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LeMaster scholarship steps up cultural immersion

spring 2012 amanda clark
Amanda Clark expected she would learn a great deal about France, its culture and its language when she participated in a summer transformational learning opportunity (TLO) made possible by the Harriet LeMaster French Scholarship. What she didn’t expect was the immersive experience would make her aware of how different American culture is from the rest of the world.

Clark was among a dozen students who took part in Dr. Shira Schwam-Baird’s study abroad program in Strasbourg, France in 2009. The program has been in operation since 1999, and the LeMaster scholarship has been providing assistance since 2006. As of 2011, the scholarship has allowed 18 UNF students to experience France and its culture. The summer class, which has been expanded to five weeks, receives a subsidy under the University’s Transformational Learning Opportunities program, and the LeMaster Scholarship helps individual students meet the $3,000 cost, which is in addition to tuition and air fare. It is a perfect example of the type of programs funded through The Power of Transformation campaign.

Clark admits she would never have been able to participate without the LeMaster Scholarship. A Jacksonville native, Clark studied French in high school and decided she wanted to pursue it in college. 

“It (French) came pretty easily to me,” she said.

Taking part in the summer TLO seemed a natural fit for her continued studies. Schwam-Baird said her program is not a French tour. It is a French language and culture immersion program. Students are in language classes three hours a day, Monday through Friday. The language school is affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce of Strasbourg and the students are a mix of nationalities. All students speak French to some degree when they arrive. 

To make the immersion complete, each student lives with a French family. 

“I expected life in France would be different, but I didn’t realize how different,” Clark said. “For example, each evening we ate dinner at 7:30 p.m. sharp, and it lasted two hours. We sat and talked a great deal, so it helped to improve my listening and conversation skills.” 

In contrast to the U.S. where she drives everywhere, Clark never got behind the wheel in France. 

“I took a tram wherever I needed to go,” she said. “They have a very good public transportation system. It made me aware not every culture is as dependent on the automobile as we are.”

The students also used the public transportation system on a weekend trip to Paris to visit museums and walk neighborhoods. 

“We want our students to have a good idea of how the residents of Paris live on a daily basis,” Schwam-Baird said.

The UNF faculty member said the program would not have grown as quickly without the assistance of Harriet LeMaster. LeMaster, a senior citizen, started her affiliation with UNF when she took several French courses from Schwam-Baird. In those classes, she got to know the students and decided to help provide financial assistance to the study-abroad program.

As the course became more popular, LeMaster’s financial support also grew. In 2006, she established an endowment specifically for students with a declared interest in French studies to study abroad. It was the first French language endowment at UNF.

Schwam-Baird has been a front-row witness to how much her students have grown as a result of the summer experience. 

“They are much more confident in themselves and have gotten over their fear of opening their mouth to speak,” she said. 

Schwam-Baird has witnessed the benefits of students living in the culture 24/7. By the time they arrive back in Jacksonville, she said, their cultural intelligence is more finely tuned, and they are much more aware of the world around them.

Clark graduated in April and hopes to get an internship working with a foreign exchange program, possibly in France. “I’d like to be able to find host families for American students to live with so they too can experience what I’ve experienced.”