France: SAP’s Inaugural Study Tour


Le Mont Saint Michele, a Gothic style Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel Saint Michael was built between the 11th and 16th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Photo credit: Getty)

“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” John Hope Franklin, American Historian


Here is Rick Steve’s review of Le Mont Saint Michele. (Photo by Garrit Wes Anderson)

Thirty-one students, three faculty members and two staff members form WVC Study Abroad Program’s inaugural study tour left for France at 3:00 AM on Wednesday 10 January. I, the Director of the WVC Study Abroad Program, will be blogging about this exciting study tour. SAP has been planning it for exactly one year. My colleagues and all of the students will contribute their ideas and pictures too. We hope that you follow our learning adventures.


“Church and State, Soul and Body, God and Man, are all one at Mont Saint Michel, and the business of all is to fight, each in his own way, or to stand guard for each other.” Henry Adams (1838-1918), American scholar and author of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, a book that is a meditative reflection on medieval culture.


The entire group of 36 and EF’s Tour Manager on Friday 12 January 2018.

The itinerary includes Paris, the Loire Valley, St. Malo, and Normandy. We have worked with EF College Study Tours. Highlights in the itinerary include: major sights, museums, and Versailles in Paris; the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Mont Saint Michell Abbey in Normandy, and a troglodyte cave dwelling and the Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Before departing we enjoyed a celebration and WVC President, Bradley J. Davis, presented certificates to the 15 full scholarship winners.

All students in this study tour are required to complete at least one of the three courses offered:

  • French Conversation 50A taught by Dr. Anna Brichko: Designed for those desiring a basic practical conversational approach to learning a language, this course emphasizes conversation and vocabulary-building with a minimum of grammar.  Before departing students learned about and made presentations regarding history, culture and each of the sites we would visit. And while in France, they have to order their meals and interact with French people in various situations by using French.

Dr. Anna Brichko’s students (left to right: Hayley Robinson, Andrea Illescas-Sousa, Elias Faris) enjoying their meals at a restaurant in the town of Versailles after ordering in French.

  • English 49 or 49 Honors Modern Fiction taught by Leigh Burrill: This course focus on reading and analyzing fiction from the Modern Period (1895-1945). Students also learn about American writers (e.g., Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin) who lived and worked in Paris and other locations in France.

Leigh Burrill teaching about modern writer Oscar Wilde in front of his grave at Le cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

  • Women and Gender Studies 2 Women in the Arts: Multicultural Perspectives taught by Dr. Dulce María Gray: This course introduces students to the study of women’s creative work in literature, the visual arts, and the performing arts, especially in France. Students also learn about American women artists (Isadora Duncan, Mary Cassatt, Josephine Baker) who lived and worked in France.

Dr. Dulce María Gray and her students in the Women in the Arts class (left to right: Sejla Garbo, Imai Manzanedo, Sophia Arvelo, Corinne Cowden, Maria Garcia, Sara Woo, Justine Afalla, Shira Tilton) after discussing French philosopher and writer, Simone de Beauvoir, and France’s national symbol of the Republic and personification of liberty and reason, Marianne.

On Wednesday 10 January, the group met at 3:00 AM to depart from SFO.


Students Nathan, Elias, Jonathan, Issa and Andrea wait for the flight out to Paris. (Photo by Leigh Burrill)

On our first day in Paris, Thursday 11 January


Exhausted after over 24 hours in airports and two planes, we made it to CDG, the huge airport in Paris.

We got off the plane, dropped off our suitcases at the hotel, and went to Le cimetière du Père-Lachaise and walked through the Latin Quarter (on the left bank of the Seine, around the Sorbonne, a university opened in 1150), one of Paris’ bohemian and politically significant areas where the French resistance worked against the occupying Nazis and students famously protested in 1968.


Paula Flynn and students Allison Hashemi and Vanessa Gliever visiting chanteuse Édith Piaf at Le cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

Enjoy Piaf’s most famous song: “La vie en rose.”

IMG_3395We visited the magnificent Sainte-Chapelle a Gothic style chapel on L’île de la Cité, near Notre Dame. This chapel was meant to house precious Christian relics, including Christ’s crown of thorns. Sainte- Chapelle’s stained glass windows depict 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

We stopped by cafés such as Les Deux Magots (opened in 1873) and le Café de Flore (open in the 1930s) where students could see where prolific artists such as Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Diego and Alberto Giacometti, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin sat to discuss their lives and work.


And we took a walking tour of the city.


The whole group listening to a brief lecture on the Latin Quarter of Paris in front of Lycée-Fénelon, the first high school for girls, founded in 1892.

WVC students marveled at the grandeur of La Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, where the first flying buttresses were built, and a painting of Saint Paul Chen which hangs inside the cathedral.


The streets of Paris as our classrooms:


We walked, rode on public and private buses, and maneuvered ourselves through the Metro.


And we stopped for hot drinks: students had fun ordering in French. Gianna and Alissa (and Kira in the background) really liked this café in the 7th arrondissement.


So many cafés and so little time: Paula Flynn and students Krizelle, Kara, Erick, Maria.

On our second day in Paris, Friday 12 January

We took a bus tour of the city.


L’avenue des Champs-Élysées on a cold and rainy morning.

When we arrived at the Tour Eiffel, something magical happened. Students Brian Pribyl and Alexandra Venter became engaged to be married. Brian asked her in Place Jacques Rueff in front of the Eiffel Tower with the rest of us cheering them–and Alex said yes!


