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Summer 2003

Talloires Journey
A Tufts European adventure put the accent on active learning

See also the MacJannet story.

“Here’s a French field at its peak of color.” Biology professor George Ellmore pulls his Peugeot to the side of the narrow road. It’s late June in the Haute-Savoie, a region of southeastern France where usually, at these heights, one stops to admire the stunning view of Lake Annecy set against the rugged backdrop of the French Alps.

But Ellmore has something else on his mind as he admires this vivid floral canvas. “There are excellent flowers here,” he says, pointing out golden gentian, wild foxglove, wild orchids sheltered from the hot sun by meadow grass, profusions of yellow rattle. He stops and picks off a few leaves of a small herb. “This is salad burnet,” he says. “Go ahead, try it. The leaves have a cucumber-like taste and are used in some of the most exclusive restaurants.”

For Ellmore, the native plants of these alpine slopes are far more than just part of the scenery. They’re part of his wildflower identification course, known to undergraduates simply as “Flowers.” His students will ultimately be asked to identify some 120 species by sight. And as their field guides become progressively dog-eared, they’re introduced to the basic tools of botany, as well as the cultural, traditional, and medicinal significance of local plants. After several weeks, “they can’t go outside without looking at a plant growing by a signpost and saying: ‘I know what that is!’” says Ellmore. “So it’s a class that teaches them observation and deduction skills while they learn what professional botanists do to protect and enhance biodiversity.” And besides, he adds, “Students enjoy being outdoors and I think they want something that is real. Summer is no time to be sitting in the classroom looking at PowerPoint presentations.”

Indeed, the “Flowers” experience in many ways reflects why students year after year continue to talk in glowing terms about Tufts in Talloires as a highlight of their Tufts education—awesome, excellent, and one, at the ripe age of 20, “the best experience of my life.”

Like “Flowers,” courses offered in the six-week liberal arts program based at the Tufts European Center put an accent on active learning. Faculty capitalize not only on the French Alps, but on the larger European setting, enriching discussions with field trips to Geneva and Paris, among other relevant sites. Cultural awareness and appreciation also grow as students explore the history of the region and experience daily life with their French host families.

David Gute, academic director for the Tufts in Talloires program this year and a civil and environmental engineering professor, says Tufts in Talloires appeals to students highly motivated by challenge and discovery.

“Many Tufts students have a desire to know things in a different context than that offered by classes conducted in the United States,” says Gute. He has come to Talloires for four years, and this year his class, “The Emerging Global Health Crisis: Epidemics, the Environment, and Public Policy,” included trips to the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the headquarters of the World Health Organization, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon. “Here we recognize that education does not simply happen in the classroom. People who value interaction with students and who are demonstrative teachers seem to come to Talloires. And students who are open-minded, curious, and imaginative are bound to thrive.”

Imagination finds fertile ground right from the start. One arrives at the Tufts European Center through a narrow entrance that leads to a treasure of the Middle Ages. The Prieuré de Talloires, founded in 1018 by Benedictine monks as a place for contemplation and study, remains evocative of its spiritual past, with massive beamed ceilings, Gothic windows, and twisting stone stairways. And as a national historic monument mentioned in guidebooks, it sometimes attracts bands of tourists who can be found looking quizzically at the front entrance, no doubt wondering: What is this place called Tufts and what on earth is it doing here?

Donald MacJannet, A16, H70, and Charlotte MacJannet, H70.

The story of the Tufts University European Center is inseparable from the story of the MacJannets. For 25 years, the center has nurtured the vision of Donald MacJannet, A16, H70, and Charlotte Blensdorf MacJannet, H70, who back in the 1930s started what was then the novel idea of international summer camps. After World War II, they returned to France and Talloires to restore and deepen their commitment to global goodwill, including purchasing the ruined 11th-century priory, which they then lovingly restored. In 1978, they gave the priory to Tufts, and in 1979 it was dedicated as the Tufts European Center, now home to a number of Tufts summer programs and host to international meetings and conferences.

“In all my experience with the MacJannets, it was crystal clear that active learning was the only way to learn,” says Rocky Carzo, former Tufts athletic director who led athletic programming in Talloires for 15 years. “The MacJannets believed that what you do is more important than what you say. If you know what you want to become, you have to do it everyday; you become what you do.”

This year, the Tufts in Talloires program has brought together 71 undergraduates from Tufts and other colleges, nine professors, one scholar-in-residence, and two non-credit French teachers, one of whom is also a local hiking expert. The program draws a wide range of students—most equipped with but a smattering of French.

“Tufts in Talloires is unique in that way, attracting students who want an overseas experience but who don’t have the language skills or the time in their academic schedules to do a semester or year abroad,” said Gabriella Goldstein, J84, director of the European Center. “The fact that we bring Tufts professors who teach Tufts courses in English gives them an overseas experience and at the same time the comfort of knowing what to expect. The European Center’s attentive staff also helps to ensure that the experience is a positive one for the students who come to the Tufts in Talloires program each year.”

