Natalie Cox – Progress in Unlikely Places (French)

All Student Stories, Master of Public Administration

10k in Marseille 2012Story written by Natalie Cox, MPA, ’14

I began learning French as an eighth grader in a small town in Washington State. It was a largely arbitrary decision, in part governed by fantasy of windows to new worlds opening, and the possibility to connect with a large number of new people, previously closed off to a girl from middle-class America.

After a series of seriously inspiring French teachers in high school, my love for and commitment to the language was solidified, and evolved into a profound sense of wanderlust to explore the people and places of the last five years’ fantasies.

Like many eager young Americans, I spent the entirety of my junior year abroad, in Toulouse, France. Upon arrival, we were promptly locked out of our public university for half the year in accordance with a very admirable grève (strike) protesting the corporatization of funding for public education in France, and the systematic termination of humanities programs across the country.

Being, in fact, pro-grève, I was able to justify eschewing my conventional studies, and so took quite quickly to other forms of edification. The new replacements for politics and history classes became: tennis lessons from a burly man named Romain near a large shopping mall nine métro stops away; four meetings a week in a pub near the university with two graduate students preparing for the concours (exam that students take to get into the French Administration), with whom I read The Economist and drank afternoon mint tea; and extra-legal (not in accordance with the grève) meetings with our French professor at a friend’s apartment over cheese and bread and the subjonctif. I eventually transferred to the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Institute of Political Studies), which was only afflicted by a short strike, and was able to complete the year’s coursework. However, like many who study language, progress for me came from the least likely places. It was those chilly afternoons playing sloppy tennis that taught me the most.

Concordia Language Villages 2012When I came back from France, I wanted to get serious about my career. After understanding what in the world linguistics actually was, I was thrilled to find it incorporated the rigor for which I longed, coupled with an intractable connection to human psyche and human interaction.  I studied linguistics passionately, and thought for one brief summer at Berkeley, that I would devote myself to documenting endangered languages of Indonesia or Canada’s First Nations tribes.

I quickly realized that this wasn’t meant to be. I then worked towards my other interest area, environmental conservation and sustainability. I landed a job at a small foundation funding environmental justice movements in New York City and Boston, land conservation, and regional climate legislation in the northeast. I was able to then work managing a small, sustainability-focused inn on the California coast and used my language skills frequently with our many francophone guests.

Toulouse 2008I have also worked as a camp counselor and outdoor education leader at Concordia Language Villages, leading canoe camping trips for high school students in a francophone environment, and teaching Franco-Canadian fur trade history. Needing to reaffirm my continental connection, I then moved to Lyon, France as a high school English Teacher. During this year in Lyon, I supplemented by income by tutoring English for various families, with whom I became quite close, spending New Year’s Eve and Sunday afternoons learning the secrets of their quiche au saumon fume (smoked salmon quiche). I also became interested in how informal care work is regulated and incorporated into the French economy in the forms of tax credits and subsidies for paying at-home child- and elder- care givers and educators. This interest has informed some of my work for Monterey County, looking at ways to integrate the economics of care work into performance measures, and finding better ways to make the economic argument for investment in care initiatives including early childhood education, health, and stewardship of the natural environment.

Language has always played an important role in shaping my vision of my future self, and I as I continue to shape a career in social entrepreneurship and public service, blurring the lines between the private and public sectors for good.