Brian and Alex become engaged to be married! (Photo by Nathan Shehadeh)

On the afternoon of Friday 12 January, we enjoyed a glorious afternoon walking through Château de Versailles, the residence of France’s King Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI.


Students, Drs. Dulce María Gray and Anna Brichko, and Leigh Burrill waiting to enter Château de Versailles.

There were endless teaching-learning moments at Château de Versailles.


Hayley, Brian, Corinne, Imai, and other students at Château de Versailles.


Issa and other students learning at Château de Versailles.


Here we are listening to a lecture on French history and culture.


Behin in the beautiful Hall of Mirrors at Château de Versailles.

On the evening of Friday January 12, we visited Montmartre and Sacré Coeur Basilica.

Students were asked to keep a journal. Here is a snippet of Andrea Illescas-Sousa’s journal, which includes her drawings.


On our third day in France, Saturday 13 January

We drove to the Loire Valley. Our first stop was at Chartres, a very popular town for Impressionists painters.


Our program guide, Mario Monteiro, lectures on gothic architecture and the Cathédral Notre Dame de Chartres.


Students Vanessa, Allison, Nancy and Dr. Anna Brichko at Chartres Cathedral. (Photo by Leigh Burrill)

We continued to Château de Chambord and finally enjoyed a walking tour of the city of Tours, the home of impressive châteaux and great vineyards. And of course, as we traveled, students practiced speaking in French, and learning about modern writers and women and gender studies.


Chateau de Chambord (Photo by Behindokht Noormanesh)

Oh yes, we were always ready to eat–again!


Left to right: Andrea, Elias, Nathan, Justine, Behindokht Noormanesh, Shira, Dr. Dulce María Gray, Sophia. (Photo by Leigh Burrill)

On our fourth day in France, Sunday 14 January

We drove to Amboise where we toured Château d’Amboise, a favorite royal residence (where King Charles VIII died in 1498), and to Le Château Clos Lucé, the home of Léonardo da Vinci.


The dining room in Le Château Clos Lucé set up for Christmas dinner, as Léonardo da Vinci would have wanted it.


Student Joyce loved all the plants in the kitchen of Le Château de Chenonceau.

We toured Château de Chenonceau built over the River Cher in the small village of Chenonceaux. The château has been classified as a Monument Historique since 1840 by the French Ministry of Culture.


Château Chenonceau was built in 1514-1522.


Students Krizelle and Erick enjoy the grounds at Château de Chenonceau.

That wonderful and instructive day of château hopping ended with a tour of a winery where students learned about the French wine industry and about how different kinds of wine are made in the Loire Valley.


The tour of the winery was followed by wine-tasting at Plou and Fils, where we had a hearty toast to the newly engaged couple.


Everyone toasts to Brian and Alex.

And then we enjoyed dinner at La Cave Aux Fouées, one of the many troglodyte sites in the Loire Valley.


Before dinner at La Cave Aux Fouées, students Hayley, Imai, Sejla and Silas pose for a picture. (Photo by Leigh Burrill)

On our fifth day in France, Monday 15 January

We drove to the magical island and abbey in spectacular Mont Saint Michel. This Benedictine abbey has been in the making since 966, through medieval times when buildings were added, and subsequently where it became a renowned center of learning where some of the greatest manuscripts in Europe were illuminated. Today, vast numbers of pilgrims and tourists visit each year. Many of us climbed the equivalent 36 floors up to the abbey. From Mont Saint Michel we drove on to the walled Ville de Saint Malo.


Approaching Mont Saint Michele during a moment of sunshine. (Photo by Behindokht Noormanesh)


Left to right: Alissa, Paula Flynn, Dr. Dulce María Gray, Imai, Rachel, Maria, Dr. Anna Brichko (Photo by Leigh Burrill).

On our sixth day in France, Tuesday 16 January

We drove to Normandy and learned a great deal about D Day and the American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to help liberate France from German invasion.


Students reflecting at Les Braves war memorial sculpture on Omaha Beach commemorates fallen American soldiers who helped to liberate France.

Anilore Ban, the sculptor of Les Braves, says:

I created this sculpture to honour the courage of these men: Sons, husbands and fathers, who endangered and often sacrificed their lives in the hope of freeing the French people.

Les Braves consists of three elements:

The wings of Hope
So that the spirit which carried these men on June 6th, 1944 continues to inspire us, reminding us that together it is always possible to changing the future.

Rise, Freedom!
So that the example of those who rose against barbarity, helps us remain standing strong against all forms of inhumanity.

The Wings of Fraternity
So that this surge of brotherhood always reminds us of our responsibility towards others as well as ourselves.


Canon in Normandy (Photo by Leigh Burrill)


Childhood friends future engineer Michael and future professor of military history Jonathan share reflections on being in Normandy.


Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves sculpture, created in 1951 by Donald Harcourt De Lue, at the American Cemetery and Memorial at Normandy.


Student Shira reflecting at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, which contains the remains of 9,387 American soldiers, including 4 women, who died in Normandy.


Phoenix blocks, remnants of the Mulberry artificial Harbour, on Gold Beach in Arromanches. The harbor was towed all the way from Britain for the Normandy landings that took place on D Day, 6 June 1944.

We stopped off in Arromanches, where the big concrete blocks remains of the Mulberry Harbour, towed all the way from Britain for D Day, can still be seen.


