Cornell Visit

For the last two days, I’ve been learning everything there possibly is to know about Cornell’s French department. The graduate field assistant, professors, and current students have showered us in kindness and pampered us 8 prospective students (three French, five Spanish) with a free hotel room, endless amounts of food (pains au chocolat, éclairs, cheese, Thai food, and sushi), and other free items (a lanyard, folder, screen cleaner, three-day bus pass, and an issue of a feminist criticism magazine).

On Tuesday, I awoke at the wonderful hour of 4:30 to take the metro to the DC airport and my flights to Newark and Ithaca. As soon as the bus reached campus and I found the graduate field assistant’s office, lo and behold, the 18th century and feminist theory professor I was supposed to meet with showed up and took me to lunch.


Yep, this café is inside the Romance Studies building. How ridiculously extra is that? Anyways, it’s a small world, because the professor was born in Laon and got her PhD at the Université de Nice, two French cities where I’ve spent a year of my life.

The free hotel shuttle them took me from the campus to the Hotel Ithaca, where I finally got to meet my hotel roommate, a fellow queer WOC French nerd. The hotel is the fanciest place I’ve ever stayed in, and I didn’t even pay money for that queen-sized bed with five pillows and a glorious view of a Sunoco gas station.

After a couple of hours, A and I unglued ourselves from the luxurious beds and headed over to campus for a creative writing seminar among the Romance Studies students. (Yes, this department is incredibly interdisciplinary.) We later headed downtown to dinner with a majority of the current grad students, where we got delicious pizza and I, through a series of unfortunate events, got a bruise on my butt. The four French students there had nothing but positive things to say about Cornell (including “Cornell’s so gay”), and they have such varied research interests. After two hours, a current student kindly drove us back to the hotel, where A and I immediately passed out.


Tuesday morning began with breakfast, where I gasped at the sight of mini pains au chocolat, and we got to meet more faculty and current students before embarking on a library tour. The main library is incredible, there are 7 floors and 8 million books (and there was an exhibition in witchcraft that included manuscripts in old French!); the second library has a room that I want to live in forever.

After I fawned over the libraries, the department fed us Thai food for lunch—the way to my heart—and I had so many wonderful conversations, notably ones about feminism and Black Panther.

I then met with another professor, who took me on a walk to see one of Ithaca’s famous apple vending machines and gorges. Unfortunately, I had to leave behind this pure, wholesome man and rush to a graduate class afterwards, which was…strange because, since the graduate departments here are so interdisciplinary, the class was cross-listed with French and taught entirely in English.

But the reception for prospective students took over my confusion, because I’ve never seen the Romance Studies lounge so full of Spanish, French, and Italian professors and students—and the food! Wine, cheese, éclairs, cannolis, fruit,  charcuterie, and five huge trays of sushi. Who needs dinner after all that food? A and I returned to the hotel after two hours of chatting with professors and students, and then somehow stayed up until 11 discussing Cornell and our grad school choices, among other topics, and spent at least twenty minutes refusing to believe that one of the professors is in his 40s. Also, I will say that, damn, this department is incredibly queer.


This morning, three Spanish students met us in the hotel lobby and took us to a delicious breakfast at Café DeWitt, and then I had a wonderful meeting with a professor during which we agreed that gender shouldn’t exist. Finally, I had a tiny bit of free time before I had to catch the bus to the airport, so I wandered the campus. My emotional moment happened as I was walking toward this beautiful view and had to stop and stand there and wonder about how much I’d regret it if I turned down Cornell.


And now I’m sitting here in Ithaca, stuck on the plane that was supposed to have departed an hour and forty minutes ago, munching on leftover baguette from breakfast.


UVA Open House

At last, a post related to my Francophile life! I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but I’ve applied to seven PhD programs in French. So far, Cornell, UMich, and LSU have accepted me; UConn has accepted me but only for their MA; Penn State has taken the silent approach after their interview; Columbia interviewed and then rejected me; and UVA is up in the air. Hence why I spent two days at their Graduate Open House.

At the end of January, UVA informed me that I was part of a small group of applicants invited to visit the campus. No pressure at all there. So Wednesday evening, I excitedly took a train from DC to Richmond (while bemoaning Amtrak’s lack of punctuality and missing SNCF), and then drove to Charlottesville Thursday morning.

