Renée Pontbriand - BU Paris Director
Renée completed her Masters in French with Middlebury College in Paris. She received her Bachelors of Arts in International Relations and French with Boston University and studied at the Université de Grenoble. With the program since 1991, she serves as Director of Boston University Study Abroad in Paris, bringing to bear experience in Study Abroad in Boston and in Grenoble. Her responsibilities span public relations, student services, communication, scheduling, budgeting, publications, and alumni affairs.
You’ve been with the BU Paris Program for over 20 years, how did you originally get connected with Boston University Study Abroad?
I attended Boston University and studied abroad at our Grenoble program during my sophomore year. I was a work study in the office & returned to work for BU study abroad during my junior and senior years in Boston. I then went to Middlebury in Paris to complete my Masters & was the resident assistant in the dorm for the BU Paris program. My five-year plan to be abroad has turned into 23 years!
Your role as Site Director for BU Paris involves a variety of tasks, from public relations and student services, to budgeting and alumni affairs. What does a typical day look like?
There is no typical day and that is what makes it fascinating! Crisis management always comes first, but if all is quiet my priorities will depend on if students are in the course phase or internship phase and if our budgets are due. Making sure the machine is well-oiled and everyone working together is key. Running our own facility is challenging as you quickly learn about all sorts of technical & compliance issues. Checking in with staff regarding housing and internship placements, along with chatting with the students about classes or their daily commute is also part of my day. I live in the far suburbs, but my 90 minute train commute gives me time to catch up on local news and eavesdrop on the French and their current preoccupations while on the train.
BU programs in Paris involve both study opportunities and internships. Why is this combo so beneficial for students?
Professionalizing the academics and intellectualizing the professional is our mantra. Putting into practice in the workplace what you learn in the classroom is the ultimate goal of our program, while also allowing students self-reflect. Many students are preoccupied with how they will be able to pay off their loans, so getting job experience is very important. For some of our international students, this is their first work experience, so getting to know what it means to have a boss, wake up on time, and meet deadlines is new. For others, the challenge of a difficult colleague or being rejected from an interview also is a reality check of what awaits them after college. To quote Wendy Mogel’s book title, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, we always try to re-frame these difficult and challenging abroad experiences as beneficial for personal and professional growth.
What kind of extracurricular activities or excursions do you offer to help your students in Paris fully immerse in the local culture?
Our program includes many course-related activities. Most classes include two to three class sessions outside the classroom to fully take advantage of all Paris has to offer. Theater, cinema, political institutions, art galleries, visits to neighborhoods that inspired writers, and historical sites are all part of the syllabi. Within our French grammar classes, there are linguistic exchanges with French students and culinary workshops and wine tastings. We try to put students’ language skills to work in an enjoyable setting. Students can also be reimbursed for attending cultural events such as concerts, sporting events, or yoga classes. We want students to do what they usually enjoy but in a different setting. This way they have something in common to chat about with the people they meet and do it all in French!
From your experience, what is a typical day like for a student on your BU Paris program?
Students have about 17 hours of classes a week for the first seven weeks, and then quickly develop a metro-boulot-dodo (subway-work-sleep) 35-hour work routine for the internship phase. Students live at a dorm or in a French household, but remain very independent. Some students have never taken public transportation, while others learn to cook, do laundry and clean for themselves. Doing all this in French can be tiring, but very rewarding in the end.
Your background is in International Relations and French, how do you apply these skills to your role as Director on a daily basis?
Navigating a foreign culture requires specific tools, and having political, historical, geographical, diplomatic, and especially linguistic knowledge can only serve you well when needing to negotiate, manage, and sympathize with your foreign interlocutor.
You have an MA in French from Middlebury College in Paris, and your program includes intensive French language study. Why is the inclusion of language study so important to studying and interning abroad?
Learning how someone else structures their thought process and chooses vocabulary in order to express ideas is the best way to learn about a culture. Values, beliefs, priorities and personalities are reflected through their written and spoken language. Simply understanding the importance that bonjour can make, or break the ensuing relationship be it personal or professional, can only come about by immersing yourself and making the effort to speak. Without this, one cannot fully share emotions, nor understand a joke!
How do you ensure the safety and security of your students while they’re in Paris?
We have always been very sensitive to this issue and strive to give students the necessary skills and information needed to navigate in new surroundings. We have a very intensive orientation that brings together safety tips from the US Embassy, wisdom from the local French police, and practical advice from over 25 years of managing student incidents. We cover health, safe sex, drugs and alcohol, fire safety, transportation, dress code, harassment, street demonstrations, and terrorism. We have an elaborate emergency response plan and review this with staff and students in detail.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in applying to the BU Paris program?
Be ready for a fast-paced, intense, and challenging 16 weeks filled with many different personal and professional relationships and new concepts in a vibrant European capital.
What is the most fulfilling part about your job as the Director of BU Paris?
It is fascinating to witness slight to radical transformations in students regarding their language acquisition, professional outlook, cultural acceptance and self-discovery. I also am lucky to keep in touch with many alumni who share how important this experience has shaped who they have become both personally and professionally.