By way of introduction to the region, Bernard Martin, a certified alpine mountain guide, leads twice-weekly hikes. Students discover a region rich in social and natural history while also being rewarded with a visit to a remote alpine lake or perhaps catching sight of an ibex or eagle. Ancient history can be traced in the Roman roads still etched in the soil or by stone shrines and wooden crosses set out hundreds of years ago to warn travelers of danger. And in the popular hiking areas on the opposite side of the lake, known as Les Bauges (wild boar’s den), hikers can see the traditional farming hamlets of the Savoie.

“Some of the students are not really hikers, but they turn up for the first hike and they love it,” said Martin. “They like the flora and fauna and the view—I don’t think you will ever tire of the view. Many of them will discover something different. I remember a student standing in the field for 15 minutes or half an hour stroking a cow; I don’t think he’d ever seen one before.”


Faculty encourage active learning through their own innovative approaches to traditional subjects. For English professor Virginia Brereton, the Alps beckoned with possibilities for a new literature course, “Imagining the Mountains.” She combined various readings by writers and explorers with hikes as well as field trips to Mont Blanc, an hour’s drive away. Mont Blanc’s 15,771-foot pinnacle towers over the busy city of Chamonix, and it has long inspired poets and writers who wanted to put into words what they felt in the presence of Western Europe’s highest peak.

“I wanted them to connect it with what the poets were saying, but also to make meaning of their own experience,” said Brereton. “My larger idea was to treat the literature of the mountains as metaphorical. Mountains both implicitly and often explicitly can stand for life, for having a goal, for how often we use the direction up as something good.”

Maura Coughlin, G94, a visiting lecturer at Tufts and several other Boston-area colleges, kept the immediacy of France in mind last year when she wrote her course plan for “French Impressionism.” In addition to presenting coursework, she conducted a weekend trip to Paris to visit the Musée d’Orsay, the Rodin Museum, and then onto Monet’s Giverny. A final project also asked students to contemplate Cézanne’s perspective for his famous painting of Lake Annecy, created when he took the waters at Talloires. “The students wrote about what they imagined he saw,” said Couglin. “As they learn to learn, they can relate their experience of being in rural France to that of a painter looking at a landscape and then deciding how to paint it.”

Political science professor John Gould, F88, who first came to Talloires as a Tufts adjunct faculty member, tells his students “not to let the course get in the way of learning.” He complemented coursework on the European Union with a field trip to Brussels, where the students spoke directly with members of the European Union Commission. That dialogue contrasted with an alpine hike to hear the more personal and less optimistic viewpoint of a cow farmer about the European Union’s common agricultural and trade policies.

“Europe now has the world’s largest internal market—a half billion people and a gross domestic product (GDP) slightly larger than that of the United States,” said Gould, a professor at Colorado College. “The European Union consequently has a powerful presence on the world stage. Students need to acquire the historical background and analytical tools necessary to make sense of the world’s newest and most idiosyncratic player. I’m hopeful that my students, by being here, have a sense that the European Union is, right now, still more a project than a realization. My goal is that they understand why institutions are in place, why they take the forms they do, and that they’re often not rational—that it’s a mix of political compromise and ideals.”

Kit Stanton, A04, has joined her friends in the walled garden, where one can often find students relaxing. When asked about what she has discovered here in Talloires, she recalls “Imagining the Mountains” and a field trip to Chamonix. The class had set out on what turned into an adventure when they went searching for a half hour in the freezing rain for the grave of early explorer Edward Whymper. “We faced nothing compared to what he faced in that region,” said Stanton. “And yet when we finally found his grave, it was a stone’s throw from where we had parked the car! We all went nuts, laughing and hugging for joy—it was really incredible. It’s great, too, because we all now have this shared memory, and we’ve decided to have a class “reunion” at Tufts in the fall.

“If I had visited it without the class,” she added, “I probably would have just snapped a photo. And if I had just read about these things, I would have instantly forgotten them. But I now know more about what Whymper felt when he was there, it brought it home. It makes me remember more deeply.”

If there is a common note between students, it is that their knowledge, when combined with travel, intensified the experience of their surroundings, often raising their awareness of new possibilities.

In particular, many students spoke movingly about the opportunity to see Europe for the first time. Gwen Campbell, A04, said a visit to the Commonwealth of the European Union left her pondering a larger framework of her life after Tufts and how to make a wider difference in the world. “The European Union is about 15 completely different countries bonding together for one common goal, and that’s really hard,” she said. “Getting 15 different points of view to agree on anything is hard, and the fact that they can do that for certain issues is amazing. It made me want to be more global in whatever I choose to do.

Talloires summer classes also kindled new perspectives for Elizabeth Buchen, A04, who has been “very focused on hard science.” She recalled a visit to the World Health Organization, for instance, and a presentation by a high-ranking Ugandan woman whose family has been devastated by AIDS. “It has got me away from my usual path and thinking about the Peace Corps, or exploring a different aspect of science,” she said. “I’ve been studying drug addiction, but I might want to do more with policy. That is a possibility now.”