After expertly getting lost, I managed to find New Cabell Hall and check in to a lunch with faculty, current grad students, and the six other prospective students. Curiously enough, only two of us didn’t have MAs (yes, including me), and some of the older applicants were married, had children, or were born in the 80s, all of which were bizarre concepts for lowly 23-year-old me.

After a long stretch of free time during which I explored the surprisingly small campus, I had a meeting with one of my former French professor’s advisors, and was called her academic granddaughter. The meeting went way overtime so I showed up to another one horribly late (oops), and then we sat in on a graduate course. Although the discussion-style class was different than anything I’d ever had at R-MC (where I awkwardly tried not to be the only one talking senior year) and I had no idea what was going on because I’d never read the Corneille text, it made me realize how much I miss academia.


The last event of the day was dinner with current and prospective students, and at the restaurant, the grad students spilled everything—all positive things, though, which bodes well. I’m very jealous of how close-knit the community was in comparison to my undergrad, and then all other coherent thought ceased because it was my 9:30pm bedtime. (City Year changes you.)

On Friday, we attended a presentation on teaching French in the department, and then we had lunch at the Maison Française with grad students and more professors. This time, they fed us Créole and Haïtian food and I nearly wept with joy. Also, apparently I’m famous for being my French prof’s student? The benefits of nepotism, I guess.

After food utopia, we observed an undergrad class taught by a grad student, and I watched in a mixture of amazement and horror as the TA led a perfect class—my eyes reached “I’ll have to do that one day?” size. A tour of libraries and the Rotunda wrapped up our time at UVA, and I love that I got to see and learn about so much of the department. Cordiality! A community and culture! French books! Not a single con that I can think of (aside from Richard Spencer, I guess).


Anyways, I’ll have to see what I think of Cornell and UMich when I visit them. If I like all three of the schools, well, I suppose I’ll have to lie down and cry about the life-changing decision that will affect the rest of my future. Or go the Hermione route and illegally appropriate a Time Turner so that I can attend more than one school.

You know you’ve been in France too long when…

  • You buy an almond croissant at the farmers market, get a weird look from the guy because you pronounce “croissant” the proper French way, and then almost weep tears of joy at the first bite because the croissant tastes like it actually came from France
  • Someone walks past and says, “See? This is why we need to live in France…” and you instantly whip around and whisper, “Hit me up”
  • At Lidl, you decide that the mini 29-cent pains au chocolat look legit, so you grab two of them for breakfast. The next day, still wary of being disappointed, you take a bite and then proceed to cry over how buttery and flaky they are
  • You start making strangled noises because you’re stuck at a conference and there’s a Paul taunting you across the street. I just wanted a French pastry, dammit. And then your group made things worse by saying that the Paul looked too bougie and went straight to Starbucks instead. Um, excuse you? Starbucks will never be superior.
  • Some of your teammates and you stumble upon a Christmas Market in DC, and though it delights you to no end, the white tents look wrong. Where are the little red or brown wooden cabins that you find in Europe?
  • The Silver Spring library sign says that they offer bilingual French and English story time, but you realize with great sadness that you won’t pass for a 2-5 year old. Maybe you should take your friend’s advice and borrow a child…
  • One day, the clouds are strangely formed to look like a mountain, and you realize that you actually miss tiny Laon
  • The morning commute to work takes you past several murals on the sides of buildings, and you feel a sudden intense nostalgia for Lyon and its fresques
  • Someone at the metro says, “Are you going to L’Efant?” and you want to scream at them and tell them it’s L’ENFANT. THERE’S AN N IN THERE.
  • Your teammates mock you (lovingly) for being a snob who refuses to eat Costco croissants
  • Your team notices that almost all the art at iHop is strawberry-themed, but you realize that one piece of artwork is blue, white, and red, just like the French flag
  • Someone at Target is speaking French on the phone, and you have to remind yourself that it’s socially unacceptable to follow them no matter how much you miss French

Things Kids Say, Pt. VI

Despite having once been a child myself, I will honestly never understand why kids say half the things they do:

