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The 2023 RISE study abroad cohort for the industry and culture program in France included six STEM majors, four social sciences majors, one business and one communications major.

From the Prairie to Paris: First-generation OSU students gain global perspective through study abroad program

Monday, April 8, 2024

Media Contact: Mack Burke | Associate Director of Media Relations | 405-744-9782 |

Chenoa Turtle wiped a tear from the corner of her eye as she looked out over the Seine, the night lights of Paris sparkling in the dark waters dancing in the trailing wake of the tour boat.

“It just hit me, ya’ll,” said the Tahlequah, Olahoma native. “We’re in Paris.”

To her left, Tulsa native Tania Castillo also started to wipe away a fresh tear.

“Now you’ve got me going,” she said. It was a bittersweet moment for Turtle and her travel companions. A dozen Oklahoma State University students had just spent the last two weeks immersed in French culture and were now basking in the surreal atmosphere on one of their final nights in France.

In its second year, the 2023 edition of the Retention Initiative for Student Excellence Program’s (RISE) study abroad course brought a group of predominantly first-generation college students halfway across the world to learn how culture influences and interacts with industry.

The students left with a keen understanding of that relationship and so much more.

Although they learned an ample amount about history and tradition, they also gained something intangible that can’t be memorized, duplicated or AI generated — experience, confidence and joy.

Among J.M. Weston’s many notable customers are NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert and the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft, fellow Frenchman Victor Wembanyama. Students were amazed to see and hold the gargantuan shoe lasts (a mechanical form shaped like a human foot) that were used in the process.
Among J.M. Weston’s many notable customers are NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert and the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft, fellow Frenchman Victor Wembanyama. Students were amazed to see and hold the gargantuan shoe lasts (a mechanical form shaped like a human foot) that were used in the process.

Months before departure, Drs. Clyde Wilson and Jeff Simpson led students through coursework.

From the practical to the academic, the two instructors, along with RISE program coordinator Maura Loyola and OSU global program coordinator Catie Miller, helped students prepare for the course and what to expect while traveling internationally.

Wilson and Loyola served as leaders and facilitators of the students’ experience in France over the past two years, and the Division of Access and Community Impact, through its RISE program, has played an integral role in this study abroad experience since its inception. Private philanthropic gifts to the division ensured each student received significant financial support for the course.

In the early morning hours of June 26, the students gathered at Stillwater Regional Airport. With necks adorned by travel pillows and with parents, friends and even a few family pets at their sides, the students made final preparations. Parents, brothers, sisters and other well wishers got in a last hug and said heartfelt goodbyes. They were overwhelmingly proud of their young adults and excited for the transformative journey they were about to take.

Before they left, the students were already making strides toward a deeper understanding of French culture. But there’s a difference between experiencing a new place on the page than in person. Most of these students had never left the country before. Two had never been on a plane at all. None spoke a substantial amount of French when their adventure began and most were green to using bus schedules and decoding a major subway system. Exiting Charles de Gaulle Airport, wideeyed and full of excitement, that was all about to change.

When the group arrived in Paris, the excitement of the city would have to wait, however, as the group was bound for a much smaller destination by train and then bus. The choice to start small and work up to the City of Lights was a thoughtful one that allowed students to get acclimated to French culture before having to tackle the culture shock of a giant international city at the same time.

Before they left for France, Simpson told them they may come to appreciate some new things from French culture (fresh food without preservatives, public transit, walkable cities) but the course might also give them a greater appreciation for their own culture and life in the United States (accessibility, air conditioning, convenience).

Traveling westward to the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde, sociology major Jordan Blair couldn’t help but notice how similar the French countryside was to that of Oklahoma, with endless fields dotted by cows, farm equipment and windmills.

After a full day’s travel, the group arrived in Brive with enough time to get settled into the Ibis Hotel on the bank of the River Corrèze before making the short walk to the city center for some late night fare and people watching.

Off and Running

The following day, students came downstairs to see that even a modest hotel in France does breakfast on another level.

Fresh bread, bacon and ham, a smorgasbord of jams, boiled eggs, juice and strong coffee. One student, architecture major Bryson Head, had been looking forward to getting a baguette from the moment he stepped off the plane. Before he had left the hotel that morning, he had made quick work of one about the size of his arm.

A bus soon arrived and the group was off to its first educational tour. Accompanied by program facilitator and translator Léa Mandaliti — a recent University of Limoges graduate with an English degree — the tour arrived at the SOTHYS Group facility in Brive. There, they were greeted by a familiar site — the American flag flying high in anticipation of their visit.

Students were impressed with the welcome and the tour that followed. Weaving throughout the high-end cosmetic manufacturing facility with the plant’s technical manager, they learned about not just the process of production but how every facet of the facility works to cut down on energy consumption.

a student meets with a professor

Journalism major Rhema Coleman said it was interesting to see how different cultural attitudes can influence everything, even the design and functionality of an industrial space.

