris is followed by a six-hour bus ride. Needless to say, nerves and fatigue abound when the bus first arrives at the Centre Robien, where all of the families are waiting. Each student descends from the bus as his or her name is called into the welcoming arms of a new 'family member.' It is a moment that will stay forever in the minds of many students.
Following a few days of rest and settling in, the students will begin to attend classes in Conversation, Culture, Grammar, and Literature at L'Igloo. Students will also eat in the Igloo's cafeteria and use the gym for sport, as well as for rehearsing and performing the finale show, in which every student acts or sings. Many memories will be made, and students who attend the program in St. Brieuc will most certainly have fond memories of L'Igloo.
At first, I was worried about the amount of work that I would be expected to do for my classes. The Program's reputation as an intense learning program intimidated me. I soon learned that while it is an intense learning program, the classes are not stressful or burdensome like some classes in my high school were. I found that I really liked and respected all four of my teachers. I was interested in all of my classes, even grammar, because I was able to employ my new knowledge the very day that I learned it. Also, the classes are small, so I was able to get a lot of attention when I needed help on something. I loved to do the reading for literature, because it was so different from English literature or anything I had read in French. So fear not, while it may seem like classes every weekday during the summer wouldn't be fun, they really are. The group gets to be so close that I think we all enjoyed our classes.
The experience in St. Brieuc is greatly enriched by the age and culture of the town itself. Due to the close proximity of L'Igloo to the Centre Ville, or town center, students often visit the shops and bakeries in the old town center after classes end. A favorite place to visit is Le Mie Caline bakery, where students can grab a quick snack before exploring the town. During the big sales in July, les soldes, many also like to visit clothing stores. The Centre Ville is also home to the Cathedral of Saint Etienne, erected in the 13th century boasting fortified towers and magnificent stained glass windows, and Les Halles, where the ancient market was held. The market still convenes in the Centre Ville each Wednesday and Saturday morning, and many students attend, either with their families or a friend. Other events bring the town together as well. In such events as the Fête de la Musique, or music festival, stages are built all over town with different music and the whole town is jubilant. The town also provides free entertainment in the marketplace on Thursdays and Fridays, which many students attend with their families. St. Brieuc is proud of its heritage, and provides a great atmosphere for IUHPFL students.
On weekends or holidays, students spend time with their host families. Some host families take their students to other cities and towns while others choose to stay closer to home. In any case, the student truly does become part of the family. I personally had a very strong bond with my family. I still communicate with them on a regular basis, once or more a month. My family introduced me to the traditional Breton culture and exhibited pride in their unique heritage. I found their connection to the traditional culture of the area very interesting. Students are often introduced to extended family or friends, and host families are truly interested in providing the best experience that they can to the students. For example, I was introduced to friends and neighbors, several cousins, and even several of my host mother’s social groups. Families often make trips to the nearby beaches, attend festivals and other events in town, or simply take a hike and enjoy the beauty of the region. Most students form a lasting bond with their families, communicating once or twice a year after they leave, but for some communication may be even more frequent.
Living with a family allows the student to experience daily life in France and to understand the culture at a deeper level. The family experience was central to my success in the Program. My family was truly interested in the work that I was doing, and they were excited that I showed enthusiasm for learning about their lifestyle and culture. They taught me so much, whether it was correcting my language, preparing traditional French or Breton dishes for mealtimes, taking me to Fest-Noz, or pointing out a unique aspect of their city, and they were very helpful when I asked for assistance. The best advice I can give students is to really try to become a part of family life. It is important to immerse yourself not only in the language, but the culture and your family as well. This may mean doing chores and picking up after yourself, but some of my best conversations with my family took place over a sink full of dishes. All aspects of family life are valuable learning tools, and I feel that I was able to be included in the family to the extent that I was because I chose to be. The families want to help students learn and they are very welcoming, so don’t be afraid to reach out to them, too!
Also important in St. Brieuc is the historic Breton culture. Some students will get to experience this culture first hand through their families, but everyone will have at least one exposure to it when the students and their families come together towards the beginning of the Program to learn a traditional dance and see the traditional costumes. The dance is a favorite event for students, and while sore pinkie fingers may recover, the memories do not quickly fade. Other events include singing for the mayor at La Mairie, or town hall, and the final performance of the choir and acting groups of all the students, which is followed by dancing and refreshments for students and families alike. These celebrations and gatherings were highly anticipated among both students and host families. In the case of singing for La Mairie, the event is anticipated by the town as well. I really enjoyed these events. They provided the chance for me to relax and have fun with my friends. Because I had not known all of the students before, and knew that I may not see them frequently after we returned home, I spent as much time as possible with them in St. Brieuc. These planned events were excellent ways for me to do that, and I know that my friends and I still cherish the memories of these events, especially the traditional dance.
Excursions organized by the Program add depth to the experience of every student, offering the opportunity to see other towns and visit historical landmarks. The first excursion is a guided tour of St. Brieuc itself, which allows the students to acclimate to and appreciate the truly amazing history of the town. Later, students will go on excursions to Dinan, an old town in Bretagne; St. Malo, famous for its wall around the old city; and Mont Saint Michel, the former monastery that breaks off from the land at high tide. Students will also have the opportunity to visit Normandy, where they will see the World War II Museum in Caen, as well as Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery, La Pointe-Du-Hoc, and if time allows, the German Cemetery. The above excursions, among others, provide the students with memories that will last a lifetime, and they allow students to see and appreciate towns other than just St. Brieuc. The final excursion is the three days spent in Paris before flying home. It is always sad for students to leave their host families, but the days in Paris are eagerly anticipated as well. Students can really explore the city and see what they want to see in small groups. It is a culmination of the visit, and often it is in Paris that students realize just how much they have learned.
I loved all of the excursions, so it is hard for me to pick a favorite, but the trip to Normandy was certainly the most meaningful for me. In the year that I went, we were able to visit Le Musée de Caen (World War II Museum) and the beaches of Normandy on the Fourth of July. To be there at all was very emotionally moving, but I imagine that it was even more so on that day. There was a band playing, and there were flowers on many of the grave markers. It was a gorgeous day, and it was hard to imagine that Omaha beach had ever been the scene of a great battle. I know that I was not alone in crying on that day. Other excursions, like the one to Dinan, I enjoyed because of their historic significance. Again, excursions provided the opportunity for me to get to know my fellow students better, so I enjoyed them all thoroughly. Paris was a really interesting experience for me. I had never been given so much independence before. We were traveling in groups of four or five in a huge city where people didn’t speak our native language. Hearing tourists in Paris speak English, I realized that I could barely understand them, and I noted with pride that I was confident navigating the metro. The excursion to Paris showed me how much I had learned over the summer. I had mastered French, and I had also grown in responsibility, confidence, and maturity.
The experience in St. Brieuc is truly great. Students leave with lifelong memories of loving families, new friendships, and truly amazing experiences. Above all, each student leaves with a greatly-improved understanding of the French language, an appreciation of French culture, and often with a greatly improved sense of self-confidence, independence, and maturity. The Honors Program is not easy, but students will find that the effort is justified by the rewards. Those who choose to go will find that they grow in leaps and bounds, not just as a French speaker or student, but as a person as well.