  • Student: “When did you dye your hair black?”
    • Me: “I never dyed it black! What do you think my natural hair color was?”
    • Her: “Dark brown, like that strip right there.”
    • Me: *tries desperately not to laugh because she’s talking about my bleached strip*
  • Me, teaching: “Does anyone know what an antonym is?”
    • Student: “Stop using these white words!”
    • Me: “Do I look white?”
  • It was a student’s birthday, and I heard he was going to Chuck-E-Cheese’s, so I asked him, “Who do you want to go?” He replied, “You!” and I told him I wish I could but had to get my eyes checked because City Years sadly aren’t allowed to interact with our students at non-school-sponsored events. His response? A gasp, followed by, “You have to get surgery?!?”
  • Me: “Can you give me a synonym for ‘scary’?”
    • Student: “White!”
    • Me: …oh.
  • P, after drawing a smiley face on my hand: “It has glasses because you have glasses!”8B1B27C2-3FB0-467D-8B1F-4108BF77C2C2
  • Student, after giving me her indecipherable drawing: “It’s a pregnant plum in a blanket!”
  • Zohar: “K, you’re beautiful.”
    • K: “I know.”
  • Zohar: “A, do you like girls or boys better?”
    • A: “Neither! I want to be a bird because they’re beautiful. And I want to eat a worm.”
  • A student who’s convinced I’m wearing a wig: “Don’t touch me, Wiggy.” During the past week, she has continued to refer to me as Wiggy and her favorite phrase is now, “Let’s go, Wiggy.” When I told her to pull on my hair to prove that it’s not a wig, she declared, “You sewed it onto your head.”
  • I told one of my favorite students he’s a nerd because he asked if he could do his homework instead of doing something fun in afterschool, and he went, “I’m not a nerd! I don’t have glasses! And my pants aren’t rolled up!” (He is a nerd though. He likes getting homework.)


  • A, after placing a piece of broken lollipop on my hand: “Will you marry me?”
    • She’s so weird. We watched Hidden Figures in afterschool for Fun Friday, and during a romantic dance scene, and she turned to me and exclaimed “Ms. Sarena, only City Years can watch this. Kids can’t watch it. I know what’s going to happen next. They’re going to go to a hotel—” and then I immediately shushed her because why does she know this???

She’s also gifted Zohar and me with artwork—including a devil rainbow—and seashells:


  • Several of my students, instead of giving me high fives with their hands, use their heads instead…?
  • Not a direct quote, but my one of students won the K-2 spelling bee and went on to compete in the 3-5 spelling bee, and then she came in 4th place. So proud of my little 2nd grader!

Things Kids Say, Pt. V

  • My favorite space cadet: “Spongebob and Hello Kitty put together makes Sponge Kitty!”
  • Me, trying to get my students to say ‘redhead’: “What do you call someone who has red hair?”
    • One student: “Caucasian!”
  • Two kids, while trying to kiss my ears through my hair: “We want to be your daughters!” Send help they’re so weird.
  • Me: “How can you show kindness to Ms. K?”
    • Student: “Beat her up!”
    • Me: “How can you be nice to other people? What can they do for you?”
    • Him: “Eat my butt!”
  • I was reading a text about squids to a student, and when I said, “Squids have long arms that are called tentacles,” I asked him, “What do you call a squid’s arms?”
    • Him: “Tickatoes!”
  • Student: “Why is you hair so long? Is it because you’re white? Are you black? Are you tan?”
  • Me, on our field trip to the National Museum of American History: “Go watch the movie! It’s all about the presidents.”
    • Space cadet: “Even Trump?”
    • Me: “No, no one likes him.”
  • I also got to witness him explaining what a nuke was to a classmate, and it was too cute despite the subject.
  • One of my teammates told us something that one of her 1st graders said, and I have to quote it here because it’s just too funny: “You don’t care about us! You’re just here for the money!” Boy, we’d be anywhere else if we wanted money.

I wanted this post to wrap up my time at Ketcham in 2017, so it’s a bit sparse. But in the meantime, enjoy various adorable/hilarious photos of student work:

Graffitied Arms

I know this blog has been pretty dead, and that’s been my fault, what with ten-hour service days and grad school apps and everything else going on. To revive my blog until I get the chance to work on it during winter break (which starts Thursday!), I’m making a brief post about one of the most memorable moments so far during the year.