“There’s a central idea that we all take care of ourselves [in the United States],” she said. “[In France], you really see that there’s more of a collectivist mindset … except when it comes to having to pay for public bathrooms.”

The group dove deeper into traditional French culture with a visit to Accordeons Maugein. In France, the accordion is not merely tolerated, but celebrated. The students got a crash course in how accordions produce sound, the artistry of the instruments and the many customization options.

While recapping the day’s events, the students engaged in thoughtful conversation about their cultural observations before exploring the small town of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. 

Although exploring independently, the group managed to find its way to Au Beau Lieu Breton, where the travelers enjoyed crepes of all kinds and responsibly sampled French wines while dining in the summer evening air. Later that night, they enjoyed listening to live music in the town center.

The familiar sights of Paris were still to come, but for many — this quiet, highly walkable town, with wildflowers in full bloom all around and picturesque scenes in every direction — was a memorable highlight.

The group stayed at the Logis Hôtel Restaurant Le Beaulieu. What it lacked in the way of air conditioning — a recurring culture shock in the hot summer — it more than made up for in the way of ambience and charm. The restful spot helped energize the students for the following day, one that would see them delve into Gouffre de

Padirac — one of the largest chasms on the continent.

Lessons from the University of Limoges

After a thrilling excursion into the awe-inspiring depths and cathedralesque ceilings (338 feet) of Gouffre de Padirac, the group stopped in Brive for a delicious lunch that included roast duck, pommes frites (French fries) and finished with a dessert of fromage blanc.

Then, they made their way to the city of Limoges, which is synonymous with porcelain artistry in France.

A welcoming orientation led by University of Limoges staff coordinator Emeline Fumey awaited them upon arrival at the University of Limoges, where the students would spend the rest of their trip before two days of free exploration in Paris. The students also received a warm welcome at Limoges city hall, where they engaged with city leaders and head of international activities Laurent Bourdier, offering cultural exchanges and gifts while enjoying hors d’oeuvres, coffee and wine.

The University of Limoges campus was quiet but lively and had a distinct charm — from the glittering porcelain pieces in the sidewalks to the colorful wildflowers dotting its green spaces. The campus was bustling with students from around the world, and the halls echoed with the sounds of many languages.

The residence halls were a familiar setting for the group, though there were some fun differences, notably beds that raised and lowered with hydraulics to maximize working space during the day.

The Limoges stretch of the course included near daily excursions to learn more about industry and culture. The students captured the beauty of the Limoges Cathedral, capitalizing on the beautiful setting of its gardens to bolster their Instagram feeds. They toured a porcelain shop to learn more about the city’s traditional identity, how porcelain is made and the intricate artistry at work. They then visited the J.M. Weston shoe factory, a high-end shoemaker that relies on extremely skilled workers to create luxury and customized footwear from top-tier leather and more exotic materials — stingray, crocodile and even elephant.

At the Agnelle glove shop, they watched a master craftsman stretch and cut lambskin leather to craft fashionable gloves. Agnelle has been handmaking gloves since 1937. The high-end boutique’s clients include Beyonce, Daniel Craig’s James Bond and former First Lady Melania Trump. Discussion delved into the challenges the shop faces moving forward, specifically how hard it is to find workers with the specific skills needed to carry on making gloves by hand.

kid plays the accordion

Shifting from traditional artistry to modern infrastructure, the students toured the Legrand company, which specializes in global electrical and digital building infrastructures. It began as a porcelain company, like so many in Limoges, but became increasingly focused on the manufacture of electronic components. According to a company spokesperson, the company now accounts for roughly 20% of all electrical switches worldwide. The students also toured the University of Limoges’ Institute of Research for Ceramics (IRCER), where they saw fascinating new applications for ceramics.

“We look at the intersection between culture and industry,” said Simpson, assistant dean and director of global partnerships for OSU Global. “So, why are these industries here? Why is Legrand in Limoges? Why is there a lot of leather industry here? These sorts of things. That’s the academic focus of the course, and then a big part of it is to introduce students to a world outside of Oklahoma where we come from.”

The coursework proved to be especially relevant to the U.N. Sustainability Goals, and seeing the ingenuity and energy conscious efforts of companies like Legrand spawned some interesting conversations about potential innovations back home. OSU is Oklahoma’s leader and top 10 in the nation for its contributions to addressing the goals, and the students left with a new perspective on how they might be able to contribute to a sustainable future.

Students spent the next few days learning to speak French. Instead of focusing extensively on grammar, the classes emphasized more practical lessons that the students could use right away. From the La Friche des Ponts food truck festival — where students enjoyed the lively but relaxed atmosphere amid a selection of international flavors — to outdoor cafes and their educational tours, the students found their voices in a new tongue.

