As Interim Director of the European Studies Program for the 2011-2012 academic year, I am happy to report that it has been a busy calendar year for our students, and that the program continues its tradition of sending students to spend a semester or more abroad. These include senior Gillian Dempsey who, after a semester at the Sorbonne in the spring 2011 will be graduating in May 2012. Concluding her semester at Edinburgh's Napier University studying English and history, Maria Trapnell will be returning to the UVM campus in January, working toward her second major in history and continuing her study of Italian. Azure Giroux, a junior majoring in both European Studies and English, is continuing at UVM her studies in French in preparation for a term in France this coming fall. Junior Sam Grabel is off to Spain in January for work in history and Spanish at the University of Salamanca. On the home front, senior Eliza Gomez-Reed, coming off a spring 2011 semester in Spain, is completing her degree in European studies with a minor in Spanish. Hannah Center, a senior and member of the Varsity Swim Team, is completing her coursework for a second major in French before graduating in May 2012.
Some on the UVM campus will likely remember Samuél Lopez-Barrantes, an alumnus who was awarded the "Outstanding Senior in European Studies" prize upon his graduation in 2010. He has since been living in Paris, and offers the following report from the banks of the Seine.
I am sitting in a small apartment overlooking the rooftops, writing away in the Parisian twilight. I have been living in France for the past two years, teaching English and writing a novel. I am thoroughly convinced that if it weren’t for UVM’s European studies program, I never would have been able to live out this fairy tale.
When I first started at UVM in the fall of 2006, I didn’t even know there was a European studies program. I was a student from a small high school in North Carolina interested in philosophy, history, Holocaust studies, social theory and French. And like many coming into college, I was clueless about which major to choose. When I realized that I could have an academic cocktail of everything that made me tick, I immediately knew that European Studies was a perfect fit.
As a freshman I took one of the most important courses of my college career, a TAP course called "The Holocaust in Historical Context." This class changed all that would come after it. When I received my first paper grade, I was shocked to realize that college was indeed much more rigorous than anything I had done before. Coming from a graduating class of thirty-five in a school that didn’t even give grades, I assumed my professor would give me a break on my first paper; even if it wasn't my best work, I thought he would take it easy on me. I quickly realized this was not the case. Three years later, the same professor who wrote, “it needs a lot of work” on my first work in college turned out to be the best and most demanding mentor and thesis advisor I could have hoped for.
Before my sophomore year I decided to apply to the Honors College. This was by far the best choice I made as a UVM student. The Honors College teaches you to challenge yourself as well as to strive for excellence, two lessons that have served me well throughout my young life. I was lucky enough to be able to publish an essay in the UVM History Review during my sophomore year, and after a successful sophomore year defined by completing the majority of my Holocaust studies minor and playing in a funk/jazz/rock group called The Sepia Tones, I was ready to jump across the pond.
Although initially intimidated by the prospect of immersing myself in another culture for an entire year, I decided to study abroad for ten months in Paris (an experience that the GRS program strongly supports and, in fact, recommends). I enrolled in local universities, played piano and sang in jazz clubs, picked up blues harmonica, and became so immersed in the language that by the second semester I rarely spoke English. And as the romantic image of Paris would have it, I met a Parisian woman, fell in love with her and the city, and immediately came back after graduation to (sound the cliché horns) write a novel.
But that was only junior year. Upon my return I put my head down and began the arduous process of pursuing thesis work. I spent a hectic month preparing a proposal that went through seven drafts, and then spent several months and countless hours on Bailey Howe’s third-floor producing a thesis based in my interest in the history of the Holocaust entitled, “The Jewish Councils of Poland and the Evolution of Historical Interpretation.” I graduated from the Honors College in May 2010 and have since moved to Paris to write fiction.
No, it’s not a book about an American moving to Paris to find himself. Fueled by my interests in history, totalitarian states, and philosophy, the book is a semi-parodic and quasi-dystopian story about an oppressed nation and the individuals within. The work is a critique of the pervasiveness of fear in modern society–specifically, how the media purveys fear (for example, one of the main characters is a newscaster struggling with the fear mongering that slowly infests his broadcasts)–and how each of us attempts to overcome our anxieties.
The novel is written from the perspective of a narrator who has lost most of her memory due to vague and sinister circumstances. Hoping to remember what happened, and as a nod to my historical roots, the narrator is aided by a mysterious whistleblower who provides her with historical “sources”: leaked documents, transcripts, wiretapped conversations and surveillance footage that recall memory and uncover the truth behind a tyrannical regime’s paradoxical strategy to use coercion and fear to liberate. I plan to revise the novel once more before learning just how hard it is to get a novel published, and I look forward to what seems to be a Sisyphean process of getting something in print.
Which brings me back to this small Parisian apartment where I am still writing. In my opinion, it clear that the liberal arts education is one of the greatest things about the United States. As an extension, global and regional studies are symbolic of this very American ideal to pursue what we love versus what will guarantee us a steady job. Because I was allowed to take an interdisciplinary approach to academics, I have been able to travel and expand my own ideas of what I want to do with my life. I intend to enroll in a master’s program in the U.K. next year (for European studies or history), but I also intend to keep writing novels for my own interests, with the future goal of inspiring others. I love living in Paris and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
The European studies program changed my life. Although I hate to use clichés: I am an American living in France who wants to publish novels, play music in jazz clubs, and one day become a professor–it’s almost painful when I say it out loud. But the European studies program and the professors associated with it have allowed me to live a life I was skeptical even existed, and as far as choosing a major at UVM, I know I made the right choice.