Alumni Profile Beth Wheeler | Saint Francis University
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Alumni Profile Beth Wheeler

  • Ms. Beth Wheeler

    Study Abroad Beth Wheeler Profile text imageMiddle Childhood Education, Class of 2013
    Bellwood, PA

    Entering Saint Francis University as a middle childhood education major, Beth Wheeler never even dreamed about studying abroad. The thought of being alone in an unfamiliar place terrified her. But one little bite from the travel bug, and her life changed forever.

    During her time as a student at Saint Francis, Beth participated in both the Springtime in Italy and Semester in France programs. Following her graduation in May 2013, she moved to Auch, France where she has been teaching English as a second language to grade school students there. This summer, she will return to the states and plans to settle down in the Pittsburgh or Johnstown areas.

    Beth's Story 

    Q: How has your global experience changed your life?

    A: How has it not? Honestly, I haven’t a clue what my life would look like today had I not studied abroad. I had never dreamt that I would one day be living overseas, teaching English as a foreign language, and using my second language every day of my life. 

    Had I not studied abroad, I don’t think I would ever have pursued my interest in languages, at least not to the extent that I have. Learning to read in French has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I will never forget the sheer wonder of holding in my hand a novel that would have been gibberish to me only months before and finding that those words now created images in my mind. It was like being six or seven years old again. And now I’m here in France using that language every day. I speak French to communicate both with native speakers and with my international friends, I borrow French books from the library and am part of a monthly book club, I am active in a small local church, and I’m participating in a creative writing group with several women from the community. For me, learning this language has opened so many doors and forged so many connections.

    Study abroad has also been, quite literally, my ticket to the world. I am by nature a very timid person. When I entered the university, I never imagined I would one day be able to plan trips across the Atlantic or easily travel around Europe by myself—that the thought of being on my own in an unfamiliar place with very limited ability to communicate would excite rather than terrify me. I am very grateful for the confidence I have gained as a result of my study abroad experiences.

    Q: What inspired you to take your first trip to France?

    A: My first trip to France was my study abroad experience in Ambialet in the fall of 2011, but my study abroad journey began in Parma, Italy in 2010.

    In the summer of 2009, after my high school graduation, I attended a summer program for Christian youth. There, every student was given a challenge printed on a small card and told to trust God to work in our lives to accomplish what we could not accomplish on our own. My challenge was to study a foreign language and spend two months the next summer in a country that spoke that language. I remember staring at that card and thinking that it was absolutely ridiculous and that there was not one chance in a thousand that this was going to happen. One year later I was in Italy, studying art with Mr. Chuck Olson through the Springtime in Italy Program. 

    Though my experience in Parma was incredible, I still had no intention of going to France until Mr. Olson came up to me in the studio one day and asked me what I would think about doing a semester abroad, explaining that he would be teaching in Ambialet.  Since staying behind would have meant losing my art class and my mentor for the semester, I went.

    So as for what inspired me, I suppose you could say a God-moment, a love of art, and the encouragement of people I admired. Spending a semester abroad was not something I had wanted or expected to do when I entered the university—but I’m very glad, now, to have had that experience!

    Q: Describe your study abroad experience.

    A: For three and a half beautiful months, I lived in a monastery on the top of a mountain in Southern France, looking down over a storybook village and a wild river that curls around to nearly touch itself. A photograph cannot do this place justice. I’ll always remember catching a glimpse of it for the first time as our bus was winding down the mountain road. I think I fell in love right then. 

    Life in Ambialet was something new and wonderful, brimming with discovery after discovery. I lived as much outdoors as in, spending hours clambering about the rocky cliffs near the monastery, and most weekends I went on a group hike on one of the many nearby trails. Nearly every day, I went to town via the remnants of what was once a medieval road. Sometimes I got ice cream or a coke at the village café, chatting with its friendly owner, Nadine. I went to class downstairs with the nine other people in my group, painted my experiences, and stayed up late writing papers. I gardened. I ate everything from chicken nuggets to salmon to shark to wild boar, prepared in-house by a local chef (and I liked all of that!). On Sundays, a few other students and I attended service in the tiny church connected to the monastery, where we sung hymns we’d learned at the house of a kindly English couple living in town. As a group, we spent a week in Paris and five days in Barcelona, as well as visiting Carcassonne, Toulouse, and nearby Albi, experiencing firsthand the works of art and architecture that we were studying. I listened to extraordinary people give lectures in the classroom and tell jokes around the dinner table. By the time I left, the strangers I’d come with had become family.

    Studying abroad in Ambialet isn’t about constant shopping or going out partying every weekend or easily hopping a train—it’s a tiny, isolated town. But for those who are willing to immerse themselves in that town, and in the discovery of French language, history, and culture in and out of the classroom, Ambialet can offer an incredibly rich and intense experience. I’ve been back multiple times since I left, and I still discover something new every time.

    Q: Why do you think it’s important for students to have the opportunity to study abroad? 

    A: Going into study abroad, you have no idea what opportunities that experience is going to create. For example, my semester in France led to an acquaintance with an SFU alum who just happened to visit Ambialet while I was there, which in turn resulted in a lasting friendship and two summer internships at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. The opportunity to study the French language has led to a teaching position in France and the chance to live abroad. 