On November 6, my partner teacher happened to be absent, so our students ended up being split up and placed in different classes. I pulled a student aside individually to alleviate her boredom, and she told me about losing two of her brothers in a car crash. I told her about losing mine, too, and what she did next still makes me cry every time I think about it. After I let her go from my hug, she picked up a gray marker, uncapped it, and then wrote on my arm, “I sad that your brother died.” Here she was, an 8-year-old who had lost two brothers, trying to comfort me, a 23-year-old who’s lost one brother.

During breakfast, one of my sweetest kids refused to look me in the eye while telling me that she would miss school the next day because of her aunt’s funeral. I took her hand and told her about having to attend my brother’s funeral, and she clung to me for the rest of breakfast. When I pulled her aside and then brought her back to the classroom she’d been assigned to, she saw my left arm and wanted to write something too. So I gave her a purple marker, and she insisted that I couldn’t look until she was finished. When she finally let my turn my arm, I saw that she’d written, “I love you 💜💜💜 City Year.”

Kids are so full of love despite everything they’ve been through. Anyways, I’m disappointed that the writing has long since washed away (even if I looked like a crazy lady walking into Five Guys with two of my teammates on my way home), but that’s what cameras are for, right?



Things Kids Say, Pt. IV

I’ve stopped diligently recording everything my 2nd graders say and do, because so much happens during the day, and I can only remember so much. But the realest quote came from my partner teacher: “Ms. Sarena, no one would ever believe I’ve also learned that I need to put on weight because my 7-8 year old children can pick me up, and that’s low-key terrifying.

  • Student runs up to me and hugs me at recess: “N said you that have teenage feet!” Girl, I have child feet. I legit wear a size 2 to 4 in children’s shoes. Why am I this small? We just don’t know.
  • One day, everyone except 2nd grade received cereal for breakfast. The little space cadet saw that his class had bagels, and proceeded to make his “mad face.” His form of protest? Sprawling out on the cafeteria bench and covering his head with his jacket. This kid is the light of my life.
    • The art teacher passed out coloring pages as a reward for good behavior, and when O received his, he held it up with both hands, shook it at the ceiling, and muttered, “A Squirtle? Really? Come on. I want a Charizard.”
    • I caught him holding one of his dreads and twanging it like a guitar string during class, and I couldn’t even reprimand him because he caught me laughing at him.
  • I never thought I’d see the day when I had to chase one of my kids around the room three times because he was too embarrassed to give the teacher his thank you letter. I had to stifle my laughter the entire time because he was mumbling, “I can’t do this” as he walked straight past the teacher’s desk. Finally, I had to grab his arm and hold his hand out so that Ms. K could take the card from him.
  • At recess, one of my weirder girls ran up to me and said, “Ms. Sarena, button your shirt! Your boobies are showing!”
  • One of my students raised his hand, and I walked over, thinking he needed help with the assignment. He waited until I crouched down, and then he asked, “When you were a baby, were you black?”
    • He also stared at the cubbies and backpacks, and started quietly singing to himself, “Strippin’, strippin’, strippin’.”
  • Upon seeing two rings on my middle finger: “Are you married? Did you kiss the bride? You did? That means you kissed the husband too!”
  • Two different students guessed that I was 99, so I rolled with it.
  • After she overheard me telling a teacher that I’m Chinese: “That’s why your hands are so soft!”

3rd grade afterschool:

  • “It’s called baseball because you take the ball to the basement.”
  • “You’re from a poor country because you’re skinny!”

