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  • Writer's pictureDr. Abdourahmane Diouf

HOW I, A SENEGALESE MAN, BECAME A PIONEER IN FRANCE’S COMPLEX ACADEMIC WORLD

By Dr. Abdourahmane Diouf




My first shock came as soon as I arrived in October 2009. Dressed in a gray shirt, black coat and gray pants, with black dress shoes, I went to Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand on a cool morning to register.


The directions led me to a spacious building with a rather modern décor. In the registration office, I was greeted with a surprisingly cold welcome from an authoritative woman who appeared to be in her fifties. She responded mechanically to my greetings.


"I've already given you a form," she dropped without warning and in a hurried tone.


Making no show of my astonishment, I calmly replied in the negative to the lady who insisted again and again that she had given me this standard form. We went back and forth like that, with me standing my ground to tell her that she had never given me the form, and her stubbornly denying. This verbal tussle lasted for a few minutes before a gentleman, a sub-Saharan African, came forward with a confident step to point out a document he'd left on the counter to the woman, who immediately realized she'd mistaken me for someone else.



“The bold assumption that I was there for African studies…”



"You look so much alike," she said, cutting short the conversation I'd just started with my "look-alike,” who turned out to be a fellow countryman. 


Where were her manners? I didn't get the slightest word of apology. The rude blow wasn’t over yet; what followed was even more astonishing.


"We don't do African studies here," she swung dismissively. 


Surprised, I asked her curtly, "Are you talking to me?" 


She repeated herself. 


I returned to the charge in an even firmer tone, "What's that got to do with me? It's clearly stated in my file. English studies, with an American concentration."


"I must have made a mistake. Someone wanted to sign up for African studies," she feigned. Another mix-up, and still no excuse whatsoever.



“...layers of preconceived and negative notions about Africans.”



This first contact with the administration shocked me on several levels. There, I was. A newcomer in France, and I was being greeted with a total lack of civility and consideration. The bold assumption that I was there for "African studies" was a foretaste of a French reality that I would confront over and over again throughout my time living in France as an African scholar. The reality operated on layers of preconceived and negative notions about Africans; ideas that I had not personally experienced, but had only heard from a distance. Now that I had entered France, I had to witness this reality. I had to live it and face it head-on.


And so I conversed with myself on the way back to my residence a few kilometers from the university. In the spirit of optimism, I reflected on my first encounter with the Senegalese fellow in the registration office, who would later become my best friend in France.


From Pikine To The Foot Of The Puy De Dôme

My life began in Senegal. I'm a child of Pikine, a suburb of the Senegalese capital, Dakar. I went to elementary school in Pikine until I passed my Certificat d'Etudes, before moving on to the prestigious, private Saint Michel Middle School in downtown Dakar. Pikine, with its noisy shopping streets, large population, artistic warmth and cut-throat neighborhoods, is a place that builds character.

A little shy, I was studious and sporty, and during my secondary school years, I played for the Jeanne D'arc, one of the best basketball clubs at the time.



Since my middle school was a two-hour drive from my family’s home in Pikine, I left early and returned late.  After that, I went on to Lamine Gueye High School. A renowned establishment in the city center, illustrious personalities such as the scientist Rose Dieng and the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who today teaches at Columbia University in New York, had passed through the school’s halls. This cycle of my life lasted six years, ending with a literary baccalaureate in 2000. Then it was time for university.



“When I arrived in France in 2009, I was already armed with a Master's degree…” 



My passion for literature, particularly English literature, would no doubt surprise my former schoolmates, as I had a penchant for mathematics, although I wasn't bad at languages. After obtaining my BFEM, the diploma that closes the middle school cycle, I had to accept a place in Seconde S (science) for lack of space, and enroll in Seconde L1 (literature).


I made a complete turn from science to French literature, waltzing with Césaire, Senghor and Hugo, with good marks in English, too. A language that would never leave me thanks to an older brother who handled it like Shakespeare did.


I discovered American literature in 2001 at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar through our eminent professors such as Oumar Ndongo and Daouda Loum.


In the bustling corridors of the university’s English department, I'd bump into friends from high school, our shared passion uniting us. Over the course of the first two years, we would follow a common core of various subjects, from linguistics to history, not to mention the inevitable courses in African, British and American literature, where we frequented Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Toni Morrison, Dickens…


“As if the icy winter wasn't enough, I also had to contend with the icy attitude of most of my university contacts on a daily basis.”



So, when I arrived in France in 2009, I was already armed with a Master's degree in American literature and civilization. I landed in Clermont-Ferrand, a beautiful university town in central France, bordered by the volcanic Puys de Dôme mountains.


Admission to French universities is no easy matter for us African students. You have to choose to apply to the ones with the best chances of accepting you. Although my first choice wasn’t the University of Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand, I haven't regretted it in view of the wonderful encounters and friendships I've made.


Coming from a very sunny country, I had to face up to not only the academic rigors, but also the daunting task of adapting to a totally different climate. As if the icy winter wasn't enough, I also had to contend with the icy attitude of most of my university contacts on a daily basis.



“Attitudes targeted at me because of who I am: African.”



The Battlefield 

As I mentioned earlier, I came to France with a Master’s degree in American literature and civilization from the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal. However, the University of Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand was clearly unconfident in my academic abilities. The institution wanted me to start all over again. I was expected to go through a Master’s degree course from scratch. The idea of a demotion was simply out of the question for me. I resisted. Because of my tenacious resistance, the university finally agreed to accept me into an advanced Master’s track. 

 


“Something happened that could have derailed everything I was trying to achieve…”



But I knew this was not the end of what would be a series of battles. I would navigate university bureaucracy, constantly confronting people who had attitudes that I found unreasonable. Attitudes targeted at me because of who I am: African. In this university town, where students kept their heads in their books, I savored the rare moments of socializing with friends.


