Friday, February 22, 2008

I Was a Teen-Age French Major

It was my Senior year in college. I was to graduate in June, with a handy B.A. in French Literature. The college, well-intentioned, sent me off to the Career-Counseling office for the requisite pep-talk about making gainful employment once I moved beyond the ivied walls of my alma mater. Only small ivy, not Big Ivy.

I waited nervously outside the cluttered office of Mr. Your Future Life, wondering what reprimands and ominous tales of doom he would have for me as he perused my pitiful résumé. "Ardent perma-francophile" was all it read: French major, French table, French dorm, French teaching assistant, French runner-up prize. A stint as a newscaster at the college radio station and waitressing in the faculty dining hall were my only transferable skills.

Finally he escorted me into his inner sanctum and patronizingly had me sit in a low-slung chair. Tossing my folder aside, he returned to the barkalounger behind his desk. He leaned waaay back, propped his feet up high, hands clasped behind his head of thinning gray hair, and asked, "Guess what my major was in college?"

OK, well, I was a little stumped at this point because I thought he was supposed to be telling me how to earn rent money a few months hence.

"Umm, I don't know," I ventured.

"I was -- a Frrench major!" he announced, with a smirk and a wink.

I have never in my life had concomitant urges of vomiting and manslaughter. What the HELL was that supposed to mean? That I should become a guidance counselor? Why should I be reading a thousand pages of French fiction per week, writing a thesis and cramming for oral comprehensive exams four months in advance if my future was as a paper-slave in human resources?

Granted, I had macheted my own fate earlier that year when I applied for a Fulbright and made it to the finals. The results were looking promising until I adamantly informed the interviewers -- professors all -- that language instructors should teach only in their native tongue. Funny, I never heard from them again.

The rest of the chat with Mr. Future was a blur, basically him telling me that unless I wanted to go to translation school, I should try to land "any job" that might have an international department and wing it from there.

Perhaps I was so traumatized by the encounter that I've been spending the rest of my life trying to prove him wrong. Perhaps he was handing me a dish of his own sour grapes. I knew intuitively that there were many paths to take with a freshly-minted degree in French literature. I just wanted help from someone who had forged the way.

Ugh. Spring semester of Senior Year. All my parents' friends and my friends' parents asked, "So, what are you going to do with a degree in French Lit? Teach French?"

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved and admired all of my French teachers from seventh grade on -- blessed, brilliant saints, every one -- but I simply didn't want to become one. It was a quirky personal issue: to me there was something surreal about the concept. Studying French to become a teacher to to teach students to study French so they could become teachers to to teach students to study French... well you get my drift. I knew that French was relevant! I knew French was useful! I just didn't know where to start, and Mr. Sour Grapes really skimped on the practical advice.

Alas, at the time, there was no internet, thus no fabulous website to turn to, as there is now, called "Why Study French?" with excellent resources and reasons for studying French and using it in the Real World.

Now a few decades beyond college, my French-major pals have taken various career paths: publishing, wine industry, photography, teaching, non-profit administration, international real estate, parenting, banking, marketing, interior design.

And ...blogging in Paris.


anna said...

Yes, Polly, that post struck a chord. In the mid-70s, I was 18, loved French and was among the top students in the subject... but I didn't know what to do with it and received zero help in possible future careers. I went the history route (American, actually) and now bitterly regret not following my love of French culture. If only we'd had the internet/blogs then - but we didn't and everything had to be done in total, uninformed, chaotic isolation it seemed - how impossible to make a good decision. I sometimes wonder how many women my age (50s) got the careers they really wanted - and if they did, how much of this was down to sheer luck.

Autolycus said...

Moi aussi. French and German, but my career was in university administration (mind you, linguistic know-how helped with thousands of foreign degree certificates). But then, I often think I should have been an historian instead. And I am a great believer in liberal education: whatever you study, it's a way of learning how to learn.

Unknown said...

Anonymous said...

I was also a French major in the mid-70s at a school we lovingly referred to as a "poison ivy". I studied at the Sorbonne for a summer and remember standing at the Arc de Triomphe looking out toward la Defense thinking wistfully that there must be a job for me somewhere in Paris. I took a more practical route, using my math instead. Even with a double major, I was constantly asked what I would do with that combination - teach?

Rachael Hutchings said...

