French and Political Science studies fuel alumna’s career

February 07, 2012

In the past year, in her Alliance France office in D.C., Mary Beth Bounds made an exciting discovery – she no longer switched back and forth between thinking in English and French. She was thinking in both languages at the same time.

“It was totally unexpected,” says the 2009 alumna who graduated with majors in French and Political Science. “It is as if two programs are running at the same time. I no longer switch back and forth. Now I think I can claim that I am bilingual.”

Bounds may be alone in her surprise. After all, she spent the year after graduation teaching English in a French high school. French was the only language she and her apartment-mate – the school’s Spanish assistant from Bolivia – shared. And now, in her second year as academic coordinator with the Alliance, she speaks French all day with her colleagues and all but the beginning French students.

Emily Taylor, Laura Descher and Mary Bounds, all 2009 McDaniel grads, met in Lyon, France, for winetasting while Descher and Bounds were in France teaching English.

Her situation is different than it was when she arrived in the Alsace region of France in the fall of 2009 to teach English to 15-year-olds. She felt comfortable enough speaking the language, but was a bit nervous about the cultural differences, especially since she had to make all her own living arrangements.

“Adaptability is one of the benefits of a liberal arts education,” she says, explaining that setting up bank accounts, finding an apartment and all other living arrangements are left completely up to the teacher.  “You learn to think on your feet and can re-direct. A wide skill set is very important in the professional world.”

In the French school in the town of Mulhouse, she watched her students come into class the first day and dutifully stand behind their chairs waiting for her to greet them and invite them to be seated. The formality of the French classroom was distinctly different from American classrooms where college students may even be on a first name basis with their professors, Bounds says.

Close to the Swiss border, Mulhouse, France, shares some cultural similarities with Switzerland as apparent in the photos of the town hall and a carnival.

“The French classroom can be stifling for language learning, I think,” she says, explaining that her students were surprised to be called upon to answer questions whether or not they volunteered. “I ran my classroom the American way to generate more discussion and to give my students cultural context too.”

Back in the states, the student-turned-teacher has now become an administrator at the nonprofit organization, and more of the political-science side of her double major is coming into play. Bounds is in charge of course planning, public relations with students, administration of the private lessons and French over Skype programs and direction of the International Certifications program. Typically the Alliance has 600-700 adult students and about 200 children learning French in group classes each session – and last year they held five adult and three children’s sessions.

Busy doesn’t begin to describe her days, but Bounds believes she has truly found a home in the nonprofit world.

“I enjoy nonprofit management – every day is different and there is a lot of flexibility,” she says. “I see myself staying on the nonprofit side and wouldn’t rule out working for an organization in the future in France or any one of the Francophone countries in Africa or Europe or elsewhere.”