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French master’s program opens doors to work opportunity

February 17, 2009 By Jenny Price

With graduation looming, Kristen Murphy was at a crossroads.

As she was finishing up bachelor’s degrees in French and political science during her final semester at University of Rhode Island, she figured her only choice was to get a master’s degree in one of those two subjects. That was until her adviser told her about the Professional French Masters Program at UW-Madison, one of the only schools to offer a graduate degree that combines language skills with study in other academic areas.

“I was so impressed with what past students had done and their updates. I thought, ‘Wow. That’s where I want to be.’”

Elena Hart

“So many people go through undergraduate and master’s programs and are pigeonholed into things they don’t like, because ‘it’s more bankable’ or ‘it’s what I have to do,’” says Murphy, who expects to graduate in May with her master’s in French and European Union affairs.

Since 2000, the program has prepared students who love the French language to work in careers outside the classroom. Language study is combined with coursework in marketing, education or other areas of interest, along with a required professional internship that gets students off campus to experience the world of work, from business to tourism to wine-making, as they compete their final master’s project.

“The one thing that really sets them apart is they know they don’t want to be academics,” says Ritt Deitz, the program’s executive director, who teaches some of its classes and hunts year-round for internships in the French-speaking world to find the right fit for students.

Kristen Murphy, a student in the Professional French Masters Program, spent a fall interning at a vineyard in France’s Bordeaux region.

Photo: courtesy Kristen Murphy

The program has been featured in U.S. News and World Report, which lauded its goal “to introduce practicality, or at least employability, to the liberal arts without losing those disciplines’ focus on intellectual skills.”

It’s also been a boon to the study of French at UW-Madison. While enrollment in French has dropped nationwide, the Professional French Masters Program, or PFMP, nearly doubled the number of students earning graduate degrees in French here. The 31 PFMP students currently enrolled make up about 40 percent of the department’s graduate programs.

Deitz says it’s the diversity of course offerings at UW-Madison that make the program work. Students study French along with one of six concentration areas, including business, education, international education, European Union Affairs, international development and media/arts/cultural production. Their coursework is followed by a required internship in a French-speaking country.

“Even students in the same concentration areas strike their own unique paths, as everyone has different passions,” Murphy says. “The professors encourage the students to really tap what you love to integrate it into the program.”

For Murphy, that meant wine-making. After completing her coursework on campus, she spent the summer working at a local vineyard in Rhode Island. For the fall semester, she traveled to France’s Bordeaux region, where she interned alongside the winemaker and vineyard manager at Château Couraze, whose family has been in the winemaking business since the 1620s.

“I had thought that wine would be more of a hobby than an actual career track,” Murphy says. “I’ve been extremely lucky.”

Now Murphy, who is completing her master’s project on how French vineyards can compete on a global scale, has landed a job with Wine Library, a family-owned New Jersey wine importer and seller about 30 minutes from New York. She’s already using her French, assisting with brainstorming a name for a private label Bordeaux that will be sold exclusively in the shop.

Murphy credits the program with teaching her the networking skills she needed to find employment in the industry.

“There are more options out there than you’d think, and I’m just starting to get my feet wet,” she says.

The scope and variety of internships and career opportunities available to students in the program is what attracted Elena Hart to enroll.

“I was so impressed with what past students had done and their updates. I thought, ‘Wow. That’s where I want to be,’” says Hart, who studied French and international education.

Hart developed an interest in rural tourism after teaching English in a small agricultural community in the southwest of France for five years. For her master’s internship, Hart spent last summer working for a small company that arranges hiking trips in France for eco-tourists. She recently got a full-time job as a study abroad adviser at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania, in part thanks to the connections and experience she gained after joining a professional organization dedicated to study abroad and international education.

The program pushes its students to make those kinds of connections, which 2004 graduate Maura Stadem says goes a long way in preparing its graduates.

“One of the best things that the PFMP tries to teach is the importance of networking and staying open,” says Stadem, who works in Washington, D.C., as executive assistant to the president of EDFINA, a major French utility company. She shifts seamlessly between French and English each day and relies heavily on her understanding of the nuances of both cultures.

Stadem studied media/arts/cultural production alongside French and did her internship in Montreal with KINO, a Quebecois film society with a branch in Madison. She moved to Washington without any work lined up and landed a position at the French Embassy before moving to her current job with EDFINA.

“I was in a place to take advantage of my knowledge and understanding of the French language and culture, both thanks to my experience and studies through the PFMP and as aresult of the explorations and travel I did in France on my own,” she says.

The program’s students aren’t all lovers of wine, Voltaire and French cinema. Some are looking to use their language skills to work in the developing world where French is spoken, including Haiti and some African countries, and are concerned about the plight of women and children in those countries.

Ultimately, what sets the program apart is the fact that it’s highly individualized and student-centered, Deitz says.

“It requires an awful lot of discipline and creativity on the part of the student, like any interdisciplinary program does,” he says. “And I think it does so, and we make it so, because life requires that from people at the very least, especially now.”