Students Xavier and Gianna show how well prepared they were for the rain in Arromanches.

In Arromanches we shared a delicious French lunch, including fresh moules. Here are recipes if you want to cook moules.


Left to right: Nathan, Silas, our program guide Mario Monteiro, Leigh Burrill, Rachel, Brian, Alex, Milton, and the eye of Madame Brichko.


This was Alex’s very first moule–and many weren’t sure that she should be so daring.


Justine was thrilled to find a Bansky in Arromanches, and of course, just as thrilled to tell anyone who asked about Bansky.

From Arromanches we drove to Caen just 15 kilometers from the English Channel.

On our seventh day in France, Wednesday 17 January

We drove back to Paris and straight to the Musée du Louvre. Students had been instructed to research their six favorite pieces and to focus on seeing those in the short time that we had.


Maria in an an excellent pose at Musée du Louvre. (Photo by Andrea Illescas-Sousa)


Our last picture as a group, in front of the Musée du Louvre.

After the Louvre, people dispersed to shop, to see other sights, to share a meal, and to visit Shakespeare and Company, a fabulous bookstore across from Notre Dame.


Shira a the legendary English language bookstore in Paris: Shakespeare and Company.

Later, many joined us at L’Atelier Cuisine et Santé for a cooking and French nutrition class. That was a delicious and healthy dinner!

IMG_1767On the last night in Paris, students took a cooking class and then ate their labor.

Then, quite a few of us took a cruise on the Seine.


The Eiffel Tower seen from the Seine.

Gifts for those at home

Yes, many purchased chocolate from Angelina’s, and paintings and Eiffel Tower key chains, but others also brought back other kinds of gifts for their loved ones.


Shira found a perfect sea shell in Normandy. She’ll give it to one of her four children.


Shira also found the perfect twig to give her husband, because he whittles.


Kara and many others (especially those whose grandfathers served during WWII) took a bit of sand from Omaha Beach.

On our last day, Thursday 18 January, students departed Paris, though a few remained in Paris, and a few others went to Vienna, Berlin, Prague, and other places.

Our last official meeting is on 25 January on the WVC campus. That’s when we will debrief and administer final exams.


“Morning Awakening” by French Impressionist painter Eva Gonzalès (done in Kunsthalle Bremen, Bremen, Germany in 1876).

Here are insightful reflections about the study tour written by students who were awarded scholarships

Gianna Aiello: The wonderful thing about travelling—particularly to a country with a national language that is foreign to you—is that it turns your world upside down. Though I have travelled internationally before, travelling overseas, coping with jet lag, and staying energized with a packed schedule presents a completely different experience. Travelling in a large group with a Parisian native as a guide eliminated a great deal of the obstacles my peers and I would have faced without these assists. Despite this, we faced multiple challenges particularly with the language barrier. For instance, one of the members of my group and I were looking for a store that sells running shoes. At the time, we were in a small town. There were only two people we saw on the main road. We asked them if either of them spoke English. They didn’t. We asked them where the closest shoe store was. Fortunately, they were kind enough to attempt to help us. By using a combination of crude hand gestures and a French translation app, they pointed us in the right direction. This entire exchange helped me realize the privilege that comes with spending time in a country that has a national language that one is familiar with. Not knowing the common language turns the most mundane tasks into a challenge. Facing linguistic challenges like this every day must be incredibly frustrating. Living in a country with an unfamiliar language would be soul-crushingly difficult. These difficulties are compounded when political issues enter the equation. White supremacists and other peoples against acceptance compound the difficulty of these situations exponentially. After struggling to fit into a foreign culture, nothing could be more heartbreaking than being told that I am unwanted and have no place in that society.

Corinne Cowden: On a day when nothing seemed to be going right, I was one of the lucky students to have been selected to receive a scholarship to travel to France and study a subject I am passionate about. Needless to say, my day began to look a bit brighter. Traveling to France surrounded by a diverse group of individuals allowed me the opportunity to branch out of my shell and interact with new people, some of whom I had previously encountered in several classes the year prior. Despite being slightly nervous about traveling abroad for the first time, the main emotion I felt was excitement–excitement for something new, something that cannot be learned from the pages of a textbook. As a student pursuing a degree in Sociology and Women, Gender and Queer Studies, I went abroad with no expectations, and I kept in mind that I was about to experience a culture that I had no prior knowledge of. Because of this, I was open-minded, and ready to immerse myself as if I were a French national. Though I didn’t speak much of the language besides the basics (bonjour, merci, parlez vous anglais?), I made an effort to approach each day as if I were apart of their society. In doing so, I was able to begin to understand the very foundations their society was built upon. This trip provided me with more knowledge than I could have ever hoped to gain. I learned more of the history of France, their values, beliefs, behaviors, and just how similar they are to our own. I will always carry with me this new-found knowledge, and I will make an effort to share it with those around me. Due to this incredible opportunity, I was able to come back with a new sense of self and a new perspective on the world–something I will always be grateful for.