At the end of my Master's year in the University of Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand, something happened that could have derailed everything I was trying to achieve. The university assigned to me a dissertation supervisor who had a strangely hostile attitude. She was cold from the very beginning. First of all, my first drafts made her uncomfortable. My drafts were written in a kind of French that was too “sophisticated” to have possibly come from me. 


In her perception, the handling of an elevated or so-called academic French was clearly the exclusive gift of a world in which I didn't belong.


Deep down, she knew full well that I wasn't a plagiarist, but she simply wanted to get in the way of my project. This wanton hostility culminated in her ignoring my emails and not even showing up for our regular appointments. So, my dissertation project was stalled. Compared to my fellow students, I was losing precious time.


I had to find a way to cleverly expose her to her colleagues so that they, too, could see that she wasn’t performing her role as a teacher. The department chair, who had a blind copy of my unanswered emails, intervened and re-assigned me to a very dynamic and open-minded dissertation supervisor.



“In their faces, I would see a look of puzzlement sparked by my presence – an African man – in the classroom.” 



Everything that happened had delayed me and I ended up several months behind my original schedule. However, I was able to defend my Master’s dissertation and the jury awarded me with the highest mark of "Très bien." I had more than the average required to pursue a doctoral thesis. With a resilience driven solely by my academic goals, I overcame difficulties and circumvented pitfalls that could have destroyed me. I was ready to go for my Ph.D.


Doctoral research is always a laborious undertaking, and for me, the pain started immediately. I needed to secure a Ph.D. thesis supervisor before I could begin a doctoral program.  I spent more than two years looking for one. No professor was available to supervise my research, and I was met with rejection after rejection. Some declined because my field of research was not "their area of expertise or specialty, while others didn't even reply to my emails.


While still looking for a thesis supervisor, I left the University of Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand in 2012 to move to Paris, where my thirst for knowledge led me to the Sorbonne Paris 3. From this university, a prestigious symbol of the French-speaking academic world, I pursued another Master’s program and obtained a Master's degree in Information and Communication.



After acquiring this, I ventured into various professional activities ranging from research and conducting surveys to teaching English in middle and high schools in Paris.


I still remember some particular moments during this period when I was  teaching. 


"Sir, do you have the same diplomas as the other teachers?" 


The students I taught asked me this question a lot. In their faces, I would see a look of puzzlement sparked by my presence – an African man – in the classroom. Instinctively, laughter would bubble within me. But, I would hold back my laughs and answer the question in a constructive way.



Throughout my stay in Paris, I never lost sight of my goal of finding a research supervisor so I could finally start my thesis project. Then one day, an email arrived from the University of Le Mans in western France.


On My Way To Becoming A Pioneer in France

Professor Redouane Abouddahab, a specialist in American literature, immediately invited me to an interview after he read my proposal to do a thesis on the American novelist John Steinbeck. At the end of the interview, he validated my project, recognizing its ambitious and above all, innovative nature, since a thesis on Steinbeck did not yet exist in France. I was going to be a pioneer! I was even more motivated. 



“...it was time for me to face the jury…”



I finally had a thesis director. I had endured two hard years of rejection from scholars in France’s academic world. They had refused to acknowledge the merit of my academic capabilities. The rejections bruised me. But finally, the tide was turning in my favor. A deep satisfaction spread over me. 


I buckled down for four years of intense research which required travel. When I was finished, it was time for me to face the jury and defend my Ph.D. thesis: “Aesthetics, Politics and Ethics: Literary Creation in the Novels of John Steinbeck.” 


I came face-to-face with the jury. These five people would decide my fate. They would be the ones to say if my four years of sweat and labor was worth it. The atmosphere in the room was cordial enough. But, there were moments of tension in my exchanges with the jury. I confidently stood by my research. I knew I had worked methodically and rigorously.


Once the “trial” ended, the mood lightened. I had obtained the prestigious title of Doctor of the University of Le Mans! The jury poured a rain of congratulations over me. They asked me about my future projects. Some of the jury members enthusiastically noted that my achievement was unprecedented. “You are the first Steinbeck specialist in France,” they said.  It was Friday, November 27, 2020. I had triumphed! I was relieved. I was proud.




Success Is A Sweet Revenge 

After this hard-won degree, the French academic world, which had seemed so distant and cold, began to open up. I had the privilege of teaching at renowned French universities, including Paris Diderot and Paris Créteil, where I also trained administrative, accounting and financial staff in communication techniques. 



I also returned to the Sorbonne – not as a student but as a teacher, teaching in the Languages department at Sorbonne Paris 3 and a course on American and British politics in the legal department at Panthéon-Sorbonne Paris 1.



“...believing in myself and in the power of my intelligence…”



My student life in France began in October 2009 at the University of Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand when a faculty member in charge of registering students threw at me a huge plate of blatant disrespect. 


Today, I wonder if she would ever admit to hearing about what I had accomplished. The same goes for those other teachers and administrative staff who, for no reason at all, chose to stand in my way.

I returned to Clermont-Ferrand a few years later when the institution invited me to address the annual congress of the Society of Higher Education Anglicists of France. It was a sweet revenge for me to return to this temple of knowledge with a sense of accomplishment, and to prove to those who doubted me that I was a man to be reckoned with.


From my own experience, I can say that success in such a hostile environment requires mental strength, patience and self-sacrifice. This was my victory and I had won every bit of it by believing in myself and in the power of my intelligence. 

 




Dr. Abdourahmane Diouf is a lecturer and researcher living in Paris, France. He enjoys reading, traveling and basketball.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Guest
Apr 30
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

C'est vraiment un très bon parcours !!!!

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Guest
Apr 29
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

These stories are important to capture, thank you.

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