You know you’ve been in France too long when…

  • A friend mentions that someone in the corps wants to start a French club, and that very possibility makes your day
  • A teammate says that her birthday is July 13, and you remark, “That’s right before Bastille Day! It’s how I remember one of my friend’s birthdays,” and another teammate comments, “That’s such a you thing to say”
  • You’re on the way to the Silver Spring farmers market, and your friend mentions how delicious a chocolate coconut macaroon there is–and you’re shocked to see that she actually meant a macaroon and not a macaron
  • Every time you see a baguette or a pain au chocolat, you stare at it despondently because you really want one but know that, unless it’s from Europe, it’s going to hardcore disappoint you
  • You, one of your roommates, and two other friends immediately agree on how much worse the -isms (racism, sexism, homophobia) are in France
  • Your friend’s Nutella croissant is taking ages to come out, so you ponder aloud, “Are they making it fresh back there?” and your friend replies, “Probably not, this is America”
  • Daily crossword clues like “Right to the French,” “City in the north of France” and “French seaport city” make the long commute to school so much better (in case you were wondering, the answers were droit, Caen, and Brest, respectively)
  • Every time you walk into a grocery or convenience store, you miss being able to buy fresh, real pastries
  • In Giant, you stand and stare in absolute horror at a $4 box of petits écoliers (biscuits with chocolate on top) because in France, you could buy those for 80 cents
  • The highlight of your Sunday is beefing up your French writing sample so that it comes to a total of 10 pages and 3429 words
  • A friend puts a Trader Joe’s baguette in your basket, and you give it the dirtiest look before saying, “Take that out right now”
  • You pick up a little jar of sea salt because it’s so cute, but immediately put it back down because it says “fluer de sel” (how dare they misspell fleur de sel)
  • You’re still astounded by how quickly the checkout lines move in grocery stores
  • A school bus labeled “French International” passes by, and you stare longingly after it because you want to know where it’s going
  • After a student tells you something in Spanish, you inform her, “I don’t speak Spanish, I speak French,” and she says, “Oh, bonjour!” and you’ve never been happier
  • You have a bite of a Costco croissant and have never regretted a decision more
  • It’s cold and sad and rainy outside, and your first response is to shake your fist at the sky and demand, “Why would you bring Laon weather here? What did I do to deserve northern France climate?”

Things Kids Say, Pt. III

  • Right before she started reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “Can I have a blank piece of paper? I want to write down what’s different in the book and movie.” She’s going to grow up to be even bigger of a nerd than I am.
    • On the playground, after giving me a hug: “You’re my favorite because you have little feet.”
    • She beckoned me over in class one day, and I thought she needed help, but all she did was giggle and say, “I called you Little Foot.”
  • Student: “Have you ever eaten octopus tail?”
    • Me: “No, octopi don’t have tails! But I have eaten octopus.”
    • Her: “Ewww! Was it alive?”
  • When a 7-year-old proposes to you: “Will you kiss me? Will you marry me?”
    • The next day, undeterred by my rejection, she made a kissy face at me and announced, “Ms. Sarena’s going to marry me!” at lunch. She’s so weird. Especially because she keeps announcing to all my other teammates that she’s going to marry me.
  • During group rotations, one team finished all the directions first, so they all put in a hand and let go on “Team Earthquake!”
  • A student used the word “can” in a sentence: “I can go to Ms. Sarena’s party.” Boy, the day I have a party is the day I’ve been kidnapped and replaced by a clone.
  • At breakfast, I noticed the little space cadet holding a napkin to his face, so I went over to check that everything was okay. Turns out the syrup packet had exploded all over his face, getting on his cheek, ear, neck, hair, jacket, and shirt. I wiped his face with a wet napkin while he sat there passively, unaware of my heroic efforts to restrain my laughter.
  • In the hallway, as my partner teacher and I watched in utter confusion, the astronaut walked straight past the tape line on the ground.
    • “Where are you going, O?” partner teacher asked.
    • “I can’t find the line,” he said.
    • “It’s right there,” I said, pointing.
    • “Oh,” he said, walking around in another circle before standing on the tape.
    • Ms. K and I burst into laughter. To echo Ms. K, is he okay? We just don’t know.
  • When I caught him climbing the vertical monkey bars at recess: “O, why do you still have your backpack on?”
    • Him: “Oh, it was a dumb decision.” *climbs down, runs off, puts backpack down, resumes being a monkey*
  • A student walked up to me, arms crossed, in full angry face mode, and stomped his foot as he told me, “-insert classmate name here- called me gay!” I had to try so hard not to laugh because he was obviously upset, so I told him “gay” isn’t an insult and sent him off.
  • “What color is India?” a 5th grader asks while looking at a map of the US.
  • A 5th grader in afterschool tried to give me attitude by repeating everything I said. I shut him down by speaking in French. The resulting look on his face was beautiful.
  • I thought that I was going to have to seriously discipline a 5th grader when I picked up a discarded card she made, but luckily she’d been trying to draw a book character called Fly Guy. But seriously, look at it. Tell me that it doesn’t look like a certain piece of anatomy.