Sejla Garbo: Going into this trip, I expected a massive culture shock and to learn a lot about art in France (based on the itinerary we were given). However, I did not expect to make a surplus of new friends, be challenged in both my independence and ability to be alone, and learn about a culture that is so beautiful and historic in its own unique way. This trip has provided me with a new point of view on what it’s like to be an immigrant. Because I came to America while I was still quite young, I never went through the phase of needing a translator or struggling entirely to speak a language, I only struggled a few times with translating some words from Bosnian to English. Being so vulnerable and new to France that I barely knew how to communicate was both terrifying and refreshing. I quite liked not having a safety net the whole time and being able to venture out on our own because it forced me to step out of my comfort zone and be a leader for myself and others in order to get from point A to point B. Along with my newly acquired confidence in being a leader to strangers, I also gained a comfort in being alone. For the bus rides and walks around the museum, I was able to be alone with my thoughts and truly reflect on the day’s activities and what we had learned that day. The skills of being able to work alone and with others, be a leader, and be able to put myself in others’ shoes will be skills that I use every day in my future career as a psychologist and/or lawyer, and I am eternally grateful to have been awarded the opportunity to be a part of this study abroad trip that I will remember for years to come.

Vanessa Gliever: When I was approached about applying for this scholarship, the thought gave me anxiety and I was not interested. I was comfortable with my style of living, staying within my comfort zone which did not include traveling to a different continent or flying on a plane regardless of the destination. Thanks to the insight of my friends, family, and to my own deep introspection, I was encouraged to delve into my anxiety and to take the opportunity to apply, since such a scholarship may not have present itself again. It took me weeks, but I finally submitted the application, only partially even expecting to get accepted. Weeks after this, I received an email containing the word “congratulations.” I was filled with emotions, pride, anxiety, excitement, and unease. Soon it was only 2 months until the trip, and then 2 weeks, and then 2 days. The fear of the plane really set it when we drove to the airport and I saw the massive planes and felt the anticipation that I would soon be in one of them, thousands of feet in the air. The first step of this trip was conquering this fear of planes. After I accomplished that, I could really enjoy the trip and throw myself into the culture shock I was going to experience. I learned about French culture and was completely humbled by it. I saw beautiful architecture and historical monuments that my dad would call “fuel for my dreams.” During this trip, I learned about myself and about my expectations. Now I understand that reality will give me challenges that aren’t necessarily what I wanted, but they’re what I need. This trip gave me what I needed to grow and I’m incredibly grateful.

Issa Ibrahimi: As an avid reader of world history, I have come across many events in the world that have been influenced by a single country in Western Europe, and that is no other than France. I have been in several countries in Asia and have seen the evidence of French influence on their cultures, etiquette, appearances, and fashion. Besides, it was out of the era of enlightenment and logical thinking in Europe that the French revolution was born. It was in France that Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power and brought many of his European rivals to their knees. He shaped the geopolitics of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia at the time.

With all of this in my mind, I was delighted to be granted a Study Abroad Program scholarship at West Valley College to visit France and learn about the culture, language, history and geography. This scholarship enabled me to see the places that I had never imagined I would visit. We were able to see the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of France’s architectural might, the Palace of Versailles where king Louis XIV was eager to spend most of the wealth he was  accumulating from his subjects in order to show France’s grand reputation in Europe, and the Louvre in Paris that has the reputation of being the world’s biggest museum. It was a great experience to me to learn about French history through the paintings and sculptures that were in display, and to drive through the green Loire Valley in central France, to see the beauty of the Normandy region in Northwest France is fascinating.

We were also visited the American cemetery in Normandy, where thousands of Americans bravely defended France’s freedom from an evil power that wanted to subjugate the world. We were able to see where the Allied Forces landed in Normandy during World War II.  We were able to find out about the history of the area and to learn about other events that occurred during D-Day. We saw that the landing at Pointe du Hoc was the starting point for the Allied Forces to push their way towards mainland Europe and Germany. It is hard to imagine how difficult it would have been for those soldiers who had to climb the stiff cliff while being under fire.

I would like to thank West Valley College, especially the team of instructors, professors and staff who accompanied us during this trip. I appreciate their guidance and support.

Andrea Illescas-Sousa: I never expected to have the opportunity to visit France for the second time in such a short amount of time. My first time visiting Paris was in June 2017, for my 21st birthday. From the very beginning, Paris alone felt like home away from home. I had noticed so many similarities to my hometown in Mexico City. The Champs-Elysees is much like the Paseo de la Reforma; the Palais Garnier is like the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and just like the region of Cuauhtémoc in general. Visiting the different regions of France, however, was immensely different from any place I have been to before. The island of Mont Saint Michel, as well as the walled city of St. Malo, and the historic areas in Normandy like Omaha Beach and the American cemetery were all very surreal. I learned a lot more about the history of France while visiting each château, with the help of each tour guide. There are so many stories, told and untold, that made me realize just how valuable life is; not only because of each individual story, but precisely because of how each one of those person’s lives affected their small town, country, or society as a whole. That’s why I love traveling and learning about different histories and cultures around the world, because it gives so much more meaning to my own life. I learned so much and visited so many beautiful places, but the best part about the trip was experiencing it all with wonderful people with that same wanderlust and genuine interest in learning about a different country.

