Learning to Adapt

French doesn’t just live in France, as anyone who studied the language at Middlebury’s l'École française can tell you. While improving their linguistic fluency, students explore many facets of Francophone culture and identity, from cinema of the Maghreb to Créole cooking to Quebecois folk music.

If the French School strives to create an immersive francophonie in miniature, the C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Cameroon introduces undergraduates to the nuances of a country sometimes referred to as “Africa in miniature.” Beyond the Eiffel Tower and baguettes, the students who choose to go abroad there get a genuine taste of life in Francophone Africa.

Every week at the C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Cameroon, students in Ariane Ngabeu’s culture and literature class have a standing assignment. On Monday, they turn in a one-page reflection in French about what the week was like and what they experienced.

Ngabeu, director of the School in Cameroon, laughs when remembering the evolution in their responses. “The first week, they all said, basically, ‘This is so strange! This is different.’ It’s all good, but very emotional! Then, afterwards, they really started to know what’s what. They learn so quickly! They know so much about Cameroon now.” 

Describing experiences like riding in a taxi shared with five strangers to discovering that malaria is as common in Africa as the flu is in the United States, the students revealed a major shift in their perspective, a new sense of receptivity. As Ngabeu summarized: “They learned that in life you need to be ready for anything and ready to adapt to anything.”

Yuki Takeda, a junior at Middlebury who is currently halfway through his study-abroad year in Cameroon, praised the synergy between learning in the classroom and soaking up the environment: “Through the Middlebury courses on Cameroonian culture and history, I've come to understand how this society became as it is today. And, as someone interested in development, I was shocked by the complexity of the problems facing Cameroon’s people that I could never have understood without coming here. Living with a Cameroonian host family enabled me to immerse myself profoundly into the local culture and helped me to transition quickly to the life here—to things like 3.5 days of running water per week.

The school, which opened in September and binds students to the Language Pledge for French, considerably widens the range of opportunities available to undergraduate students interested in pursuing studies in Africa with the C.V. Starr program. Previously, the C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad offered only an Arabic-immersion program in North Africa, where the cultural context differs significantly from much of Africa.

Students each take two classes—one in Cameroonian culture and literature and one in African history—at the Middlebury Center in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé. In addition, each student chooses two courses from a wide variety offered by the Université catholique de l’Afrique centrale (UCAC) or Catholic University of Central Africa, located outside the city. The university recruits students from all over Africa, so students in the C.V. Starr program benefit from a diverse student body and a wide variety of on-site activities and clubs.

According to Ngabeu, the exchange students have impressed the UCAC faculty with their integrity as well as their sharp learning curve. She recalls, “Early on, the students had trouble asking questions in French or expressing themselves, so the UCAC professors, not knowing about the Pledge yet, said, ‘It’s okay, you can say it in English.’ But, the students insisted and they kept speaking French. Their professors told me afterwards, ‘They’re exceptional!’”

Studying French in Yaoundé and in Cameroon in general provides unexpected advantages, explains Paul Monod, acting dean of International Programs at Middlebury. “There are not very many people in the capital who speak English, so it’s a good place to have an immersion program.

“Students have to cope with their French quite quickly and the integration is rapid, but it’s not as challenging or as frightening as it would be in France, because French is a second language for almost everybody in Cameroon. There’s much more tolerance for mistakes and for people who don’t speak the language perfectly, even though the level of French is very good there,” notes Monod. 

Ngabeu and Monod are developing new opportunities for the school, as well. In the coming term, Ngabeu will offer a linguistics course focusing on an indigenous Cameroonian language. In the near future, students may be able to intern with a microloan firm or the medical branch of UCAC. In the meantime, students explore the community and learn more about the country through group excursions, like hiking trips to Mount Cameroon. Ngabeu also invites students to participate in traditional wedding and funeral ceremonies in Yaoundé and villages around the capital. 

Ngabeu strives to open the students’ eyes to as many facets of Cameroon as possible: “When I asked the students why they chose to come here, they each told me, ‘Je veux vivre la différence, I wanted to live differently.’ Hearing their attitude, I believe in this project, and I think that it’ll really take off.”

(Photographs courtesy of Nicole Chance and Paul Monod.) 

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