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Paris called and Cambridge answered

Daniela Caride

When a family friend told Stephanie Guirand last summer he wouldn’t be able to cosign her college loan, the young Cambridge resident began to despair.

This would mean quitting her studies at University of Connecticut, where the 20-year-old Guirand, originally from Haiti, was majoring in anthropology and scheduled to graduate in 2009.

Even worse: the Cambridge Rindge and Latin graduate had just been accepted into a program that would take her to the University of Paris Sorbonne for a year. Now, she’d have to pass.

“Freaking out and not sure what I was supposed to do, I told … the mayor about this,” said Guirand, who was interning at office of Cambridge Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves at the time, in a telephone interview.

It’s good to have friends in high places.

Within a week and with the help of Richard McKinnon from The McKinnon Company, who donated himself and collected contributions from the Cambridge business community, Reeves was able to raise the $10,500 Guirand needed.

All that was left was to say “au revoir.”

Guirand has been in Paris since September, paying bills with savings she and her mother put together while working and covering tuition with the money raised through Reeves’ initiative.

Mayoral spokesman John Clifford says Reeves’ involvement is an outgrowth of his commitment to learning in Cambridge.

“The mayor is extremely focused on education,” said Clifford. “So, with Stephanie, he thought it was … a shame that she might be unable to attend the Sorbonne because of the $10,500.”

And Guirand was an “extremely good” intern, according to Clifford.

“She was familiar with the local government, she’s a great writer, a great communicator, and she could follow instructions,” he said. “Stephanie is a leader, and she believes in the Haitian and black community.”

Those skills helped Guirand take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Cambridge contingent’s contribution as soon as she set foot in Paris.

“France is treating me well. From the first day I realized that I was in a foreign world. We began classes the very next day. We have classes everyday for four hours. The classes are challenging and informative,” she wrote in an e-mail to Reeves’ office.

Guirand graduated last month from her intensive French course, an independent study of French women, laws and feminism, and several other classes she took alongside French students, like art history and the history of Paris — a three-hour-long class comprised of two hours in the classroom and one hour walking to the different places they discussed in class.

Guirand’s city education didn’t stop there. The University of Connecticut Paris program has taken her on a tour of Paris along the river Seine, and to the Palace of Versailles, a symbol of the French monarchy. She has also traveled to other cities in France and to London as well, and plans to visit Normandy, Cannes, and Nice.

“I’m getting so much out of it now,” she said. “I’ve been meeting new people, I’ve been learning so much … a lot about myself, and the world, and history, and the city.”

Guirand calls her experience as a student in Paris “very, very different” from her time in Connecticut and Cambridge, where her family lives. For example, she feels it is more difficult to reach teachers after class.

“If you didn’t get something … you’re really on your own, and I haven’t felt that way at home,” she said.

Another difference, she notes, is the public release of grades. She remembers receiving results on one of her final exams — instead of getting the grade in the mail or handed to her, her instructor just posted up a list of students’ names and their grades at school.
“It could be embarrassing for someone who didn’t do well,” said Guirand.

But despite the cultural differences, Guirand has been doing well. She has always had extra support when studying in America, she said, which she doesn’t have in France, forcing her to rely more on herself.

“In some ways it’s good,” she said. “It’s like turning into an adult.”

She said she tries to learn as much as she can from other cultures by spending time with non-American students and observing the environment around her. There are plenty of new things for Guirand to observe — this is the first time she has been away from home for this long.

“The first week it was like vacation, and then I realized I can’t go home until June,” she said. “So I’m trying to figure out what kind of person I plan to be.”

Clifford, from the mayor’s office, believes Guirand did the right thing by choosing to study abroad and thinks the experience will help her mature into an even better leader.

“When you are away from your home … you are able to concentrate more and reflect back on where you came from,” said Clifford. “It’s going to be a great learning experience for her.”

After Guirand leaves Paris, in June, she hopes to find opportunities to apply what she learned in France about history, politics and women, and about life in general.

“Hopefully, I will be able to put it all to use and do something really amazing with it,” she said.