Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) is a non-for-profit which offers study abroad programmes in over 40 countries. Jean-Philippe Primout and Linda Rimal Ponte are responsible for student life and operations at CIEE in Paris. They explain their roles and tell us about the value of international study.
What are your responsibilities at CIEE?
Jean-Philippe: I’m Director of Student Life and Operations.
Linda: I’m Centre Coordinator. JP and I work together as a team to take care of the logistics of the programme, prepare the study tours and organise extracurricular activities. We're the link between the teachers and the students.
We're both Parisians, so we're a point of reference for the students when it comes to restaurants, bars, shops and culture.
Jean-Philippe: But it's not just about being the students’ French brother or sister. We have to ensure there’s a learning outcome to every activity we organise. For instance, turning a walk in a gentrified neighbourhood into a learning experience by talking about the history of the area and helping the students bridge this experience with something they know.
How do you introduce the students to Paris?
Jean-Philippe: We don't want it to be a form of tourism exchange. Sometimes you see a group of students in Paris touring the expected sites. You think “are you with a school or are you with a tour operator?”.
Students usually turn up with a vision of the city which is all stereotypes. We give them what they expect at the beginning. We start in a stereotypical way and let the students get pictures of their Instagram accounts. Once they fulfil what they were looking for, that's when we can move on to other things. We show them the city’s diversity. For instance, we visit the Belleville district and teach them about all the different waves of immigration.
Linda: Even if they're only staying for six weeks, they're able to experience different worlds in each district. Every arrondissement of Paris is very rich. We encourage them to discover a specific part of Paris in an original way. Not like the Eiffel Tower or another touristic spot but a different neighbourhood, a museum or an artist's squat.
What are the main challenges in your roles?
Jean-Philippe: We try to build a group without letting anyone feel left out. Having two extracurricular activities a week helps because if any students feel lonely or homesick they have a set time to spend with us outside the centre. Those one-to-one moments are important.
Linda: Another challenge is being available for the students. Because we’re often working with students who are travelling for the first time, we have to be good observers, good listeners and very patient.
Jean-Philippe: And adaptive. The students are really diverse and don't all have the same objectives when they come to Paris.
Linda: Some are completely lost, a long way from their family and their culture. Whereas others want to live their experience by themselves.
What are the most rewarding parts?
Linda: When a student gives you a thank you note at the end of the programme or tells us that we were part of the success of their experience. That’s rewarding because it means that we gave them the right tools for them to be able to immerse themselves in the culture and learn to be independent.
Jean-Philippe: I teach a class in intercultural communication. Seeing your students improving feels great. Seeing them, after one month, being able to give someone directions in French, for example, is very rewarding.
Given that most students on the Paris programme are Americans, do you notice any cultural differences?
Jean-Philippe: Yes. I've learnt to be very attentive to the directness of communication. I try not to use irony or sarcasm: that kind of sense of humour you would be able to use with a French person. And I try to be less political. My first training was in teaching French and in my classes I would talk about politics all the time. For me, that was a learning experience. I realised it could make American students feel uncomfortable.
What are the main benefits of a study abroad programme?
Linda: Studying abroad lets you see the world and experience a new culture, customs and language. It’s an opportunity for cultural learning. You learn how to live with other students, make new friends and improve your foreign language. You also experience a different system of education.
Jean-Philippe: The students usually come from an ethnocentric culture. They have knowledge of other countries but they've never lived it. They become more aware of who they are and how their country is shaping who they are. It's amazing to see how much it can open their eyes. Every semester, a lot of the students will say: “I never knew I was an American citizen before I came to Paris.”
What’s distinctive about the French education system?
Linda: You don’t have to pay tuition fees. You just have to pay about €160 fees to apply.
Jean-Philippe: The main difference for me is that higher education is a public service. It's a right. Everybody can go. But that means we don't have certain student services you find elsewhere. As a student, it's up to you if you attend the classes. Nobody will check on your attendance. You're forced to be independent.
For instance, at my university in the Loire Valley, there were 500 students in the first year. So many students fail because they're not accompanied. When I got to my Masters, there were 30 in the class. In France, education is a right but you have to learn on your own and by yourself.
What does education mean to each of you?
Linda: Education is the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and beliefs in a formal and informal way. I was born and raised in Paris but my mother is Peruvian. I travelled in South America as a child and I witnessed the lack of education in the small towns there. That showed me how important education is and how it gives us tools that are crucial to life.
Jean-Philippe: In my case, I would really insist on this logic of transmission. My goal is to transmit. I was trained to be a French professor and now I'm working in the field of study abroad. My job is to transmit my ideas and my experience of the world, to share it and to keep learning from my experiences.
I like the idea of converting ideas into experience or a theory. That's something I think students will keep in mind for a long time. They might forget about the dates the Eiffel Tower was built or the painting they saw in a museum. But they'll always remember where in Paris they lived and what they learnt from their experience here.
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