Study Abroad Distinguished Impossible from Merely Improbable
Studying abroad is a challenge that over 100,000 U.S. university students annually take on, spending one semester or more studying abroad. I have been among those students, having studied abroad in Chile, Peru, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico on the way to earning a degree in Spanish, magna cum laude and then a law degree.
After practicing immigration law,including political asylum battered immigrant based cases in the United States for a few years, I set out on a new challenge, to learn French by studying in France: As I described the extraordinary experience recently at my own Francis L. Holland Blog:
The greatest challenge I have set for myself in life has been to constantly probe and find the dividing line between that which was impossible for me and that which was merely improbable. An example may elucidate this problem better than abstract formulations.
In 2000, when it seemed to me that every option for me to live a meaningful life in the United States had been exhausted, I checked in with myself and discovered that learning to read and speak and write French was the only remaining challenge that could hold my interest. So, I invented a convoluted plan in which I enrolled at a US university to get access to school loans, and then used these school loans to enroll in a French university, studying international law and economics.
Before I went to France, I leafed through a French grammar and conversation book, read Le Petite Prince by Saint Exupery, and then sat for an exam to receive credit for the first year of college French. I left for France not having been notified whether I had passed or not.
Although signing up for a basic French for foreigners course in Nice, France seemed like a fairly straightforward endeavor, I found once I arrived there that one prerequisite for participating in the program was having studied at least a year of French beforehand. When the program director told me that under no circumstances would she enroll me without the prerequisite, and since I was not yet aware that I had passed the test in the United States, I found myself facing that slim ledge that separates the highest floors of a building from a long fall to the cement sidewalk below.
Were I someone other than myself, I could easily have given up on studying French in Nice, since the prices at private foreign language schools were far beyond my means. Instead, I began walking from department to department at the University of Nice, searching for an administrator who would take an interest in my case and enroll in virtually any course where I could begin learning French through attending classes in the target language and interacting with my classmates, with no formal training in French whatsoever.
After visiting the sociology, language translation, anthropology and even biology departments, and having found no open doors, I found myself climbing a steep hill to the offices and classrooms of the Institute for the Law of Peace and Development, which offered masters degree and doctoral degrees in international law, with courses in all manner of international legal concerns and complications.
I met with the admissions director who informed me that I would have to speak directly to the Dean in order to gain admission, particularly since the first semester of the course had begun three months earlier and I, with no prior experience speaking or studying in French, would nevertheless be starting three months behind my classmates.
I urged the Dean that having graduated from law school in the United States, therefore studying law in French would present more of a linguistic challenge than a substantive challenge of learning the legal material. He agreed enough to let me try, and I discovered, to my utter amazement, that I was a student of international law at a renowned French program in the area, even though all the French I could speak was that which I had learned in the month I had been in France.
My classmates were fluent in French and where in this competitive graduate program to learning international law, compete for scarce internships and scholarships, and to make their particularly in non-governmental organization or international corporations once they had achieved their degrees. They were taking this business very seriously, and I found myself playing a role, taking the program as seriously as my classmates.
The course had started in September, I was official admitted in December, and final examinations in the Fall courses would begin on February 1. As I quickly got capable in French speaking skills, my classmates asked me urgently and encouragingly if I would be taking the midterm examinations, the passage of which would theoretically enable me to graduate from this program at the end of the school year. (If I was taking the midterms, I could help my classmates study, and if I was not then I would be irrelevant to their goals.)
These midterm examinations would include no multiple choice questions whatsoever. They would be entirely based on our essays, which would be written exclusively in French. This was quite a challenge compared to my original intention of merely being able to communicate in French after a year in France; I had never contemplated trying to earn an advanced degree there.
However, the dedication of my fellow students and the fact that most conversation turned on our prospects for academic success were forces that carried me along on a wave. When my colleagues asked if I would take the midterm exams, I began to say “yes”, like everyone else.
The difficulty was that my colleagues had already mastered French, and their culture had been immersed and steeped in the development of the European Union for decades, for their entire lives. I had no familiarity with the UE whatsoever.
Fellow students pointed me toward the best books on the various subjects upon which we would be tested. With the student loan money, I bought all of these books as well as an excellent French dictionary (English was of no use here), and I began reading the books both to learn the vocabulary of international law and treaties in French and to learn the history and substance of these treaties. During the days, I attended classes and had lunch with colleagues while at night I spent five or six hours teaching myself French and international law.
By the time February arrived, I was ready to discover the fine line between that which for me was impossible and that which was merely impossible, taking the final exams with all I had, whether it was sufficient or not. I used the strategy I had been taught to pass the Massachusetts Bar: Learn the buzz-words that lawyers and law professors use to encapsulate the substance and concepts of the law and work them all into your answers, based on what I had learned in the learned treatise that my fellow students had recommended.
As for grammar and syntax, I used the expressions in the same ways I had seen them used in the treatise, certainly mangling French along the way but not so much as to obscure the buzz-words and concepts that were the focus of our international law studies.
Just the experience was invigorating. Later I learned that I had passed all of my examinations with respectable grades, neither stellar nor embarrassing, enabling me to move on the second semester of the master’s program.
That is when I discovered two things central to the course of my studies: The degree I was pursuing in France (a masters degree) was actually a lesser degree than I had already achieved in the United States in order to be eligible for the Bar Exam. Since, unlike my classmates, I already had a juris doctoral degree, there was no reason why I should not commence my doctoral thesis in international law, leapfrogging much in the process. So, I enrolled in the Institutes’ doctoral program and began writing my doctoral thesis.
I decided to write my thesis on an areas with which, as an immigration lawyer, I was already familiar: the law of political asylum in the various countries of the European Union and the ways in which these laws were becoming more similar as the European Unions’ project of creating similar laws across national boundaries took hold. Using the Internet, I threw myself into the research for my thesis.
Shortly thereafter, however, I realized, in the throws of a deep existential depression, that I had already accomplished what I went to France to do, which was to learn to communicate in French. The study of international law and my doctoral thesis were means to a linguistic end, and not an ends in themselves. I had hitched my wagon to others' for a time, but now they were going in a direction that had no continuing relevance for me.
Yet, in the process, I discovered something that I will always take with me: If you are Atty. Francis L. Holland, it is possible start out with virtually no money, go to an unfamiliar foreign country in the middle of the academic semester, where the courses are taught in a language that is foreign, and still sit for and pass the final exams in international law with half the time for preparation that you colleagues have enjoyed.
I had distinguished, by hard work, determination and the immense help of my colleagues, the difference between that which appeared impossible and that which was merely highly improbable.