Ben Thayer, E05, has always had an eye toward bigger things. A civil engineer by training, he was finishing up a paper on cholera in Iraq for Professor Gute. He spoke about the kind of knowledge that comes with travel, but also appreciating getting to know faculty better. He remembered engaging Gute in a conversation during a field trip about emerging opportunities for civil engineers in Third World countries. “All of a sudden, because of the way classes are taught here, and because I am able to live with a French family, I realize that being able to speak passable French is really important and the slope of a hill . . . maybe less so!”


Those transformative experiences that can lead to widening shifts in perspective describe the highest potential of the European Center, says Elaine Feen Kaufman, J46, a member of the International Boards of Overseers, who now lives in London. Kaufman was entranced by Europe after she and her husband made her first trip to Italy in 1969. She first heard about the European Center seven years ago and she has since become a champion of its potential to awaken students to the world at large.

“The whole idea of students coming to Europe, living with a French family, and experiencing a different culture is important,”said Kauffman. “In addition, the opportunity to go to Geneva and other places such as Strasbourg to see world organizations is invaluable. I would hope students who come to Talloires will then be able to look at the United States not solely in the context of America, but more in the way they connect with the rest of the world.”

Students agree that host families are one of the most popular means to forge cross-cultural friendships because they provide such a rich opportunity to experience French culture and customs and improve language skills.

“The families are a huge part of the program and the cultural experience,” said Ana Martinez, A05. “It’s being in a French home where you really become immersed in the new culture. It’s not something you get sitting in class. My family has graciously taken it upon themselves to share everything about their culture with me. We talk over dinner and chat about politics. They have shown me around and included me in their day-to-day activities. Some evenings we simply converse in the living room about anything from my reading assignments for class and their daily newspaper.”

Andre Bergerat, a former general manager for Boston-based Digital Equipment, has welcomed Tufts students to his home for seven years.

“We think the students get to listen to different views, not just about global events, but about our own difficulties in France,” he said over a glass of lemonade at the Host Family Appreciation Reception. “It’s been a key experience. I’ve met many Americans in my life and some of my most valued experiences are all about the shock of cultures. I think that this is a wonderful opportunity for students when host families take care to show them that there are other people who can be happy with different ways of living.”

As a case in point, take the issue of war. In the spring, when foreign policy sharply divided the United States and France over Iraq, disaffection for France was a concern for staff in Medford, particularly when they saw some applications withdrawn.

But the Tufts presence in Talloires, said Goldstein, “is really the face of America for many people in the village. Integrity, loyalty, the values you’d place on any friendship—these are important here. We have proved to be good citizens and our neighbors, in turn, are always glad to welcome us back.

“The French love to talk about politics; and we told the students to be ready to talk about it in a way that was honest and respectful of different viewpoints,” she adds. “And when you think about it, what better way for students to understand how important it is for them to be here in France right now.”

Jay Meattle, A04, said his French family did indeed invite conversations about American politics, and he found it a good test for diplomacy. “They ask me my opinion; they are very direct,” he said, “and the approach is simple. Be frank, but don’t upset them; show respect.”

Students also saw clearly how the French culture diverges from their own in America. Asked what surprised them the most, students unanimously were astonished by a slower pace—shops shut down at midday for two hours, several generations of a family linger over extended Sunday meals, seven-week vacations are the norm.

“There are different lifestyles out there—and I now realize that we can make up our own,” said Caleb Hudak, A04. “The American dream is to make money—but in Europe it’s not trying to get ahead so much. They are very happy doing what they do. I’d say it’s more family-oriented, less focused on living life to make money.”

It would be easy to categorize Tufts in Talloires as an academic program. But then that would leave out what Rocky Carzo sees as an indispensable component of the Talloires journey. Back in 1982, Carzo helped start the tradition of the Saint-Germain Pilgrimage. High above Talloires sits the Chapel of Saint-Germain, for hundreds of years the destination for pilgrims honoring the first prior of Talloires, who lived for 40 years as a hermit in a grotto just below the church.

“The students needed a means of personal self-development but also a sense of community,” said Carzo. “We needed a rallying point. The Saint-Germain Pilgrimage would have a greater impact if we achieved our goal collectively. At the same time, it emphasized the importance of a personal positive attitude and a group spirit. It embodied the essence of the educational experience.”

This afternoon, Tufts students and faculty have come together for the annual run up the mountainside. The distance is short—only a mile and a half, but steep; the trail switchbacks sharply to 2,500 feet.

First across the finish line are Jon Rosen, A04, captain of the varsity cross-country team, and teammate Ian Joseph, A04. They give a high five as they tie for first place, and soon everyone cheers “You’re almost there!” “You can do it!” as weary runners and walkers round the final bend.

Spirits are still high when everyone comes together for a group photo. Something about Carzo’s message must have made a powerful impression, because a student breaks into a song that seems appropriate for the setting, and soon everyone is joining in, a spontaneous chorus.

It’s undoubtedly the first time “Lean on Me” has been sung en masse at the threshold of the little chapel, but not the last.