GoAbroad Interview

Alexandra Mitchell - Director of International Programs, France

Alexandra Mitchell - Director of International Programs, France

Alexandra received a D.E.A. from the Université de Paris-IV Sorbonne in art history, after receiving her M.A. in art history at the same institution. Before relocating to Paris, Alexandra completed a bachelor’s of arts in French and art history at Washington University in St. Louis. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, but a resident of France since 1992, Alexandra has also lived in the United States, Greece, and Italy. She has been working in the field of international education since 2001.

Alexandra Mitchell from CEA Study Abroad working at her desk

Working away at my desk, but also dressed and ready for the 1950’s Paris costume party with students!

You traveled abroad as a high school student and visited Western Europe, how did this experience serve as a catalyst to your work in international education?

My initial reaction to this question would be that my time abroad in high school was not really a catalyst to what happened later, but with further thought, on some level, that program in high school probably did spark something that impacted the decisions I made later. It was my first time in Western Europe and exploring the sounds, smells, and sights of something very different from what I knew. I was quite attracted to a lifestyle that values balance, an appreciation of the past and of beauty, and life without a car! I suppose that if I’m working in international education today, I hope to facilitate the same opportunities I had as a young student, opportunities that could change the direction of students’ futures.

As an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, you studied abroad in both Italy and France. How did these programs impact you and what do you use from these experiences when you are advising students today?

Studying abroad taught me a lot about myself and about the world, but what impacted me the most (and continues to impact me!) and what I try hard to convey to students everyday is that living in a country or in a culture different from where you originally called home develops perspective: you realize that there are only a handful of universal truths in the world and the rest is just a question of perspective.

New banners for the Paris CEA Study Abroad Center

Proudly displaying new banners generously donated by a student to decorate the halls of the Paris Study Center

You previously served as a program coordinator in France for another large third party program provider, what attracted you to CEA Study Abroad?

I came to CEA Study Abroad at an important moment in the organization’s development. CEA Study Abroad was already a strong and popular program in Paris, but it was time to look forward and develop all sorts of new programming and new ways of connecting new student cohorts to the city of Paris and to French culture. I found this to be about the most exciting adventure I could think of, and spending the next phase of my career contributing to this mission seemed awesome.

You stay very busy with program development, HR, finance, and work directly with students. What does an average day of work look like for you?

Working onsite with students means that each “average” day looks different, and the norm is not knowing half of what I will encounter when I arrive at the center! We really live two days every day, the office day with development projects, budgeting and finance, processing HR for faculty and staff, logistical planning, meetings to coordinate or brainstorm, troubleshooting, trainings, etc., and a second day devoted to being part of the students’ experience: advising and getting to know students, facilitating activities, teaching, and communicating with future, current, and past students, American universities, and our colleagues in the U.S. The art of mixing these two days is what keeps it fun.

What are the typical characteristics of CEA Study Abroad students who choose to study abroad in France?

I think what makes CEA Study Abroad such an attractive option for students is our dedication to diversity. Our French programs don’t attract just one kind of student, but rather are a great fit for so many different profiles. Some students are attracted to our French programs for the traditional reasons, experiencing the culture, learning the language, identifying with France, and wanting to live in such a beautiful and balanced place. Others are attracted to the avant-gardism in music, fashion, and lifestyles, and others want to be in one of Europe’s largest and most vibrant business markets. And there are those who choose our programs to explore France’s position as a leader in human rights, political science, and questions of international politics and relations.

Really, the beauty of studying abroad in France is that it is the right place for so many students. CEA has really tried to capture that diversity in our programs and curriculum. And so the characteristics that they all share are open-mindedness and readiness to be inspired and to grow.

Biking to work in Paris, France

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remember that this beautiful cityscape is my commute to work every day!

What makes the CEA Study Abroad Paris Center such a special place to study abroad? How is it different than other study abroad options in France?

Very early on, CEA Study Abroad saw the interest in proposing programs that could reach all kinds of students, French Language students of course, but also students in the humanities, arts, and sciences. There are so many ways that students can learn from living and studying abroad, and we have always found it really exciting to connect a new kind of student and a new discipline to the host culture.

CEA Study Abroad has been at the forefront of opening study abroad to university students who traditionally wouldn’t have chosen France, or wouldn’t have found a program related to their major, from students with no prior French to those in the humanities and students in fine arts to those in the sciences and engineering. Our programs in France span such a wide variety of academic options, a large range of housing options, and even a solid choice in environments from the spectacular city of Paris to the Alps of Grenoble and from Aix-en-Provence in one of the most beautiful regions of France to the beach culture of the French Riviera. We cover almost every major, offer courses in English and in French, and are inclusive to all student profiles.

You have an academic background in art history and French, how does this help you in your role on daily basis? What is the importance of speaking the local language for students?

As a student of art history, one of the first skills that I was taught was how to observe, both objectively and critically. A formal analysis of a painting or of a gothic cathedral requires you to look carefully, to describe what you see, step by step, without contaminating your report with what you think you see. Then, you are expected to interpret and connect that work to its purpose, its cultural and historical setting, and to the personal and emotional message the artist(s) conveyed, taking into account what might have influenced the artist. Observation, critical thinking, objective and subjective analysis, contextualizing an object or a moment, and understanding human nature is what it is all about. Those skills help me every day.

On the topic of language, I would say that from the first day of French to the near native level, there are many ways that using French can help you integrate and feel part of the local community. It only takes a few conversations in French to feel part of something local. I think that is very important for students to feel. The more French you learn, the more you understand the locals in your community and feel connected to their values and lives. In the end, the more you learn about their culture and the more their culture becomes yours too.

French food tasting stand at a student fair in France

Getting the French Food Tasting stand ready for the Student Fair during Orientation Week!

What’s the most important tip you give to prospective CEA Study Abroad students in France?

Come with an open mind. Be ready to try something new, and don’t read too much about what other people have experienced; give yourself the pleasure of discovering for yourself!

You joined the CEA Study Abroad team in 2004, what has been your biggest achievement in the last 11 years?

That is a hard question because we have accomplished so much in the past decade. I would say that there are two achievements I am most proud of. First, as an industry and specifically at CEA Study Abroad, we have made great strides in health and safety, putting together infrastructure and resources that really have kept students healthier and safer. I have personally taken an interest in how meaningful integration can help students better understand their local environment and, consequently, stay safer.

And secondly, on a more administrative level, I would say that the day we learned that CEA Study Abroad France was accepted by the French Ministry of Education as a recognized local school of higher education, was a pretty good day.

What is the best part about working for CEA Study Abroad?

It is an organization that is dynamic, creative, and truly invested in students’ success. Being part of so much positive energy and having a part in creating opportunities for students at this really pivotal time in their lives is super satisfying. At CEA Study Abroad, we are always trying and learning something new, adapting to new realities, and considering different perspectives; basically, we are lifelong study abroad students!