Franklin & Marshall College senior Christy Illescas first traveled to Paris on a weeklong high school trip. The exposure to a new place shaped her desire to return someday. She spent last spring back in Paris where she held an internship with SOS Racisme, a French nonprofit whose goal is to fight against racism, anti-Semitism, and other sorts of discrimination.
“As a first-generation college student learning a language my parents don’t know, I have realized how privileged I am to study abroad in the first place. I wanted an experience that would allow me to challenge myself,” said Illescas, who is from Los Angeles.
As an American studies major and French minor, Illescas used her knowledge of American history to help SOS Racisme prepare for a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Her interactions with colleagues improved her French language skills in a new way.
In March, tragedy struck the city when a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, was murdered at home in her apartment in a hate crime. Illescas saw the direct response of her organization as it collaborated with others to organize a march in Knoll’s memory.
“SOS Racisme was quoted in conversations on how to create dialogue about an issue still present in France. There is anti-Semitism past the Holocaust,” Illescas said.
Illescas’ colleagues invited her to partake in the march with them, even though it took place after work hours. Curious, she said yes.
“I was exposed to how much drive there was to bring justice,” she said. “Protest is a very French thing to do. It was moving.”
She was given a poster to hold that read, “Je suis juif.ve,” or “I am Jewish,” a takeoff of “Je suis Charlie,” the protest slogan that followed the 2015 shooting at the office of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Many journalists attended the march, which lasted two hours, taking photos and gathering interviews from participants. Since Illescas speaks Spanish, she was interviewed by a Spanish news outlet.
“I remember feeling so empowered that day,” she said. “I was so moved by the fight and the power of the people. Nothing else mattered.”
The day after the protest, Illescas’ boss called her into his office. He had a copy of Le Monde on his desk.
“‘Look,’ he said. I said, ‘Look at what?’ And he said, ‘It’s you!’” She couldn’t believe it--her photo was on the front page of the paper.
“It was very exciting, and my colleagues and I all laughed together,” she said. “I was still learning from them, and learning how to express that excitement in French was very touching. From that day, I felt more connected to them. After that experience, I learned to say yes to many things. “
As a student learning French, Illescas feels she had an ideal study-abroad experience, despite challenges of homesickness, language learning, and the need to be more independent.
She said, “The experience helped me grow as a person, and I would encourage everyone to study abroad if the opportunity is available. Getting to experience new cultures and meet new people is something I will always treasure. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”