I was a French major as well. I applied and was admitted into grad school to do my PhD in French, and then had a few big changes occur in my life and ended up going to law school instead. One time in an interview for a summer internship during law school the interviewer was looking at my resume and snorted as he exclaimed, "French! What a useless major." The room got uncomfortably quiet and then one of the founding partners (one of the other people in the room said), "I beg to disagree. I was a French major in undergrad and it has served me very well." Ha ha ha! At the end of law school they put out a bunch of random statistics on our graduating class. One of the statistics was showing what people undergard backgrounds were and how the class ranking broke down in comparison. 14 out of the top 25 in our class were language majors!

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Language study is a good degree; and I bet that Career Counselling offices have improved since the 70s, too! (Or maybe just mine was just the pits.) And I think that many French majors, whatever field of work they choose, find a vein of French in their job.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Don't be so sure that career counseling has improved! The conventional wisdom at my college is that the career office can't help you unless you've majored in Economics or Poli Sci and can thus get a business, law, or government job. Trouble is, my school is full of idealistic liberal arts majors who don't want that kind of career! I'm graduating in May with a double major in Drama and French...and don't quite know what to do next.

Chevere said...

I was French minor in college. I loved the language and the culture but do to some life changing events in my life I never even made it France. I am always glad to hear that someone takes the road less travelled.

Clementina said...

My parents couldn't understand my love of French. They thought it was a complete waste of time. My guidance counselors thought I was a flaky misfit, and never bothered to even suggest a career for me. I guess they saw a big "L" wtitten on my forehead, but I do not ever regret learning French--if anything it has enriched my life. Because of it, I have dear life long friends who I never would have had if it wasn't for French. Learning it enlarged my world, and it would have been a very small one, indeed. It's been almost 30 years, et je le practique avec mes amies presque tous les jours.

Taj Nahal said...

I had the same experience -- except that I ended up moving to France and was able to find work for the better part of a year, before giving up under the weight of the bureaucracy...
I would have looked horridly at my guidance counselor as well.

The Late Bloomer said...

Oh, this post touches a nerve with me! I have to admit that I followed my heart with the French language as well, and my family all thought I was a bit crazy too. To this day I still have a hard time explaining my convictions and my desire to stick with this language. Although, to be honest, I haven't gone very far myself, and I'm still trying to find my path. But a lot of that is my OWN fault, mainly because I didn't pursue any specific career path -- I always just followed my heart and floated from job to job... And admittedly, finding work in France today isn't easy, no matter what field you may be in -- although some fields work out better than others!

I don't like being defined by what I "do" in my day job anyway -- I feel like there's so much more to who I am, and I like what la traductora said above: I agree that no matter what, in spite of everything, French has enriched my life as well, and my life here in France has enriched me in so many ways. To such an extent that I couldn't even imagine moving back to the U.S. now, even if I know that I could make a "better living" or more money, or whatever... (doing what, I don't know, but I know it would be the case...)

Ironically, I wonder whether the liberal arts education was the best choice for me or not -- it helped me to explore so many different fields and learn SO much, but at the same time I ended up feeling a bit distracted and "dispersed" so to speak -- like I never truly found my focus or the direction I should take in my life. But again, part of that is probably just ME too!

Sorry for the ramble... Like I said, this post just hit a nerve and got me thinking!

hannah_rachel said...

Thanks for sharing this! I recently spent a year in Paris as an au pair, and am now just starting to dabble in a little college. I am trying to figure out what to do with my life and I am very passionate about the french language and culture! Just not sure where to go with it. Its helping me dream a little further than I am letting myself. :)

suziee said...

I'm starting college in a week and I declared French as my major and hoping for minor in theater... But this thread has made me nervous o:
I want to become fluent in French, Italian, Portuguese as well. I'm fluent in both English& Spanish... Any suggestions? I want to make money but through something I atleast have some interest in o:

Polly-Vous Francais said...


I recommend following your passion, and the rest will follow. I am now using all that I have learned along the way, working for the Musee d'Orsay as its chief fundraiser in the US.

One cool thing is to search using the keyword "French" and you'll be amazed at the number of fascinating jobs there are out there.
Be a French major! You'll be so glad you did!

mmmmMike said...

in my carrier, I had some very good French luck. I majored in business, and partly for the love of it, and partly because I wanted some job in international business, I minored in French. I got a job in sales at a freight forwarding company who had offices all over the world. After proving myself good in sales, and when a VP learned I spoke decent french during a company dinner, he declared that he hated going to France (for all the stereotypical reasons) and within a month I was on my first sales trip to Paris... after that, to Brussels. I changed companies and I swear the same thing happened with even more success. The Paris director spoke absolutely no English and during company meetings in Europe, I was his translator for senior management..which got me lot of great exposure. The freight forwarding industry is a purely international environment where there is opportunity for people who speak all the world's major languages.

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