Before attending Carnegie Mellon University, I lacked serious academic confidence. I worked hard and got good grades through high school and in my freshman year of college, which was spent at the University of Pittsburgh. But I continued to doubt myself and worried that sooner or later my hard work would not be enough to sustain me. Luck unexpectedly changed this for me. After beginning at Pitt, I placed into an intermediate French course that was full, so I got permission to cross-register at Carnegie Mellon for the comparable course. This is where I first met Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang, who was its instructor and who raised my self-esteem to a whole new level. During this French course, I came to realize that CMU was a much better fit for me than Pitt. Dr. Niang played a significant role in this realization, because she helped me believe that I could succeed here. I applied for transfer, and was accepted to begin my studies as a sophomore in Fall 2014.
Because of the confidence that I’ve gained from my experience at CMU, I’ve branched out of my comfort zone and have had experiences that I would have never imagined I would have had the confidence to pursue. Over the past summer, for example, I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France through a program unaffiliated with CMU. Needless to say, I was extremely anxious about the prospect of jumping into the unknown, but with the encouragement of Dr. Niang, I pursued an experience that I knew I would benefit from. After this unforgettable experience, my passion for French culture and French language amplified.
The experience in Aix also inspired the topic for my senior thesis. One of my biggest anxieties about studying abroad in France was using the French language. As silly as that sounds, I had only experienced using French in the classroom. And while this training prepared me to use proper grammar and cite relevant historical and cultural facts, I still felt unprepared to use French in the “French-speaking world.”
As it turns out, when I arrived in Aix-en-Provence, I was shocked to find that mostly every French person I encountered and interacted with spoke English. This surprised me because in comparison to Paris, where many natives will refuse to speak to Americans in French, I imagined Aix-en-Provence to be a much more isolated, genuine “French” city. And while Aix is rich with southern French culture and is a place that I absolutely fell in love with, I couldn’t help but realize how dominant the English language had become, so much so that I didn’t need to use my French skills to “get by.” Regardless, the Aixois were welcoming, and I was able to practice and improve my proficiency in French. Even so, I was still unable to forget the fact that many of my peers that I traveled with had no experience with studying French, and could just as easily “get by.” I started to wonder if the French language was becoming less significant in French life because so many of the natives seemed to prefer to use English when engaging with Americans.
Reflecting on my academic and travel experiences over the past few years, I am proud of the confidence that I have gained as a student, and am very grateful for what CMU has done to help me mature in this way. Stepping up to the challenge and opportunity of the Dietrich College Senior Honors Program to take on a project of my own with the same professor who so inspired me as a timid freshman will help me to truly develop as a researcher. This program will serve as a fulfilling and rewarding way to complete my undergraduate studies.