How Fulbright France Prepared me for Going Home

Omolayo Ojo, Fulbright ETA 2015-2016

I went to France as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant with a few very specific purposes: learn more about the lives of immigrants in France, make a difference in the lives of my students, improve my French and explore as much of Paris, France and Europe as I could. I was on a quest to grow as an individual and continue to lay the groundwork to be a change agent in the field of migration and cross-cultural communication. My time in France was meant to prepare me for pursuing my masters in Migration Studies, then my law degree and eventually, being an advocate for migrants around the world. Little did I know that my time in France would also prepare me for going home.


While I grew up in the U.S. and consider Maryland « home, » I was born in Nigeria and I also consider it « home. » Living in Nigeria as an adult was my next stop in advancing cross-cultural communication and deepening my understanding of the world before I set out to change it. As much as Nigeria was « home » in my heart, I found out very quickly that it would take some time for it to feel like home in a practical sense. Even though I had visited Nigeria a few times over the years, it still felt like tackling a whole new culture and environment, and I found myself often pulling on lessons from my time in Paris in order to better shape my time here. Even better, I get to continue flexing my French muscles while living in this Anglophone country.


Reflecting on my time in France, I was able to better deal with some of the cultural differences I faced early on in Nigeria. For example, in Paris, if you don’t want to starve, you have to learn to eat and work within the time frames that are culturally accepted throughout Paris. Museums and shops close promptly on time and will even start brushing you out an hour or so before closing. And good luck getting anything done during lunch hours. Similarly, Nigerians take their lunch hours very seriously, as well as their prayer times – this means you will likely not be able to get any office related things done past 1pm, especially on a Friday in a Northern city like Abuja that is predominantly Muslim. Being part of a new environment means learning to be patient and adjusting to the pace of that city’s life.


Another lesson from France that I have been able to apply here in Nigeria is planning myself well in order to make the most of a new city. I quickly learned that I wasn’t going to see all the sites Paris had to offer by happenstance (although I stumbled by the Eiffel Tower on my way to our first Fulbright Orientation session). Therefore, I took time to list all the sites I wanted to make sure I saw and all the activities I wanted to do in order to make the most of my time in Paris. Similarly, here in Abuja, I’ve been doing the same thing. I recently went hiking with a group here, because Abuja’s hills lend itself well to such activities. Just like my time in Paris, where I listed sites in the outskirts of Paris, around France and around Europe, I’ve done the same here in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. I’ve traveled to Côte d’Ivoire – a Francophone country, and I hope to visit another Francophone country, Benin Republic, before my time here is up. I’ve also traveled around Nigeria itself and continue to discover more about the country.


The number one thing my Fulbright experience has provided for me is my current grasp of French. Despite Nigeria being Anglophone, I use French throughout the week in my current position. I’m serving at the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States. My colleagues are from all around West Africa, including Francophone nations like Côte d’Ivoire and Benin Republic. In fact, half of my department is French speaking and my office is the first point of contact for all those that have a message for the Court President, want to request for leave and all other administrative things occurring in the court. This means I’m constantly speaking French and every new Francophone person is always pleasantly surprised that they don’t have to struggle to communicate. They are also quite surprised when they find out I’m Nigerian – many Nigerians who studied French in university don’t speak it well, least of all with a slightly Parisian accent.


Before working at ECOWAS, while I was still on the application beat, I took some time to brush up on my French by taking classes the Institut Français here in Abuja.  I was able to sit in easily with the B2 student, but I chose to stay with the A2 students so I could focus on my grammar which was where I really needed work. When you spend 9 months focusing on communication as I did in Paris, you can forget or gloss over the grammar rules easily. It was a 6 week class, with classes 3 days a week. Being there had me feeling like I was back in France, and we even had one of the French holidays off. One of my fellow students has now moved to Paris for furthering her studies, and besides being thoroughly jealous, I’m living vicariously through her photos and stories. Before she left for France, we sat down together and I divulged all my tips and favorite places around Paris and put her in touch with some friends I still have there. 


In addition, my time as an English Teaching Assistant has paid off here in Abuja. My community service group often works with IDP (Internally Displace People) camps to teach them various lessons in English (many of them come from Northern states and background where they have had little to no formal education), caring for themselves and caring for their environment. While the age group of the children differs, I pull from a lot of my lessons in front of my students in France as a I decide how best to convey various messages to students here in Nigeria. Back in Paris, once a week, I tutored 5-year-olds in English and now, I’ve started tutoring a 5 -year-old in French.


Looking back, it’s interesting to see what aspects of my life have changed since Fulbright and the ones that have stayed the same. All I know is that my time in France has been an invaluable part of my growth as a Franophile, a change agent and an advocate for cross-cultural communication. In drawing on all my experiences while in Paris, I’ve been having nostalgia on a whole another level. I’m looking forward to when I can get back to France – my third home. 


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