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Convocation, Department of French
Lisa Birrell wants to share her love of French culture and language
By: Caylin Barrett
After years of working as a successful graphic designer, Lisa Birrell came to Simon Fraser University in order to pursue her lifelong love of the French language. Although she was working, parenting and studying, her passion propelled her through. Five years later, she’s graduating with a BA in French.
While Birrell didn’t always have time to hang around campus, she was still able to build lasting and meaningful relationships with her fellow students and Francophiles, like French alumnus and fellow mature student Rose Doulome, with whom she took several classes and helped with note-taking and getting around campus. She also become particularly good friends with the liaison librarian for the French department, Ivana Niseteo; the two of them often enjoy their shared passion over coffee and French films.
These friendships, along with engaging coursework, allowed Birrell to flourish within the program. Among many memorable projects, she recounts a slam poem she performed with another student. She says oral projects like these, that were initially intimidating, allowed her to grow by stepping out of her comfort zone.
Now that she’s graduated Birrell hopes to pursue a career teaching French Immersion at the elementary school level.
Read more about Birrell’s SFU journey below.
Why did you choose to major in French at SFU?
Several years ago, I had been wanting to brush up on the French that I had learned and loved as one of the first groups of French Immersion students in Ottawa in the early 1970s when the program was first introduced. I had considered just taking conversation courses at Alliance Française Vancouver but when I saw an ad for SFU's French Major program in a newsletter from Canadian Parents for French BC & Yukon (as a parent of two children in a French Immersion program), I thought why not complete the degree in French language that I first started at Ottawa U in the late 1980s? In 2015, I applied to SFU, transferred my credits from Ottawa U and spent the next five years as a part-time student completing the requirements for the French Major.
What were your favorite courses or instructors during your undergraduate degree? What assignments or projects were highlights for you?
I really enjoyed the variety of my French courses and the way that the French literature, grammar, history, linguistics, oral language courses all inter-connected together so well—I was always applying things that I learned in one course to another. As a long-time francophile I was thrilled to be exposed to so many diverse aspects of French language and culture in such an in-depth and engaging way.
It’s impossible to choose a favourite but I would like to mention Professor Cécile Vigouroux as she is the instructor who encouraged me to become note-taker for Rose Doulome in summer 2016, a task that led to a very special, enduring friendship with Rose during the course of our studies at SFU.
What skill would you say has been the most valuable to you?
Acquiring better writing skills and building up new vocabularies of French words depending on the projects’ topics, as well as being exposed to the very practical digital language tools. These tools certainly did not exist when I was a university student in the late 80s, pre-Internet! “Antidote", the powerful corrector and dictionary app was a revelation! I ended up buying the app to have access to it at home and my kids and I use it all the time for our respective French-language projects.
Overall, the knowledge of French that I have gained at SFU has been very helpful with my work projects, since I have had a few clients who require bilingual materials. One of my most frequent bilingual collaborations is with Canadian Parents for French (CPF). I am a parent volunteer with the organization as well as a freelance graphic designer for provincial branches and national HQ.
What was your most memorable moment during your undergraduate studies?
I have to say accompanying Rose Doulome at her convocation ceremony in 2019. Rose is sight-impaired woman who was born and raised in Togo and moved to Canada many years ago. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Vigouroux nudged us together in 2016 and we became very good friends and classmates—we took 10 courses together and really enjoyed each other’s company.
I helped Rose with note-taking and getting around the campus, and she helped me gain more confidence speaking in French. We had a lot in common raising kids of similar ages and we never ran out of things to talk about.
Talking in French with Rose about everyday things was so much less stressful than talking with instructors—but I did end up having to speak in French to instructors quite frequently to obtain materials for Rose so that was very helpful too. Without Rose, I would have probably hidden shyly in the back of classrooms! So our friendship was mutually beneficial and the convocation ceremony in 2019 was a perfect culmination of our years together at SFU. At the time I thought it was also a great “practice” ceremony for the convocation that I anticipated attending in Spring 2020 … but of course who knew how different the world would be a year later!
Can you offer any advice or words of wisdom and encouragement to new undergraduate students in your field?
Complement your SFU French courses and expand your French language skills and knowledge by seeking out French activities, radio, film, TV shows. I listen to Radio-Canada’s news and music programs constantly throughout the day and have been so impressed by the films and TV shows that come out of Quebec and can be easily watched on streaming platforms like tou.tv.
Keep in touch with the Office of Francophone and Francophile Affairs (OFFA) via their newsletters and social media. OFFA staff members are very tuned into what’s going on French-wise in Greater Vancouver and are really engaged in creating and promoting French-language activities.