Lubna Keval: Le mouvement est la cause de toute vie. Movement is the cause of all life. We all have a favourite quote or two that inspire us to live in every sense of the word. I came across this quote in Léonardo da Vinci’s home and have carried the words with me since. It encapsulates everything the study abroad experience has done for me, to me. I walked the chateaus in awe, on paths frequented by kings and queens, and through gardens under the same skies that sheltered them centuries ago. I found tranquillity within the walls of some of the most beautiful places of worship, almost hearing the prayers that have been said there since before my time. I walked where the voice of a people rose in rebellion; and in rooms where treaties were signed to end wars. I sought peace, love and understanding where heroes had fought, fallen, and been laid to rest. I stood surrounded by some of the world’s most precious works of art. And I found myself in the home of a genius (da Vinci)–someone I had only read about since childhood, never once thinking that I’d be a visitor in his home, albeit a few centuries too late. I learned about the French culture and for a small moment in time, connected with people I’ll never meet again but will remember for a long time to come. And at the end of it all, I felt like a part of the weave that holds everything in place. This once-in-a-lifetime experience has been a gift for which I will always remain profoundly grateful. It has provided me with an incredible opportunity to pause, reflect and connect, and to keep moving.

Imai Manzanedo: The time I spent in France will be an experience that I will never forget. I have come back seeing things is a different way and in all honesty, feeling more daring. I feel like I have gained a new found independence and am okay with being without guidance all the time. Having the opportunity to venture out on your own is detrimental to growing up, and I was able to receive that during this study abroad tour. I learned so much every day, from the creation of the amazing Chateaux we visited to different aspects of the French culture. Seeing the culture and art in person really added a special element to the class I took, Women and Gender Studies: Women in The Arts. This tour really helped me understand the class material so much more because I was able to experience the history that we were learning about. I was put out of my element with the language, food, and independence but learned to get comfortable speaking my limited french and exploring France through public transportation. I tried foods that I wouldn’t have otherwise and was able to lead my friends through the metro single handedly. This experience has done so much for me, from helping me learn about France’s culture and history, to helping me grow up and come back feeling a lot more independent than I thought I would. It might sound exaggerated but I mean it when I say I really am a different person now, and am looking forward to what the future holds for me. Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity.

Kara Melnychuk: This experience was so much more than I could have imagined. France itself was amazing, a change and a difference I’m so thankful that I got to experience. Everything I learned while we were over there taught me so much about culture, language and life itself. I felt so brave, as if traveling the world was something I could see myself doing in the future. Traveling with so many people taught me so much about others and how to react with them. I have never traveled with so many people and it was the best challenge I’ve ever experienced in my life. Every moment spent with these people taught me just a little bit more about myself and those around me. These people who I barely knew at the beginning of this trip became my closest friends. Don’t get me wrong France was beautiful and everything and more, but these people kept me laughing and emotional on this trip. When I was alone I enjoyed the language, architecture and the beauty of the culture, but when I was with the others I was experiencing a whole new type of experience, something I had never felt before, companionship. Although I know I can make it in this world alone, this trip truly showed me that I am not alone. France was everything, the beauty of the architecture, the sounds of the city, the surreal countryside, and the difference in language. Stepping out of my comfort zone was well worth this lesson of life, this experience of culture. However, I am more than humbled at getting the chance to travel to gorgeous France, the people I traveled with were just as much a highlight of this trip as every serene and interesting thing we saw. These people who I had never met became so much to my heart. They made this experience just that much more heartfelt and real. I could not be more thankful for this experience. I feel so humbled. To the people I got to know and enjoyed their company, thank you. I needed this, more than I could have imagined. I needed this. Thank you to everyone who made this possible. Thank you. I am grateful for everything you have given me. I will not waste what I’ve learned. I promise you I will make this gift worth it.


Shira Tilton enjoying France!

Shira Tilton: The night before we were scheduled to depart from SFO to France, I was very anxious. I could not sleep. Worry invaded my entire being. What if I lost my passport before the flight? What if I got to France and my ATM card didn’t work even though I contacted the bank? What will it be like in France? Will I hate it and wish I was home? One to have never left the country, I was scared by the uncertainty of it all.

Once I stepped foot in Paris all my anxieties and fears melted away. I was in France!  Everywhere I looked I saw amazing things. I touched a door in Sainte-Chapelle that kings walked through so many hundreds of years ago. I walked through streets and gazed upon statues, buildings and gardens. I ate foods that tasted so marvelous that I wish I could bring it all home. I sat in cafés and watched as people strolled by. I stood on the beaches that the allies invaded and cried in the American Cemetery quietly thanking the solders for their sacrifice. I experienced life in a different culture, which expanded my mind in so many ways that I didn’t even know was possible.

All these experiences, I never would have thought would be mine. I am 35 years old, mother of 4 kids and a full-time student. I would never have had a truly enriching opportunity such as this one if it wasn’t for the Study Abroad Program scholarship. I am most grateful to this program and all that it has taught me.

Alexandra Venter: Even as a young girl, I knew that I would travel abroad one day. I was fascinated by the thought of how small I was, in this very big world. We get so used to our culture, and our way of life, that I believe we forget how much the world truly has to offer. When I found out that West Valley College was offering a study abroad program to Paris, I was ecstatic. I came from a place of being scared and nervous to attend college, to completely embracing everything it had to offer. To say that I came back from France as a changed person is an understatement. Although the eight days I spent there flew by, the impact it made will last a lifetime. I learned a little French in the few days prior to our departure, and surprisingly, it was enough to get by. Not only was I able to get by, but I started to communicate and partake in conversations multiple times. As the days went on, I felt more and more comfortable speaking up and interacting with others, such as our taxi driver. We were able to travel to seven different cities, and each day was filled with multiple tours. The French culture is very different than ours. There is so much history, artistry, and detailing, both inside and outside of every building. Some buildings were created a thousand years ago, which is something you would never see here in the states. In the Palace at Versailles, I was answering questions about King Louis XVI and Bastille Day. The tour guide asked if I was a historian, and that was the best compliment I have ever received in my life. I am so proud of myself for becoming educated in France’s history. Everything there is breathtaking, from the food to the landmarks. Studying abroad has opened my eyes to new possibilities. I feel like my story has just begun.


