Off to teach English in France, recent graduate feels excited and confident
Sydney Nelson '23 says her global and volunteer experiences while at St. Mike's prepared her to handle life capably in the wider world
For Sydney Nelson ’23, her later high school years while growing up in Stillwater, Minnesota pointed her toward Saint Michael’s College and her eventual French major with overseas study.
Now a prestigious scholarship through the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) to teach English to French high school students outside Paris for the next seven months points her to another promising adventure — and thanks to her Saint Michael’s experiences, Nelson knows she can handle it.
During a break from a summer job back home picking blueberries on a farm in July, months prior to departure for the program’s October 1 start, the recent graduate described how her Saint Michael’s global experiences made her confident and flexible when encountering cross-cultural challenges – so much so that applying for TAPIF and the extended time away from home that it demands did not intimidate her.
“I think having these opportunities to travel through St. Mike’s, and learning more about the world and being more open to trying new things, has been very beneficial to me and made me feel very prepared and excited for TAPIF,” said Nelson, who did a semester abroad in Grenoble, France her junior year. A few weeks after returning from that, she headed to an extended summer internship in Seoul, South Korea, through a Freeman Foundation grant — another prestigious competitive honor that she learned about through the College’s Center for Global Engagement (CGE).
Nelson’s itch to explore new worlds, particularly France, began at an early age.
“I started French in middle school, had a pen pal from Pas-de-Calais since 10th grade, and just was drawn to the language and history – France was somewhere I knew I wanted to visit and spend time,” Nelson said. Even before coming to Saint Michael’s, she joined a high school trip to France and spent a week with a host family. In fact, winning the Saint Michael’s Book Award when she was a high school junior meant that she was reading St. Mike’s alumna Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed my Father during that trip, motivating her to look into the College further and eventually visit. As an active community volunteer for much of her young life, Nelson said, the Saint Michael’s MOVE volunteer service program through Edmundite Campus Ministry held particular appeal.
Once she made her decision and arrived, Nelson was pleased to find what she calls “a Minnesota to Vermont pipeline” at St. Mike’s — partly because so many student-athletes who excel in winter sports from her home state find spots on Saint Michael’s squads. In fact, two of them played in the College orchestra with the versatile and well-rounded Nelson, who also plays violin. As another connection, she soon met Peter Vantine of the College’s French faculty and discovered that he, too, is a Minnesota native.
Vantine said he has been aware of Saint Michael’s students earning TAPIF scholarships and having great experiences at least since he joined the faculty in 2011. “We’ve had a steady stream of students do TAPIF over the last decade or more,” he said. “We’ve often had at least one graduate do it every year or other year, and some years we’ve had as many as four graduates do TAPIF the same year.”
He explained that the program places participants in all parts of France and including Corsica, Martinique and the Island of Reunion, as well as a variety of French cities and towns. “One of our students stayed in France and married a Frenchman with whom she now has children,” Vantine said. “We also have another former advanced student who is doing a master’s in France while living and working there.” Applicants can state preferences for locations, but agree to serve wherever the program eventually assigns them.
Nelson said she first heard from faculty advisers about TAPIF early during her French studies at Saint Michael’s, so she did further research and decided she would be “super-interested, since it marries two things I’m interested in – education and French — and gives me the opportunity to live in France on my own for a more extended period of time, which is something I knew I wanted to do, while giving me more real-world experience in teaching.”
From her active volunteer activity at Saint Michael’s in the Little Brother/Little sister program of MOVE, the volunteer service arm of Edmundite Campus Ministry, Nelson realized how much she loved tutoring, which inspired her to look into education for a possible major. She switched to elementary ed and French as her two majors and did student Teaching at Champlain Elementary School in Burlington for fifth grade, which she loved. While teaching French was not her primary duty, she did try to pass on some language skills to her students and fondly recalls helping one student write a letter in French to a grandmother in Quebec.
Her upcoming TAPIF experience might take her a shade out of that comfort zone since her placement is with older high school students, but she is regarding it as “more of a new challenge that will give me more teaching experience, which I think will be super valuable working with the older age range – though I’m nervous since I have not worked with high schoolers.”
However, “It might give me new ways to look at teaching to bring at the elementary level,” she said.
Her TAPIF assignment is at a school in the suburb Creteil outside Paris. “The school provides boarding for language assistants, so I don’t have to find an apartment, which is a real plus to start with,” she said.
TAPIF already has offered successful applicants online guidance through orientation trainings for participants settling in and getting around in France, she said. “A friend from my Grenoble semester abroad will be a 90-minute train ride away, so I will have someone else going through the program to reach out to.” Also, she has other friends in France, and has made plans to visit her Grenoble host mom at some point.
“I feel confident in my abilities to communicate and get around, and ‘circumlocute’ when I have to,” she said. Some tasks like setting up a bank account and other administrative duties may require learning new vocabulary, said Nelson, who has been listening to French music or watching French shows and movies to avoid getting rusty.
“Most of the time people are really excited when you make an effort to speak their language, and generally, I was able to fly under the radar on my accent being American, and could act like a French person,” she said. Travel will be in her plans again as during her semester abroad that brought her to Barcelona, the Netherlands and Rome.
The application process involved writing a 500-plus word statement in French on why she wanted to do the program.
Her favorite Saint Michael’s activity was her Little Brother Little Sister program mentoring through MOVE all four years that inspired her move toward a teaching career. “I also was co-president of the French club for my last two years and joined Club trips to Quebec City and Montreal,” she said.
Nelson said her study-travels as a Saint Michael’s student “showed me how capable I am of handling things myself, and that’s a really important learning experience – it’s really easy to sell yourself short, so it’s nice to have experiences that push you out of comfort zone and show you are capable of doing more things.”
“I think St. Mike’s has really helped in setting up that mentality for me and allowing me to grow in that way,” she said. “Starting and ending college is a really big transition, so all of this has led up to that growth mindset that I want to keep cultivating.”