Russell Willoughby: An Interview Overseas

Russell Willoughby
Russell Willoughby

Russell Willoughby is a University of Alabama Fulbright Scholarship recipient. The Fulbright Scholarship Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. At The University of Alabama, the Fulbright Scholarship Program is offered to students who wish to apply their skills and education through teaching opportunities abroad.

Where are you currently studying and teaching?

I am teaching in Vaulx-en-Velin, France. It’s a northern banlieue suburb of Lyon, which is where I live. I’ve been teaching in Lyon for two months now. I will be here until at least May, but at present I’m not so eager to return to the United States.

Did you choose to study in France, or was it assigned to you? If you chose where you wanted to teach, why did you choose France?

Fulbright English Teacher’s Assistants in France are placed in four different regions—Paris, Strasbourg, Perpignan, and Lyon. We work specifically in what are known as zones, priority education areas, which are defined in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds. I applied specifically to teach in France, but I didn’t have any control over being placed in Lyon. I’m so happy and grateful to be in Lyon!

What are some of the cultural, fun activities that France has to offer?

Admittedly, I am still very much in the honeymoon phase, but I do truly believe Lyon and its suburbs are incomparable. Lyon is about five hours south of Paris, and the difference is marked. I studied abroad in Paris my junior year, and I feel like I met more people in Lyon in my first eight days here than I did in my entire eight months in Paris. As is also common in the American South, the people here are super open and friendly and welcoming. Lyon is also a smaller city than a sprawling metropolitan capital like Paris, so the pace is slower, and it’s very manageable in size. Yet there’s never a shortage of things to do on any given night. The choices—art, movies, music—are almost overwhelming!

In your opinion, is the education you are receiving overseas better compared to the education you have received in the States? If so, why?

This year, I am not really “studying” in the strict sense of the word, though in the most cliché way possible, I’m learning all the time! I also don’t want to make any hasty generalizations about the French education system as opposed to American public schools since I have only been exposed to a very small sample size of either. I will say there are many things I respect in the French education system– emphasis on analytical thought, interdisciplinary approaches, mandatory high school philosophy courses, open and free higher education—but of course there are some things that make me—as an American educated student—cringe. Most notably the fact that in France, as in most of Europe, students are required to specialize in an area of study at a very young age. Students choose a track—science, literature, technology, economics—in their second year of high school and from then on, they are essentially in that field forever. This specialization determines what they are able to study in university and beyond. Of course there are ways to change fields later on, but it’s much more complicated and time intensive than in the US, where you can be a math major who dabbles in creative writing, or an incoming art major who switches to engineering after freshman year. That ability to shift between disciplines or to pursue different fields simultaneously doesn’t really exist in France. Their education system doesn’t encourage or support those types of shifts in interest, either.

How will studying abroad aid in your career? Do you think it will give you an edge over others in the job field?

I’m still not totally sure what sort of career I will have, but I hope that my future will involve elements of teaching, writing, reading, and connecting with people in overseas or multicultural settings. Living in France is the only way I became fluent in French! That being said, more so than a “career” edge, traveling really does provide something that’s almost inexplicable. It’s cliché to just say “travel provides perspective,” but the more I travel, the more I realize that the people I most connect with are those who have also done a fair bit of traveling, even if we have nothing else in common. Traveling engenders a sort of empathy that’s very real and personal, not just based on books or theory. Yet traveling remains a true privilege that not everyone has the chance to seize, which is why scholarship programs, like Fulbright, are so important.

Do you miss going to school in the states?

What a question! I am forever grateful to many Alabama educational institutions; without them, I wouldn’t be in France! At UA, in particular I was lucky to have some of the best friends, advisers, and teachers ever who challenged and encouraged me. Merci, Alabama! However, this experience has awoken my travel bug. I’ve been recently perusing grad programs in France as well as Montreal, Canada. On verra! We shall see!