American artist Josephine Baker who sought freedom by moving to France.

Here are samples of the work done by students in Dr. Gray’s Women in the Arts class

These journal entries respond to this assignment question: What do you learn about French women–and the study of all women–when you analyze the images of French women through the lense of race?

As we’ve previously discussed within class, women have been at a vast disadvantage within the art world in comparison to men, but women of color have specifically been undervalued and left to trail behind their white counterparts. Not only do we see this within the art world, but nearly every other work force as well. Women of color are constantly over looked due to their race, and not given the fair and rightful chance they deserve in order to succeed within their given professions. Women of color are continuously overlooked despite their contributions, and are frequently detached from their art as they begin to be hyper sexualized by viewers due to their “exotic” or “revealing” ways.

Having read through the many articles presented to us in class, it is easy to see the difference between the success rate of women of color, and those who are white. Despite the artwork, whether it be poetry, painting, dance, or singing, women of color have received the short end of the stick throughout history. Could this be due to any other reason besides their gender and race? It seems doubtful as we’ve began to notice that those successful within their careers, are often subject to sexualization and trivialization. A specific example of this would be Josephine Baker.

Baker is considered to be one of the most popular and liked dancers in France of all time, but often her success is linked to the length of her skirt. She remains sexualized and generally overlooked despite her unique contributions to the world of dance, her aide to the French Resistance, and her contributions to the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Another woman of color who faced oppression on a heavier note is Audre Lorde. Lorde was overlooked and criticized heavily due to the three positions of herself she could not control: her gender, race, and sexuality. Lorde worked from a young age to improve her writing skills, submitting poetry entries to magazines that would eventually publish her work from a young age (i.e. Seventeen). However, her success began to receive negative attention as she grew and her work shifted to become more political during a time where women, and especially those of color, were supposed to submit to the ways of men and their control. In contrast to Josephine Baker, Lorde was not hyper sexualized, but instead she was put down due to her confidence regarding her own sexuality, and the empowering themes within her poetry.

To conclude, having studied many women in this course, and during our time in France, I am fairly confident in my ability to recognize both the lack of women artists in comparison to men, and the lack of women of color artists in comparison to their white counterparts. Through this coursework, I was able to see that many women of color barely made the list of being successful, whether it be through dance, winemaking, music, painting, etc. Those who were successful, often had their success linked to a certain attribute about themselves, which were frequently sexualized by the male audience. It is through the work of artists such as Baker and Lorde that we begin to see a shift in the way an artist handles such adversity, and how despite the critics, they are able to push their way to the top through courageous and selfless acts. By Corinne Cowden

And this is Corinne’s response to another student’s journal entry: I’d first like to start out by saying your response to the prompt captured my emotions exactly, as you went on to speak of how women of color are often hyper sexualized, whereas white women are portrayed as “innocent” and “pure.” Why is there such a distinction within the way women are portrayed? When did having a darker skin tone mean you were “tainted” or “dirty” in comparison to that of white skin? The sad truth is that this has existed for too long of a time, and has since been immortalized within the artwork we seem to praise today. Luckily, this comparison has shrunk within time, as we now see a movement in which women of color take ownership of their skin tones in a form of empowerment.

You then move on to speak of dancers Josephine Baker and Samia Gamal, and how their specific dances were often sexualized by men. I completely agree with this, as I maintain the notion that almost nothing is sexual until somebody begins to sexualize it. In the case of their dancing, one could argue that their dances were natural, and in line with the way their bodies were able to move (nothing sexual about it), but that it became sexual the minute a man began to view it, as he took it for an invitation to something much more private and covert.

You also spoke of the contrast between Cléo de Mérode and Alicia Alonso, which I didn’t pick up right away before going back to read their biographies after your response. You are entirely correct, Merode was trademarked as an innocent, gentle ballerina, whereas Alonso was sexualized both on and off the stage due to her Cuban ethnicity and body. To answer your question on why was Alonso shown in a different way due to her Cuban roots, one can only infer that her body type led to the further sexualization she faced within her career. Ballerinas were known for having small figures, so it must have been a surprise when Alonso entered the scene due to her strong, different build. I also think that during the time a woman of an ethnic background was perceived to be more exotic, as many people had little to no idea of the exact society in which these ethnicities originate from.

Also, in regards to your comment on how little women of color were represented within the list of cello artists, I can only begin to believe that this was due to the fact that many women of color were not afforded the opportunity to play the cello. From my research, I found that the cello was considered a sophisticated instrument, usually reserved for those who had more money than others, which could be part of the unfortunate reason as to why many women of color were left of the list.

I enjoyed reading your response, and appreciate how it helped me understand the concepts within articles a bit better than how I did previously on my own.


Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix

In the male dominated world of art there is little room for success as a woman, especially as a woman of color. In France, we see women, whether white or black, like Gertrude Stein and Josephine Baker reach some level of success as an artist. But although France is seen as a place for artistic freedom for many artists, there is still a lack of representation of women of color in the art world. In museums like the Louvre, or even in cathedrals, we see women once again as the victims of the male gaze; either as sex symbols, virgins, or mothers. We rarely see them as the artists. France, with its multiple museums and long history, is probably one of the best places to study and to see how women are represented in the art world.