They suddenly found themselves adeptly navigating the city center, making plans and grocery shopping, furthering their education in both French culture and traveling adaptability as they went.

Amidst all the revelry and excitement, the group also toured Oradour-sur-Glane, the site of a tragic massacre perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII. The solemn exercise added a new layer of depth to the experience that was well summed up by French teacher Marie Larnaudie.

“The backpack of history is heavy here,” she said. “And we all carry it.”

A Gobal Perspective 

Each day, Simpson, Wilson and Loyola hosted debriefing sessions where students explored their observations together.

Wilson frequently talked to the students about embracing new experiences, new foods, new ideas.

“You’re not going to like everything you try, but that, in itself, is part of the experience,” Wilson said. “We want you to broaden your horizons, and you have to open up to do that. You have to be willing to engage and be willing to experience something different.”

From open to outdoor seating, and the much welcomed culture shock of dessert being offered with every meal, there was a lot to take in. And the students were happy to try it all — from escargot, salmon and shrimp to the more familiar pommes frites.

Loyola observed that the students were quick to take to the French custom of being present during meals, taking time to enjoy the food, the company, and (frequently) dining outdoors.

Mandaliti, who aspires to continue her studies and career in the United States, said it was fascinating to hear cultural observations from the American perspective.


“I’m used to all of these things, but it’s very interesting to hear your observations,” she said.

Wilson noted that the mutual exchange of ideas and perspectives was a core piece of the course and the opportunity to broaden students’ perspectives. For her part, Loyola expressed pride in the students for embracing the unknown.

“In their first full day in France, after all that traveling and all the challenges, the students were asking great questions, making great observations and trying new foods. It was wonderful to see,” she said.

Lessons from Paris, Lessons for Life 

When they arrived in Paris for the second time, the students were bus savvy travelers equipped with enough French language practice to have the courage to speak it.

The course included a variety of activities and sites for students to see — from the Louvre Museum and Musée d’Orsay to boat rides on the Seine and a panoramic view of Paris from the Montparnasse Tower.

“The generosity and understanding of the people we encountered in France surprised me the most,” said microbiology major Adriahna Blackburn. “There is a stereotype that exists that French people are rude, and on top of that, I believed Americans did not have a good reputation in other countries. But everyone we met, from our tour guides, to our waiters, to strangers, showed understanding towards our lack of cultural knowledge and tried their best to accommodate us even though we were the guests.

“My favorite part of the course was when a group of us took a nightly boat ride through Paris on the Seine River. It was nice to see the city lit up and relaxing to escape the regular Paris bustle. The weather was very nice and a nice breeze from the river complemented that. But this moment holds in my memory because I felt connected to my peers and it gave me time to really take in everything and live in the moment.”

The students were engaged in the academic coursework, but it was the practical skills, the traveling acumen and confidence they acquired in just a few short weeks that they will undoubtedly carry forever.

OSU students tour the Sothy’s plant in Ussac, France. The plant produces 400 tons of cosmetics annually, and through its efforts to meet U.N. Sustainability Goals, the facility has achieved a 40% reduction in energy usage going back to 2014.
OSU students tour the Sothy’s plant in Ussac, France. The plant produces 400 tons of cosmetics annually, and through its efforts to meet U.N. Sustainability Goals, the facility has achieved a 40% reduction in energy usage going back to 2014.

OSU Provost Jeanette Mendez, who studied abroad in Russia while pursuing an undergraduate degree, said the experience expanded her horizons and inspired her to continue her education in graduate school.

“In some ways, study abroad programs are as much about learning about yourself as they are about the course material,” Dr. Mendez said. “As a first-generation graduate myself, I know the kind of transformative impact these experiences can have and hope that all students consider the exciting possibilities OSU study abroad programs offer. Learning about other cultures, new ideas and different ways of thinking can spur the imagination to innovation and enrich the lives of students in ways they may have never thought possible.”

Simpson said the goal of the course is to invite students to think about the world differently, to make new connections and imagine new possibilities and opportunities. For the university, he said, these kinds of opportunities reflect not just the mission of the RISE program, but the broader mission of OSU.

“Courses that engage more OSU students, especially in areas of campus where students may not consider study abroad a viable option for their academic careers, are critical in meeting university goals for creating ideal graduates capable of becomingthe global leaders of tomorrow,” he said. “I know these students will go forth into careers that make a real difference to their families, communities and our world.”

Simpson said facilitating and seeing that transformation take place is among the most rewarding experiences in his professional career.

“To sit beside a student who never imagined traveling outside the United States as the bus turns the corner for their first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, when their energy and excitement cannot be contained, you realize how fortunate you are to live this experience with them,” he said. “More importantly, I get to witness firsthand and help guide those moments when students have the initial inkling that their future is full of possibilities beyond what they imagined before challenging themselves to study abroad.”


 GLOBAL Magazine

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