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South Carolina Honors College

  • Lara Lomicka teaching in front of Chocolate 101 class in the SCHC.

“Raison d’Etre”: French professor re-creates the joy of learning a new culture

When she was 15, Lara Lomicka left her Pennsylvania home for three weeks in the south of France. It was a school trip with her French class, and it changed her forever — in a good way.

“It was like living in a fairy-tale world,” she said of Martigues, a village on the Mediterranean Sea. “The country was beautiful, the weather was warm, the family treated me like one of their own, and I made some really good friends there that I still keep in touch with today and visit when I can.”

The experience was so transformative — first caviar, first French boyfriend, first lessons in making vinaigrette — that she got a job at McDonald’s to fund her next trip after high school graduation. And she keeps taking them, now as a professor of French and applied linguistics in the South Carolina Honors College, where she is a Pearce Faculty Fellow. Lomicka revels in giving her students the same soul-opening experiences she had.

“That was my first experience living in another culture, and I guess that marks you in a way,” she said. “When you haven’t experienced anything but your own culture and you realize perspectives are different, what you eat is different, what you drink is different and what you think is different, it helps you grow.”

Every spring break since 2005, Lomicka has taken her French Communication and Culture students to Paris. While they do some touristy things, they do more un-touristy, off-the-beaten-path things, experiences that help them get to know real life and people in France. During spring break 2023, the students observed — in person — the protests that paralyzed Paris for days. They also tracked the tile mosaics of anonymous French artist Invader and visited the murals created as a beautification project in the industrial 13th arrondissement.

Perhaps the most fun, though, was spending time with their new French friends, “speed dating” and having dinner with students at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris. Thanks to the “Raison d’Etre” program Lomicka formed with Stacey Benoit, an American professor who teaches English, the SCHC students get to personally connect with French people their age. By the time the students visit France each March, they’ve already hosted their new friends in South Carolina in February. Lomicka and her students tour the French students around Columbia, take a day trip to Charleston and prepare dinners for them — anything from barbeque to burgers.

They also have the opportunity to attend a class or two at USC and participate in service activities in Columbia public schools. Between both trips, the students spend about 20 days together — laughing, learning and speaking a foreign language that becomes increasingly familiar.

“The textbook is static, but by adding this personal component, it becomes something where they are understanding the latest things about the culture,” Lomicka said. “It’s a great supplement to teaching, and it makes them excited about their learning.”

A proponent of technology in education — in 2011 she was knighted by the French government for her work revitalizing technology for American French teachers — Madame le Chevalier Lomicka uses plenty of it in her courses. Her students regularly use social media, email, video chats and the Discord platform for class and assignments. The professors set up a “speed-dating” style of introduction event so each student can be matched with one partner they’ll get to know best. But they all get to know each other, sometimes with romantic results — one that even lead to a marriage proposal.

“You can never tell what will come out of this project,” Lomicka says, laughing. “All I ask is that you invite me to the wedding.”

Of course, the most foolproof romance is with the country itself. Many students return. Thanks to their earlier visit, they know how to use the metro and eat in a restaurant. Others move there permanently and meet up with the current class during their visit. One student is now a colleague. Having married and moved to Brittany, she is trying to start a program like the one Lomicka started.

“It’s become a program that for a lot of students is life-changing,” she says. “A lot of them don’t have an opportunity to travel and an opportunity to travel not as a tourist.”

For Lomicka, the vast Francophone world — with its music, food and fashion — is endlessly fascinating. And knowing the language is more useful than some might think.

“It’s interesting how well I can travel with my French,” she says, noting the countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America where French is spoken. Senegal and Morocco are two countries she’s come to love; she’s taken students to both. “It may not be the main language, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t spoken. In Morocco, French has been there since colonization. It’s not always viewed well because it was the language of colonization, but I am able to communicate and get around in French, sans problèmes.”

Such lessons may or may not be absorbed by her students now. But with the French and American students making friends and talking about the culture they share because they’re of the same generation — that they get.

“They learn ‘They’re a lot like me. We listen to the same music and watch the same shows, and we can connect through social media,’” Lomicka said. “They’re learning outside the required learning, and that’s a beautiful thing to see.”  

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