While in the Louvre, I saw multiple works of art showcased women naked, oftentimes breastfeeding, or as virgins. I realized how hard it was to find women of color in the museum. When it comes to black people, they are always portrayed as servants or just in the background. This can be see in Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Delacroix, and in Olympia by Manet. Josephine Baker, like Gertrude Stein, also moved to France. As a black woman Josephine Baker would not have reached the same amount of success in the United States that she did in France. Baker used race to her advantage. According to Jerkins, “Baker brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination. Crossing her eyes, waving her arms, swaying her hips, poking out her backside, she clowned and seduced and subverted stereotypes.

By reclaiming her image, she advanced her career in ways unprecedented for a woman of that time.” Thanks to her fame in France, Baker had the power to fight racial discrimination by refusing to play at segregated venues. Analyzing the images of French women through the lens of race I see that there’s still a problem with the lack of artists of color, and artists that are women in the world. (Jerkins, Morgan. “90 Years Later, the Radical Power of Josephine Baker’s Banana Skirt.” Vogue, 25 May 2017. By Maria Garcia

And this is Maria’s response to another student’s journal entry: I enjoyed reading your short summary on our trip to France, and seeing how you related topics and readings that we have learned about to our trip. In your introduction you pointed out that many of the women that do succeed in the arts, in France, tend to be white women which is something that I realized too. I was not shocked to learn this. In most western countries we tend to see those of color as less than others. France much like the United States is a multicultural melting pot filled with immigrants from all over the world. Even their symbol of freedom, Marianne, has been recently modeled on a post stamp after Ukranian asylum seeker Inna Shevchenko.

However, it is important to note that France has a lot of notable women in their history including queens, artists. Versaille is one of the places where women have notably made their mark in French history. The role as chief mistress was one of the most fought for positions at the palace. This was weird to me until I learned about the advantages of this role. As the official mistress you’d be allowed to live in the palace and have your own powers, kind of like a second queen. Madame de Pompidou was someone who especially caught my attention. According to wikipedia, “she took charge of the king’s schedule and was a valued aide and advisor, despite her frail health and many political enemies. She secured titles of nobility for herself and her relatives, and built a network of clients and supporters.”

At Chateau de Chenonceau we also see the role of queens and mistresses being important as you noted in your journal. Another important movement lead by women at Versaille was the march on Versaille, a significant movement in the revolution. The march was lead by everyday women that worked in the city. It was definitely empowering to me as well and showed me that together as women we can stand up and start a revolution if we wanted to.

At the Louvre it was also difficult for me to find artwork that showcased women of color, never would you expect to find artwork actually made by people of color. I was surprised to find “Portrait of a Negress” by Marie-Guillemine Benoist–a portrait of a black woman painted by another woman. Although we still see the male gaze reflected in this portrait, it was different to see a painting done by a woman in a major museum. Although when doing research I found out that there are only 21 female artists included at the Musée du Louvre.

I really enjoyed how you pointed out that cooking, an art in France, was an especially hard field to get into for women, not just in France but everywhere. It’s ironic to see that a role like cooking, that is often times a women’s role is only seen as an art when men do it. Overall, you did a great job on relating topics from class to what we saw in France. France like The United States has a lot of work to do when it comes to looking at art through the lense of race and gender.


Portrait of a Negress by Marie Guillemine Benoist

What I found most shocking was the amount of mistresses the King would have. And the fact that he used women for no more than sexual pleasure irked me in some type of way. An astonishing revelation about the Palace of Versailles was the women’s bread march during the French Revolution. The march consisted of mainly women who revolted against the French elites when there was a scarcity of bread and thousands of children were dying. Learning about the bread march left in me an everlasting impression about the power of women and what they can do with just a few pitchforks and torches.

During our visit to Amboise and Chateaux de Chenonceau, we were taught about amazing history. Known as the women’s chateau, Chenonceau was loved and cared for by many queens and female courtesans, especially its beautiful architecture. The Loire Valley is well-known as “The Valley of The Kings,” but Chenonceau was mainly known for it’s female rulers such as Diane de Poitiers and Catherine Medici. I found it amazing how Diane utilized the chateau for its agricultural wealth, and how she started a business by planting grains such as corn and flour. Catherine expanded the chateau to suit her spectacular nighttime parties.

Towards the end of our tour, we headed back to Paris and visited the Louvre and got to participate in a cooking class hosted by EF Tours. Looking at the art in the museum, I noticed that all the women are depicted as Madonna-like figures, and dainty motherly individuals, many bearing their sculpted breasts to symbolize fertility. Rarely did I see women of color in any paintings, let alone a painting depicting women’s strength.  However, towards the end of our night in Paris, I found it very interesting learning about the kitchen and the world of chefs in French cuisine. I know that the kitchen industry is a rough playing field, but I did not know that women barely make it inside, especially women of color. It was impressionable to have experienced my little a-ha moment during a cooking class rather than a museum or some historical landmark.

