During the spring semester of 2019, Olivia Leslie ’20, a student from Williams College, volunteered with Sciences Po Refugee Help. A powerful experience that she shared with us here.
This semester, as a student at HiF and Sciences Po, a school specialized in government studies, I volunteer with the student-run organization, Sciences Po Refugee Help. SPRH is made up of 12 teams that provide different kinds of assistance — from material needs and social activities to research and asylum aid — to refugees and asylum seekers in Paris. I work with the French lessons team, teaching French classes once a week, just outside of Paris, in a men’s center for Sudanese and Afghani refugees.
Every Monday night, my partner, a Master’s student at Sciences Po, and I give lessons to a group of around four to seven people. The classes are optional, so the students can come in on a drop-in basis, which means they all have different levels of French. At first, it was really challenging for me to guess at what level the students were in order to prepare lessons, but my partner showed me that it is easier to have an arsenal of grammar concepts, games, and vocabulary to draw on and use on the fly, once we can gauge their level of French. Sometimes, my partner and I split up the group based on their levels of French so we can focus more specifically on each students’ individual strengths and weaknesses. We put special emphasis on learning vocabulary and grammar for basic living and survival, like writing and spelling one’s name or birthday aloud, introducing yourself, and asking for assistance.
While I’m able to help the students with their French, this experience has also really solidified my French skills. To prepare lessons, I’ve gone over old textbooks and revisited grammar rules that I haven’t studied since middle school. Having to teach these grammar concepts really means that I have to understand them for myself. Being American and having also learned French is also helpful, because I can recall what strategies my teachers used to teach me, what concepts are more difficult than others, and how to make those easier to understand.
When I give French lessons, I always try to keep everything fun and light, while still really urging them to work hard. I can remember really clearly that this is what pushed me to work hard, and it is useful when I see a student getting frustrated with themselves. One of the most striking moments I’ve had while teaching was helping a student with the alphabet. He was struggling with memorizing the letters and writing them, and I could tell he was getting discouraged. I kept telling him I understood that it was hard, and that he was doing a good job. He explained to me that he couldn’t even write in his native language, Arabic, because the Taliban had prohibited it. His determination to master the French alphabet was so clear, and while I was telling myself I wasn’t qualified to teach someone to write for the first time, this wasn’t about me, so I pushed him the way my professors pushed me. We repeated the alphabet over and over, he recited it without looking at the letters, he wrote down different letters as I read them to him, and finally, he wrote the alphabet down on his own. I hope when I leave, even if my weekly contributions were small, that I’ve encouraged my students and instilled in them the belief that they can succeed at learning French and at living in France.