Dan Bigelow graduated from SSU in 2001 with a BA in French.
Tell us about your studies at SSU.
I studied French, Spanish, German and Education in my upper division studies at SSU. I also completed two years of postgraduate studies at SSU, leaving me close to, but not in possession of, a master’s degree in education. To be honest, although I was a good student I had been adrift for a few years before returning to college full time and thus I was comparatively older when I earned my BA at age 27. I returned to school when my finances were sufficiently stable to permit me to succeed. SSU was key to my return and later success in earning a degree, and in my ultimate career path.
When you were at SSU, did you have any idea of what you would do after graduation?
I originally planned to be an elementary school teacher. Although I had a lifelong family connection to French, I also studied Spanish extensively in upper division courses in order to better serve the families in our community. But my French has been surprisingly useful as well.
How did your studies or activities at SSU influence your future job opportunities / choices?
Ultimately, I studied five languages over the course of my educational career and I had an unusual talent for them. I also studied educational pedagogy, coming within an inch of a teacher’s credential and a master’s degree before changes courses unexpectedly. However, I can definitely say that being multilingual makes you very desirable to employers, especially if you can demonstrate practical skills in high demand languages. Ultimately, I ended up managing the interpretation department of Santa Rosa City Schools, so everything I did at SSU paid off, just not in the way that I had originally envisioned it.
Tell us about your trajectory after SSU.
I left postgraduate studies and worked for about two years as a bilingual special day class assistant, speaking Spanish daily. I was later hired to run the translation program for Santa Rosa City Schools, a job that I have performed for the past 18 years. I had to make a lot of difficult life choices in terms of leaving school earlier than planned due to the birth of my first son. A lot of people have these challenges. However, I always felt that I had useful skills and was well prepared to find a way forward.
How has your French major helped you in your career?
I use French more often than you would imagine, often with migrant families from Africa and the Caribbean, Haiti in particular. Nevertheless, I also had contact with French families from the “Hexagon” (mainland France) who were here in Sonoma County often due to work in the wine industry. The plot thickened in 2014 when the school district opened a French bilingual dual immersion charter school known as Santa Rosa French American Charter School. At that point, I started working with staff and families on a regular basis in French. My wife still works there, in fact. The school is a unique smorgasbord of the French speaking world, with the Caribbean and Centrol Africa well represented alongside native speakers from France. It is a very special environment.
On a more personal note, I have spoken some French my entire life, being Québécois and Cajun on my mother’s side (her family name was Blanchet). My ancestors include Louis Gaston Hébert, one of the founding fathers of Québéc and allegedly the first European doctor in Canada, and his wife Marie Rollet, considered to be the founder of the educational system of Québéc. I learned proper French at SSU, as I was introduced to the Cajun patois as a child, which required some “unlearning” as it were.
Fun fact: The word “Cajun” is a corruption of the French word “acadien”, referring to the original French colony in the Americas known as “Acadie”, located in what today is Nova Scotia. Following a war with Great Britain, most Acadians were expelled from Acadie to Québec or to Louisiana via deportation first to St. Malo, France and a subsequent resettlement in the New World (This event is known as the “Grand Dérangement”.
As there were too many men and not enough women in New France, the king offered a substantial prize to any woman who went to New France and had ten children. They were bestowed with the title of “filles du roi” (daughters of the king) and given a substantial amount of money in silver as a reward (it was supposed to be 100 livres for the passage and 400 livres for the dowry, though in reality it was less than promised). My ancestors include several “filles du roi”.
My great uncle Gordon was killed in action defending France during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in WW1, somewhere near Montfaucon. This past summer I visited his grave at the Meuse Argonne National Cemetery at Romagne sous Montfaucon. It was a surreal experience. If you visit relatives’ graves there, you will be treated as a next of kin, by the way. History and language can be extra rewarding if you have a personal connection.
What is working in your job (or jobs) like? What challenges or benefits have you found?
My job is always a challenge. In an average year, I schedule approximately 1800 personal appointments or projects requiring bilingual support, managing a team of interpreters that I personally hire and train. I also supplement our efforts with third party interpreters as needed to fill in the gaps. State law requires us to provide interpretation and/or translation to any parent who requests it. However, it also the right thing to do on a moral level, for the parents to be able to make informed decisions and stay engaged in their child’s education. Being an interpreter can be stressful and tedious, but it can also be greatly fulfilling and life changing. You have to be flexible and tenacious to get things done. In addition, I have to say that being multilingual is a huge bonus for travel abroad!
What advice do you have for current students?
Be flexible and unafraid if things don’t unfold as you thought they would. Know your worth as an interpreter. Never stop looking up words, or examples of phrases. Working as a team can improve both of you as interpreters. You will become an essential link of any team you join. Take any opportunity for in country immersion, there is no replacement for in the field experience. Friendly tip: model your expected conversation in your mind before speaking with a merchant, for example, it will help the words flow more naturally. Another tip: I took only two years of Italian, but I still routinely use it on vacation simply by reviewing my old textbook for a few weeks prior to the trip. You would be amazed how much Italian I can still speak.
What do you see yourself doing five or ten years from now?
Well, I’d like to eventually retire and travel (finances permitting) in about ten years, while still doing substitute teaching at bilingual immersion schools. I love travelling abroad, and I have an underused travel trailer that I will use more regularly.