Rachel Cornec graduated in December 2002 with a BA in French.
Where did your interest in French originate?
I had an excellent French teacher in high school, Madame Beth Tomsick, and I took four years of French, but I didn’t pass the AP exam because I wasn’t a very serious student. Plus, I didn’t know simple things, like how to order a sandwich. On the AP, the expression “vernis à ongles” [nail polish] really threw me – we hadn’t studied that – so I didn’t pass the exam. But French had been a big part of my life and I understood it. Growing up in the small town of Mariposa, California, near Yosemite National Park, I worked in a restaurant as a busgirl and it was like being in an Olympic village. I heard all kinds of languages every night! So, I saw French as my ticket out of this small town. (Years later, my French husband dragged me back and made me buy my family home!)
Tell me about your experience at Sonoma State.
I enrolled in 1998, and came to Sonoma State as a freshman. It was the only four-year college I applied to. I was smart, or so I thought then, but a slacker. My French teacher had said I was smart enough for college, and I had a math teacher who said, “Quit being an idiot and go to college.” Our senior year volleyball team made it to the playoffs, and we got to drive to St Helena for a division match. That’s when I first saw Sonoma, and it was gorgeous, how I imagined Europe would be. When we came home, I told my teacher-mentors about it and they told me to apply to SSU. When I went to Sonoma State, my dad was very adamant about my NOT studying French. He believed that it was useless and that I would "never use French a single day of my life", so I became an international business major. I missed French, so that first fall semester, I crashed an intermediate course a few weeks in and Dr. Fallandy let me enroll. It was very easy – I knew all this stuff. I didn’t tell my parents. In the spring, I enrolled in Professor Renaudin’s 300-level class, and she handed out applications to teach English in France through the TAPIF Program. That semester, my dad passed away and the TAPIF application was sitting on my desk, way past the deadline, but I filled it out anyway, sent it in, and got a job! I completed my freshman year; I didn’t know what I was going to do with French, but I wanted to speak the language and travel. I had been to France only once before with a friend from high school. Through TAPIF, I was sent to a suburb of Paris for the 1999-2000 academic year, teaching English as a supplemental assistante de langue, to help French kids advance their English language skills. It was a wonderful, terrible time. I thought I knew a lot of French, and the internet was just happening, so I found the town in the atlas and got the ticket and the visa and the carte de séjour and I went. At the school, I never saw the same students twice in a row, yet my job was to get them to speak English. They would say things like, “She’s from California? She’s not blond! She’s not a beach girl!” I lived at the school, and I remember very distinctly a specific phone call home. I cried bitter tears, saying, “I hate France; I hate the French, I can't speak French.” My mom said that I had signed up for this and she couldn’t afford to bring me home, so I stayed. A few weeks later, as I was wondering what I was doing there, all of a sudden, I was fine. I understood the language, I was speaking faster, and I was able to order food. (Reciting Molière does not help when you need to eat!) Now, as a teacher, I make sure students know the essential words they need to survive. Most of my high school students take only one year of French. What can I do in a year? Not nothing, but I try to make a lot of connections for them, so that if someday they go to France, they’ll be prepared for the culture shock. In the end, it turned out to be a wonderful, miserable, fantastic time. There was another girl from England there at the same time, but she never made it as a bilingual francophone because she could fly home when she was sad. I had to fall down seven times, and get up eight, or rather be lifted up, and I survived. So, you left SSU after just one year to go to France. Then what? I went back to SSU for the 2000-2001 school year. But I really wanted to go back to France – I really felt I needed to go back to France. I had had a group of really close, wonderful friends there – people that I hung out with every weekend after church, including my future husband. We had time but no money, so we spent it together. The twelve of us are still very close, and all got married to each other. They were a big motivation for my wanting to return. I even tried to become a missionary with the Baptists so I could be sent there, but they refused my application. Time and wisdom would show how right that hard decision was. So, back at SSU, I added French as a major, did all the required upper-division classes, literature, etc. I worked in the library and also in the MLL office in Stevenson. But I was desperate to continue to use my French, so one day I went to the Air France counter at SFO and applied. While still a student, I became a part-time ground agent! I worked there through 9-11. I turned twenty-one while working there and remember going after work to buy my first bottle of wine in America. I used to go to Paris for dinner! I would work a flight, get on it, fly ten hours to Paris, see friends, go out, visit everyone, go to church with friends on Sunday, and then get on the plane in time to be in class Monday morning. But I was paid peanuts and the drive was costly, so I had to stop working there eventually. However, I was able to get six units of internship credit through Air France, which helped me to finish my four-year degree in 3.5 years.
Where did life take you after you graduated?
