Mathieu Bohémier-Bernard grew up speaking French at home and school - a noteworthy achievement given that he grew up in the English-speaking suburb of Coquitlam, B.C.
But even with that head-start, the third-year SFU chemistry student was finding it hard to maintain his fluency after leaving high school. “It was a battle to keep up my French,” he says. “I had very little opportunity to study or speak it. English was slowly taking over.”
Today Bohémier-Bernard is not only speaking, reading and writing fluently once again, he's also dreaming in French. “That's when you know your immersion is complete,” he laughs.
One of three winners from across Canada of the 2001-2002 Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee bursary for study in a second official language, Bohemier-Bernard has been a full-time exchange student at Universite Laval in Quebec City since September.
Bohémier-Bernard says he “couldn't pass up the opportunity” to apply for the $5,000 award, which is open to second and third year students, and meant to encourage young Canadians to improve their proficiency in their second official language.
“I had an idea that I might like to work in the pharmaceutical industry, which is concentrated in Montreal - a very bilingual city. So I really wanted to top up my French. Then, when I went back to Vancouver at Christmas, I talked it over with my co-op coordinator at SFU, and she helped me find a summer co-op placement at Shire Pharmaceuticals in Montreal. So I'll go right from Laval to Montreal, with my French improved by about 200 per cent.”
Bohémier-Bernard says he has “loved every minute” of his time in Quebec City. “It's been a welcome change. There's so much history and culture. I have made friends with people from all over the world. And the teaching style is very different here. Students are not graded on the bell curve, so they are not as competitive with each other. Everyone helps each other out.”
Even more than the language, it is this “tremendous school spirit” that Bohémier-Bernard says he will bring back with him when he returns to SFU next fall to complete the last year of his four-year soccer scholarship.
“There is a really positive social aspect to academic life at Laval. They have weekly pub nights in each of the departments, and it gives the profs a chance to get to know their students better. I'd like to make an effort to organize similar events at SFU.”
Student exchanges are life-changing experiences, says Bohémier-Bernard. “I would encourage everyone to go on at least one exchange, no matter what your language ability. Go out and live a different culture. Leave your safety net behind and try new things. It makes for an incredible learning atmosphere.”
For more information about the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee endowment fund bursary, contact SFU financial assistance at 604.291.3893.
For information about other post-secondary French language exchange programs, contact the French programs branch of the B.C. ministry of education at 250.356.2524.
For information about other international exchange programs, contact SFU international at 604.291.4232.