Last summer I participated in the first study abroad trip for the College of Arts and Sciences Leadership Scholars. This trip was an opportunity for my class of scholars to bond with each other, plan for the upcoming school year, and practice leadership skills as ambassadors to Norman’s sister city: Clermont-Ferrand, France. During our three weeks abroad, we scaled a volcano while advocating for its chain to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visited with Clermont’s Deputy Mayor and city manager, met with Clermont’s Rugby and American football teams, toured and luncheoned in a 13th-century castle with its owner, and so much more.
There were so many memorable experiences about this trip, but what I liked most is the people that were attached to them. In general, I was amazed at how welcoming everyone we met was and how understanding and patient they were about our lack of knowledge and familiarity with the French language. People wanted to communicate with us and it was very humbling that they would apologize for their English skills. I’ve never heard a waitress or clerk in the United States apologize if they cannot speak Spanish well. I know being in that situation of not being able to communicate in the majority tongue has already made me more compassionate when interacting with people here at home. More specifically, I enjoyed interacting with and learning from Katerine, a guide for our tour of Clermont-Ferrand; Ben, our guide on the Puy de dome hike; Emmanuel, owner of the castle at our visit to St. Saturnine; and Christophe, our constant companion, guide and friend throughout our trip.
Seeing the architecture and hearing the historical significance of Clermont-Ferrand was incredible, but Katerine really brought the place we were staying to life. She showed us details we would have completely overlooked or just not understood the significance of. As she explained the logic and symbology of the building of the cathedrals, I could see how important these structures were for followers when they were erected and how that importance is still felt today. She made the presentation her own. Instead of stopping at “This is important,” she would go on to say why it is and was important. Katerine made the point over and over that the past is relevant to the present, which is something we often think we know but forget to remember.
Emmanuel connected the past to the future when he welcomed us to his thirteenth-century castle. He emphasized how preserving St. Saturnine was a gift to future generations, just as generations before him had prepared timbers within the castle that they, their children, their grandchildren, nor their great-grandchildren would ever see. It was clear that he had taken personal responsibility in how his actions would affect people he would never meet. I thought that was incredibly admirable, and his attitude is something I want to emulate. Finally, Emmanuel also taught me a lesson in communication. Over our luncheon, he explained that he considers learning the local language to be the first gateway into a true understanding of culture (which is why he has learned six languages). If you miss the first gate, it is tough, if not impossible, to pass through others because you have to wait for the local culture to exit its own gate to meet you. At that moment (and the entire time I needed people to adjust their language of communication for me), I renewed my commitment to becoming not just proficient, but fluent in Spanish when I returned to the States.
Hearing Emmanuel talk about people bringing understanding to us reminded me of Ben during our hike on Puy de Dome. We thought it might have pained him as an experienced volcanologist to speak to us in terms such as “stickiness and bubbles,” but he told us that it brought him joy to talk about his concepts in a way that he knew we could relate. Ben said that knowledge is useless if it cannot be shared. I think that is why he has worked so hard to make Puy de Dome a candidate to be a UNESCO world heritage site. He cares about sharing the importance of the chain and having it preserved for generations to come. Seeing that kind of passion made me think about the ways I, as a person and Leadership Scholar, can expand out of my comfort zone to share with others and leave a legacy at OU.
While we just interacted with the other guides briefly, Christophe was a constant. He was an amazing example of leadership through service. We would have been lost without him, but he went out of his way time and time again to make sure that we got the absolute best experience possible. From planning (and re-planning) our schedule to translating and advocating for us, he showed us above-and-beyond kindness and never tired of us or got cranky with us. I appreciated his humor and positivity and admired his humility. People like Christophe are few and far between.
Activities can be planned for a trip, but the people really cannot. I was so grateful for the people we met while in France, and I cannot be happier for the time I got to spend with other Leadership Scholars. Prior to our first dinner in Clermont, we hadn’t truly had an opportunity to spend significant time together. This trip blew that distance to pieces. It was the perfect amount of time to create lasting bonds and memories for us. I think that LS will benefit for the comradery we found in France, and we will be a more effective and cohesive team to be ambassadors for the College of Arts and Sciences. But most of all, I am grateful that I can honestly say we all made thirteen new lifelong friends (credit to fellow LSer Auston Stiefer for the wording, but it struck my heartstrings).
I knew this was an incredible opportunity, and I would probably never have anything like it again. It was a chance to go to France, to see incredible architecture and historical sites, to eat amazing food, to meet new people. I was excited about the idea of getting to spend more time with other Leadership Scholars, but I never realized that I would come home with new relationships that matter to me beyond being friends in an organization. I never realized that I would also come back with a new sense of self-confidence or empowerment. I never realized this trip would come to mean so much.