I graduated from SSU in December 2002, and in 2003, I went with another SSU student, Jana, back to France as an assistante (with TAPIF) again. Jana was assigned to a middle school and I was in a high school in the Paris area; we were roommates for part of the time, and are still close friends today. That’s when I got serious with my husband. We got married in October 2004. At the time, everyone in France was looking for people whose first language was English, so I had my run of possibilities. But the problem was (and is) that, while everyone is learning English all over the planet, there are so many versions that no one can understand each other. (There are Chinese English speakers, Indian English speakers, etc.). I chose a pharmaceutical company; all of the work was conducted in English, but no one could understand each other, so I had to take their work and put it all together into universally understandable global English. Today, in engineering world and elsewhere, this problem persists, so many companies are going back to French, because it doesn’t have the tangle of diversity or varieties that English does
But you’re not in France now – what brought you home to the States?
I was in Paris when our first child was born in 2006, and I remember praying the French wouldn’t win the World Cup so the fans wouldn’t honk and wake my newborn son. In December 2006, my husband came home from work and said c’est fini, let’s go to the States. He didn’t speak any English; he had not wanted to learn English, and I was fine with that. But his job was restructuring and change was something we definitely needed, so we quit our jobs and jumped on a plane and moved back to my home town. But then we couldn’t find jobs; my husband had doors slammed in his face. Xenophobia– it’s a thing. In my home town, they want foreigners to visit, but they don’t want foreigners to stay. Then, it turned out that Yosemite High School, in a neighboring town, was ardently looking for a part-time French teacher. I was waitressing at the time. I didn’t think that teaching high school would be a good fit for me, but I walked in and got the job. The part-time pay was terrible and I had no benefits, and I was teaching three sections of French (1, 2 and 3). I didn’t have a teaching credential. I wish I had gotten one through Cal Teach, but I went a back-door route instead. This meant that I didn’t do a traditional credential program in person. Instead, I was thrown into a high school classroom as a teacher, learning everything as I went. The teacher there was retiring; she would come into my classroom with her arms crossed and glower at me, so I struggled to fill her calm, and extremely competent, shoes. But I love French and know what it’s like to learn French, so I knew I could encourage and equip my students.
How did that first teaching job work out for you?
Well, the program grew. The International Baccalaureate Program is fantastic, but Americans think it’s some weird disease symptom name. I wish my own kids had access to an IB program – it’s such a good program! The format is “explique-toi” – you think X, tell us why, support your ideas. It involves lots of critical thinking. We don’t have that as much in American schools. The AP Program doesn’t do that. Online learning doesn’t cultivate this kind of reasoning. I wish all California students had the opportunity to do an International Baccalaureate program – it is all that education needs to be… Anyway, I taught at YHS for eight years. It was wonderful and horrible. Some of my students went on to do amazing things. I was kept on when many teachers were laid off, when the economy was collapsing and little California towns were becoming ghost towns. YHS went from 1100 students to 400, but because they wanted to keep all academic programs, other faculty were cut but not me, because I was the only French teacher. Unfortunately, if guidance counselors don’t believe in French, they don’t have kids enroll in French courses. Eventually, my program was cut and I left, which was sad because I had good students who were sophomores and ready to go on.
Where are you now?
Well, when I left YHS, I thought I wouldn’t teach French any more. I had four boys by then, and was pretty busy. But that same summer, in 2015, I got a call from Madera High School ten days before school started, and they were in need of a French teacher. I refused to interview unless they could promise me a full-time position with benefits and guarantee that French would be on the master schedule every year. Even though I was pretty demanding up front, I got the position! I have an hour-long drive to work, beautiful, through farms. Madera has been a blessing but it’s also like pushing a rock uphill. I fought and fought and now finally have AP French on the books. So many kids who take French are encouraged to take Spanish instead, and good for them if they can read and write Spanish too, but I’m working now on an accelerated French pathway for heritage Spanish speakers. I want to have a French 2 for Spanish speakers and do French 1 and 2 together in a single year. Other colleges are doing this, but it’s hard to sell to my district. All of my Spanish-speaking colleagues think students should only do Spanish. When France wins the World Cup, it’s helpful to the French Program because lots of our soccer players then take French!
Would you still encourage university students to study French?
There is definitely a future for French because it is so needed on the global level! Everyone who wants to work internationally needs to speak French, English and Spanish – and knowing those three together are enough to get by just about anywhere in the world. I could talk to anyone in France this past fall using any of the three or all of them. We need to be trilingual, not just bilingual! This is my goal! Students can do well in French and should be encouraged to enroll! My high school students who take French now have to struggle to make room in their schedule and the classes are small, but I definitely want them to continue.
What advice do you have for current students?
Just keep at it. Watch videos. Listen to music. Make French a daily part of who you are. Read the news in French for five minutes. We think of languages as something you focus on intently in a classroom, but try just cooking with recipes in French, do anything you can to make the language a part of your daily routine. And for French teachers: study business, too, especially sales. I do more marketing and recruitment than anyone – I’m an evangelist for French! They don’t let me talk to the 8 th graders anymore because I recruited too many students to French! I want to travel with students again, and organize my own trips rather than use commercial offered ones.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I think about quitting my job but I can’t quit my students. I had a job offer with American Airlines. The travel industry is back. The need for people with the ability to switch from language to language will grow. Don’t stop learning French if you can’t find a job immediately – it will come!