Anyways. check out some adorable 2nd grade writing and art:

Things Kids Say, Pt. II

Working with 2nd graders has, oddly enough, helped me discover that I actually have a strict voice: they’re adorable, but aside from a few kids who have never done anything wrong in their lives, they don’t always behave. We all know that I’m probably one of the least assertive people out there, but this job has done wonders for me being able to stand my ground. (Yes, sometimes it includes me yelling. I didn’t know that was possible, either, but these little nuggets get into so many fights–and I mean flat-out punching, not baby fights.) Also at Ketcham, CY runs afterschool, and three teammates and I work with the 4th and 5th graders and create their lesson plans. It’s good practice for grad school, I suppose? On to the highlights of working with children:

  • There’s nothing like having to stifle your laughter because the small group you’re working with isn’t supposed to be talking, but you don’t have the heart to shush them because they’re saying things like, “Donald Trump isn’t mine” and “I didn’t vote for him.”
  • A guest came in to read a book to my afternoon class, and when she read the line “Zelda gave him a love note,” they all screamed, “Eww!”
  • One student told a classmate that he’s white because his last name is White, and they nearly started swinging at each other until I dropped my hands on their shoulders and told them, “You’re both black and you should be proud of that.” (Although, I do have to say that it’s fascinating how “white” is an insult for them.)
  • Looking over writing from 7-8 year olds becomes a whole new world when they try to write English phonetically: “fablss,” “prity,” “stor,” and “drdy” (fabulous, pretty, store, and dirty).
    • This kid, who’s usually so sweet, wrote, “I kick my kat.” Honey, you don’t even have a cat.
  • Despite my phobia of clowns, I couldn’t help but laugh when a student told me, “I want to be a clown because I’m a funny guy.”
    • Actual words that left his mouth: “I bopbopbop and the dog goes away.”
  • At lunch, I told someone he had to throw away his food, and he grumbled, “I don’t wanna,” so I told him, “The zombies are gonna get you!” and he yelped, “No!” and promptly began cleaning up.
  • One child asked me, “Can you take me home with you?” called someone “Mr. Evil Demon” and “Mr. Devil,” and hugged me while proclaiming, “My City Year!”
    • I couldn’t stop myself from laughing at her when she dramatically plastered her face to the glass wall of a classroom and watched dolefully as I walked away.
  • A little space cadet took what I assumed was a sour bite of pineapple, and stared at the remaining morsel on his fork with the most betrayed expression.
    • My partner teacher told me to take pictures of the kids reading, and whenever I pointed her phone at him, he looked at me like, “HOW DARE YOU I’m camera shy.”
    • While he was climbing on the top of the monkey bars: “I’m living the monkey life!”
  • Someone said that the tooth fairy brings her gold bars. Why didn’t I know about this as a child?
  • Me: “What are you thinking about? You gotta focus!”
    • Him: “I’m thinkin’ about ice cream!”
    • When I left the room to plan, he squished his angry face right up against the window, and I booked it out of there before I started laughing.
  • Me: “You have to remember things in that little head of yours!”
    • Her: “Things pop out of my ears!”
  • One girl repeatedly demanded to know my real name. Sweetie, it’s right there on my name tag. I don’t have another name.
  • Some of these students are getting so possessive. They wrap me in hugs, or attack me from the other side when one of their classmates is hugging me, and claim, “My City Year!” Uh, no, I’m not an object for you all to fight over.


  • I was explaining 9/11, and a 4th grader said, “Muslims are the people who everyone thinks are bad but they’re all actually good.”
  • We had students create laws for their own country, and the first thing one student wrote was, “A country where people don’t kill each other.”
  • Unrelated to afterschool, but I am still–and will always be–confused about a 3rd grader telling me that I look Spanish…???