    But even if the study abroad experience does not alter every student’s career path as it has mine, it has the potential to profoundly alter every student’s perspective. Those who choose to study abroad will indubitably be pushed out of their comfort zone, which creates enormous potential for growth. In a world where even the most isolated regions are increasingly connected, it’s important for students to have the opportunity to experience a world beyond their own backyard. Study abroad offers students more than the chance to see a new country—tourism can do that. It gives them the chance to become a part of that country, of a community within that country, and, in the process, gives them a deeper understanding of themselves, the world, and their place in it.

    Q: What inspired you to want to teach in France? What has the experience been like?

    A: From the moment I left Ambialet, I knew I would find a way back to France one day, hopefully sooner rather than later. I had just fallen in love with the language, the lifestyle, and the people of France, and this was simply too much a part of my life to let it go.

    After graduation, I began scouring the internet for opportunities to live and work in Europe. Many of the positions available required experience I did not yet have or were long-term commitments that I was not yet ready to make. Then I came across TAPIF, the Teaching Assistantship Program in France, which offers young people the chance to spend a year (or occasionally two) living in France and teaching English. The qualifications and expectations of the program seemed a perfect fit for me, and I was excited for the opportunity to put my education degree to good use while also living abroad.

    The experience has been, in a word, incredible. In some ways, it’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be. I come from a small, close-knit family, and my first time living alone, I’m living an ocean away. Homesickness has been a real problem. But I’ve made many friends and connections here, some of which will last long after I return home.  And I absolutely love the lifestyle I am able to have. My city is large enough to have everything I need and small enough that I can walk to all of it. A huge traditional market operates twice a week and offers everything from apples to fresh duck to umbrellas. Hiking and walking trails into the country are easily accessible, as is a train station with regular departures to Toulouse, the region’s largest city.  On top of all of that, I love my job. I love creating new games and activities for the children, interacting with them, and watching them learn. I love the moment that something “clicks” and their eyes light up—it’s beautiful.

    Q: Where do you live and teach? How long have you been living in France, and what is your job like? 

    A: I am currently living in the small southern French city of Auch, in a little apartment less than five minutes’ walk from the cathedral. This is my second school year living in Auch—I went home over the summer—so I’ve spent about twelve months here in total. I work in three public elementary schools, all within walking distance of my apartment. I teach nine different classes, averaging about twenty children per class, and I see most classes twice a week for two 45-minute sessions. The kids range in age from five to eleven and are at a beginning or very basic level. My job is to introduce them to the English language and to act as an ambassador for my country. My goal is that my students learn some basic vocabulary and become comfortable playing with the language, trying out different combinations of the word and phrases they’ve learned.  Our focus is on learning-by-doing rather than translation, so activities are as interactive and hands-on as possible. I introduce new vocabulary through picture flashcards, miming, and repetition. We play lots of games, sing songs and rhymes, read stories, and solve puzzles.  I am responsible for determining lesson content based on given goals, planning and presenting lessons and activities, and preparing lesson materials. With the older ones, especially, we also take a look at some American holidays and traditions. To be honest—I have so much fun! My students are young enough that English is still very new and exciting to them, and they are always eager to participate. Of course, some days are better than others, and some classes are more cooperative than others, but I enjoy my job very much and am very happy to have had this experience.

    Q: What would you say to encourage a student who is interested in studying abroad?

    A: Go! By all means, go. And then, once you get there, be open. Take advantage of the opportunities you will have to see amazing places, meet amazing people, and have new experiences. Taste the food, even if you think you’ll hate it. Try to speak the language, even if you butcher it. Don’t underestimate the power of small experiences, like a trip to a local art gallery or a hike through the woods—the best moments may very well be the ones you didn’t plan or anticipate. Expect culture shock, but don’t be afraid of it—like growing pain, it’s a good thing, and the discomfort that you experience will offer you new insight into yourself, your culture, your host culture, and what is important in life.  Embrace the new and exciting and the new and unnerving alike. You won’t regret it.

    Q: Since the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Brussels, as well as other terrorist attacks throughout the world, why do you think it’s important for students to have a global perspective?

    A: Fear is a tremendous weapon that plays naturally into the hands of extremists. Fear of the unknown, of the “other,” seems to be a part of human nature—but that doesn’t mean we have to bow to that nature. To me, developing a global perspective means learning to look at our world with less of an “us vs. them” mentality, that “differences are beautiful” begins to become much more than a pretty cliché. A more rational, balanced perspective creates the possibility for more rational and balanced solutions rather than knee-jerk reactions. In today’s tumultuous world and political climate, this is incredibly important—and I think study abroad certainly has a role to play in helping create such a perspective. 

    For many students, this is the first and perhaps only opportunity they will have to be immersed in a culture not their own—to find that they themselves have essentially become the “other,” the “stranger,” the one who doesn’t understand—and that’s a powerful, humbling experience. Interacting with the world around you from that humbled position offers the chance to see it with new eyes, to connect on a human level across language and cultural barriers. It’s much easier to condemn the mass you see on the news than the stranger who doesn’t share your religion, language, or politics but is willing to help you find the right metro.