Ivana Porashka (C’21) on the appeal of French language and culture

By Anna Püsök
Executive Staff

When Ivana Porashka (C’21) was deciding what language she  wanted to learn in high school, French wasn’t her first choice. “I really wanted to study Latin, but my mom said, ‘No, that’s a dead language, you’re going to choose something that’s actively spoken in the world.’ So I chose French over Spanish because I thought, maybe one day, I could go to France.”

Porashka studied the language for five years before coming to Sewanee, but she wasn’t into it at first. “I didn’t like that much in high school, actually. One anecdote; I skipped a french class because I knew we had a vocabulary quiz and I just sat in the bathroom for an hour, like a little maniac,” she laughed and then continued, “So I think it was really stressful for me, and I didn’t feel like I was really good at french at all in high school.”

Even when coming to Sewanee, majoring in French wasn’t in her plans. Porashka said, “I just wanted to see how the French department would develop my character, and I ended up really loving it.” She continued, “I was also thinking that well, logistically, if I invested already into studying the french language, I might as well keep it up and add it as a second major.” 

Her first exposure to French at Sewanee was through a class with Professor Glacet. Porashka remembers,“the environment he created was not stressful, but really conducive to me. It was about learning, being curious, being challenged, and I think being exposed to french that way made me really want to learn more and get fluent.”

Last fall, Porashka spent a semester abroad in Paris, where she took politics, literature, art history and French language classes. “One of my favourite classes was art history, in which, every single Wednesday, we got to go to the Louvre Museum. That was my favourite part of the week” she said.  

“The other one, which was taught by a Sewanee professor, Glacet, was supposed to be taught in a classroom, but he decided to change the location every single week, to a spot in the city of Paris. He sent us an email the night before, and just be like ‘meet here at this metro stop,’ and with different tour guides were able to see huge parts of Paris,” finished Porashka.

When asked what it was like to speak French all the time, Porashka said, “In language learning, there are different types of ways to understand a language. For example, you can know it academically, and be perfect in the classroom. Beautiful writing, you can talk about politics, for example, but the moment you’re in the actual culture, you are not adapted to communication, at all. You can ask people what their politics are, but you cannot ask, what’s up?”

She further explained, “So I think my academic French was really good, but when I got to France I realized there was a lot of slang that the french youth use and I had to learn a lot of that and they speak super fast. So it was hard, but I think it helped a lot.”

“I tried my hardest to not allow myself to speak in English, and I felt like I couldn’t show my personality because I couldn’t express myself properly. But I was like you gotta do it,” Porashka finished.

When she wasn’t in the classroom, Porashka explored Paris. “I was basically almost never home, in my host family apartment, except for dinner. I wanted to be out all day, to see as much as possible.” 

She further explained, “For dinner though, I was always home because I think that’s a really important part with bonding with your host family, and my family was French-Cambodian, they would throw in Cambodian with French, and I was like, ‘This is really hard,’” she laughed.

Porashka agrees with the saying that study abroad is life-changing. She said, “I had a lot of time for myself, which was good for reflection, but I also had a lot of difficult times with people, I think due to the language and cultural barriers. 

She continued, “I found myself not being able to explain my true intentions. I found myself in conflict with others unintentionally, and while that was stressful, I think that grew me as a communicator, and allowed me to find certain parts of myself that I didn’t know, it was there.” 

This year, Porashka is the co-director of the French House with Sarah Asinger (C’21). Compared to her sophomore year, when she lived in the house for the first time, Porashka thinks that this year’s COVID-19 regulations made the house members become closer. “I think in my sophomore year, even though we all lived in the same house, everybody had their own life, their own schedule. There wasn’t much house bonding, to be honest.

She further explained, “this year, especially due to COVID restrictions, we’re leaning on each other more, and getting to know each other more as a house. These are the only people we’re allowed to be unmasked with and together with, but it’s awesome. They are all little weirdos in the best ways. It’s like a family, and I know it’s a cliche, but I feel really close with every single person in the house.”

Porashka thinks that her French major works well with her other major, philosophy. “France is known for its history in philosophy and really great philosophers like Simon de Beauvoir.” She thinks that her “philosophy major helps develop rhetoric and argument skills, and certain facets of philosophy in France are just beautiful.” 

Her love for the language and the country will take Porashka back to France after graduating from Sewanee. “I applied for Fulbright in France, but I understand it is a really competitive award, so I’m going through different avenues to find my way back to France.”

She continued, “I also want to apply for a master’s program at a French university, in philosophy or gender studies. Any reason for I can go back to France is sort of what I’m after.”

After studying in France,, Porashka wants to attend law school, to pursue public defense, with the focus on liberties and human rights.

Porashka’s advice for those who are interested in language learning is “to lean into your curiosity. Studying becomes a lot more fun if you look at it as discovering parts about yourself and discovering what you’re interested in rather than homework, and obligations. It is supposed to be fun! If you look at it in terms of, this is fascinating, and so curious about this and myself it’s a lot more fulfilling to pursue a language.”