From Toulouse Study Abroad to Administrative Director
Adventure, romance and reality combine for a fulfilling
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
January 23, 2013
When Laura Long Raynaud '01 boarded a plane to Toulouse, France,
at the start of her junior year, she envisioned a montage of iconic
experiences to come: morning bicycle rides to the market for a
fresh baguette, afternoons in an art museum, romantic evenings at a
The Toulouse that awaited her delivered those postcard moments,
but it also was a real city where people led everyday lives. And as
she learned to adjust to the trials and delights of life on a
foreign shore, Raynaud had classes to attend and other obligations
to keep, just as at home.
That, she stresses, was a good thing.
"The fairytale aspects of the culture are certainly part of the
study-abroad experience, but they're not all of it," Raynaud
asserts, speaking via Skype from her office in France, where she is
administrative director of the Dickinson Center in Toulouse. "It
was the everyday difficulties-figuring out that I was capable of
living and functioning in a foreign setting, speaking a foreign
language-that really shaped me and my career."
A native of Pittsburgh, Raynaud was an international-studies and
French double-major with plans of entering the global business
world when she embarked on that pivotal year abroad. She expected
that it would take time to grow comfortable with the language, the
city, the French educational system and her home life with a local
family. But the subtle differences between the French and American
cultures took her by surprise.
Should she kiss or shake hands with acquaintances on meeting
them? What does it mean when a compliment is rejected? And what's
the big deal about saying "bonjour?"
"Students who study in a location like Yaoundé [Cameroon] or
Nagoya [Japan] are prepared for culture shock, but students who
study in France don't expect it, because the people in France
basically live and dress and eat as they do," Raynaud explains.
"The changes are more subtle, and it can be hard for students to
But she learned and adapted. That spring she completed an
internship at the town hall in a Toulouse suburb, and by the end of
the year, Raynaud had not only fallen in love with Toulouse, but
with one of its native sons, as well.
Back on campus for her senior year, Raynaud took a
work-study position helping to recruit students for the Toulouse
program. After graduation, she took an internship in Toulouse while
earning a master's degree in geopolitics and international
relations at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques. Three years later,
she was named program coordinator at the Dickinson Center.
Along the way, Raynaud married her junior-year love, Thierry,
and they had a son, Jack, now 2 1/2. She also was named to a
committee that reported to the Toulouse mayor's office on issues
facing the city's non-natives, and when the opportunity arrived to
accept her current position at the Dickinson Center, Raynaud leapt
at the chance.
"I really didn't think, when I was a student, that I'd be back
in [the Dickinson Center] after graduation, but this is very
fulfilling work," she says. "We're dealing with human beings, with
their hosts, with their whole intercultural experience."
It's a plum job for an American in Toulouse, and for one with
Raynaud's resourcefulness and distaste for routine, it seems
tailor-made. One day, she might take students on a cultural
excursion, lead a workshop or offer a quick French-etiquette
tutorial. On another, she might sort out Visa issues with the
American consulate, find someone to fix a sudden leak in the roof
of the Dickinson Center's historic 19th-century villa or connect
students with volunteer opportunities in the Toulouse
In October Raynaud was recognized for her multifaceted skill set
when she was appointed treasurer of the Association of American
Universities in France, a group that federates all of the country's
American study-abroad centers, so administrators can pool
resources. The post allows her to help streamline interactions with
government agencies, tap and contribute to the collective knowledge
of her profession and help enrich the study-abroad experiences of
Americans all across France.
But when it comes to the most delicate aspect of her
work-helping students meet the many cultural and social challenges
all new residents face-Raynaud relies on her own experiences and
emotional intelligence to guide her.
In such matters, she and Dickinson Center Director Sylvie Toux
naturally ensure that their students are informed and well
supported, but they are careful to avoid overreaching. It may be
faster and easier for Dickinson Center staff to take care of all
small matters directly, but that would undermine one of the
program's key aims.
"It's a fine line to walk, because we're there for them, and we
give them all the support they need, but we also want to help them
develop into responsible, professional young adults," Raynaud
explains. "As 20-to-22-year-olds, they need to learn how to get
things done. They also need to be able to think responsibly about
what they're doing and the implications that their actions have on
other people-whether in their own culture or their foreign
Raynaud has seen the fruits of these life lessons many times
over. Approximately 20 percent of the program's participants return
to Toulouse after graduating from Dickinson to participate in a
French-government-funded program working as teaching assistants in
the French public schools. And while it's been more than a decade
since she embarked on her own journey of discovery, these successes
still strike a chord.
"Of course there are good days and bad days, and we do have to
manage expectations," she says, recalling those wine-and-baguette
dreams she harbored in her own pre-study-abroad days. "But to see
the students' evolution throughout their own journeys-to watch them
grow and become open to things that they weren't necessarily open
to in the beginning-that's very gratifying for me.