Throughout history, women have experienced great impediments that try to put a halt to their passions. It is thought provoking to know that even today women face great challenges in comparison to men. Whether it be painting, leadership, and even cooking, women still have to work harder to gain half the recognition men gain. And women of color have to work even harder. By Justine Afalla

And this is Justine’s response to another student’s journal entry: In response to where you stand on women in the arts, I agree that women of color face greater challenges. Knowing that race plays a prominent role in women’s success, it is evident that successful French women, such as Édith Piaf and Catherine de Medici, are mostly white. It is sad to say, but women with fairer skin tones are seen as more desirable and worthy of recognition, because those with lighter skin are seen as dainty, sweet, and proper. It is also notable that in royalty the wealthiest are always those with fair skin tones. There are no women of color in French royalty. Darker skin tone is often fetishized and considered exotic.

I appreciate the fact that you used Josephine Baker as a prime example for fetishizing her skin tone in order to succeed. During her time, dark skin tones were seen as primitive and undesirable, but also exotic and therefore sexually appealing. The fact that Josephine utilized her skin tone to her advantage showcases the narrow window of success women of color have. Josephine Baker showcased herself in an overly-sexualized way to make herself seem more desirable. She danced in such a way that was out of the ordinary, spreading her legs and raising her rear-end to the audience. Josephine Baker also wore a banana skirt to emphasize the fact that she is exotic. Baker knew that in order to succeed she had to sexualize herself, since through the eyes of men, women are no more than just sexual objects waiting to be penetrated.

I also found it impressionable that you mentioned the fact that Baker had adopted 12 children to prove the fact that individuals of different races can live harmoniously. It is true: I find that people often dismiss people of color because they are seen as nothing more but uneducated or unrefined. I can’t help but think that race is the elephant in the room that no one dares to mention in conversations. Race is undeniably taboo; and during our time in France and our class about women and gender studies, race acts as a double edged sword for it can be a catalyst for change or an impediment for individuals striving for success.


Catherine de Medici, the wife of French King Henry II. They were married for 26 years and had 10 children together, but only 8 made it to adulthood.

Sara’s ideas about women in the arts… I definitely agree that this trip to France opened up my eyes to seeing each and every piece of artwork and every artist being showcased whether it was in the Louvre, a chateau, or other places across France. Females somehow always ended up being the art piece, like what we talked about in class, women were showcased as the art rather than being credited as artists. In the Louvre, I saw many paintings and sculptures which showcased naked women with a child or women posing with bare breasts. It’s visible that art works showcase women sexually. However, I did see a few sculptures of men and their genitals showing, which was something fairly different than what is usually showcased. To be honest, it was kind of funny how none of the tour guides really spoke about famous female artists besides Édith Piaf. It’s upsetting to actually realize that in reality, race has a lot to do with art, who gets credit, and who has a title in society.

Women like Josephine Baker are truly talented. I totally agree at how disgusting it is to showcase women of color as sexual objects. It’s interesting to see footage of women like Josephine Baker, dressing up in very risqué clothing, dancing in a way that isn’t “normal” in society, and having a unique way of attracting men. Women being advertised like that is also pretty disturbing. Even today, there are advertisements and commercials showcasing women as products. Their beauty, and sexuality are used to create money. I personally think that it’s unfair that women are treated differently. It doesn’t just have to do with art or music, but in general. White men are known to receive more credit for their work, or even work that they haven’t done. It’s unfair, unjust, and just disgusting to realize that society now still needs to work on both gender and race.

During the last few weeks in class and in France, I learned so much about women of all backgrounds and colors, and also about the different forms of art created by women. Everything we read, watched, and listened to was so eye-opening and I have gained so much knowledge. From the graphic novel, Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, and her short film, Persepolis, to each and every sculpture or painting showcased to the public in France, I learned about the role of women; French women to be more precise. From the first few days in class, I learned that women all over the world, are used as art, objects, and inspirations, but rarely are they called an artist, or even a creator. Starting from the past, women were and still are considered baby-makers, caretakers, and sometimes used as entertainment. Even now,in the modern days, the beauty of women and their bodies are used to attract people whether it is for commercials or advertisements for certain products. Women are under appreciated and overlooked by men and society itself.


Persian French artist Marjane Satrapi in 2008. (Photo from the Internet)

These are some students’ final reflection about the Women in the Arts class: CorinneImaiJustineMariaSejla

One of the faculty members asked Vanessa a few questions, and these are Vanessa’s insightful answers:

  • What would you say is the single most important thing you learned on this study tour?

Something I told my friend on this trip is that once you understand someone, it’s hard not to love them. I had conflicts with some of the other students on this trip, but by the end I felt I understood them, and that I understood my own animosities.

  • What did you learn about yourself?

Before this study tour, I experienced a lot of hesitation and anxiety about the flight and traveling in general. I was encouraged to branch out and take the opportunity regardless. Through this trip, I learned that even if something invokes fear or anxiety in me, it doesn’t mean the experience won’t be amazing. In fact, that anxiety might be directing me towards something that’s there to help me grow. I learned that sometimes I need to put my anxiety to the side and to focus on what’s in front of me–or I could miss something incredible.

  • What did you find most surprising?

The rich history of France gave me most culture shock. Coming from the United States, which is only a few hundred years old, and not having traveled before, and seeing such historical monuments–that was amazing to me.


Thanks for following our journey and supporting WVC’s Study Abroad Program.


This journal entry composed by Dr. Dulce María Gray. Unless indicated otherwise, all photos were taken by DMG.


3 thoughts on “France: SAP’s Inaugural Study Tour

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