Alumna recalls French studies and adventures abroad

Thu, 2011-08-04 08:00 -- univcomm
August 4, 2011

Anderson University alum Michelle (Bitler) Kourouma, BA '99, is a new mother of two. Now her days consist of caring for her family, but it wasn’t long ago that she was living in Africa.

As a student at AU, Kourouma was involved in track and field and cross country. She also took advantage of a Tri-S trip to Wounded Knee, S.D., and a biking trip over spring break. [Photo on left: Michelle and her husband, Paul, on their wedding day in Africa.]

“My sophomore year there was a bike trip over spring break to Florida that was planned by Anderson alumni,” said Kourouma. “They invited a bunch of students to come along, and I remember them putting ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ on the handle bars of our bikes. I remember us pushing ourselves physically further than we ever had before.”

Kourouma treasures the opportunity she had at AU to dig deeper.

“The thing that I loved about AU was that we had the freedom to ask questions,” she said. “It was a Christian university, but it didn’t accept the cookie-cutter answers. That really allowed students to ask questions and look at things from other points of view.”

Kourouma came to AU and knew exactly what she wanted to do. She wanted to get a degree in French and join the Peace Corps.

“As a student Michelle was very focused on her education,” said Jan Newbold, assistant professor of French. “She was inquisitive and had a mind of her own. When very few students were vegetarians, I remember the menu of our French soirées always including something like quiche or crêpes that Michelle, our vegetarian, would be able to eat.”

“At AU, it was the professors who influenced me the most,” said Kourouma. “I spent a lot of time in that department, and they really worked overtime to give us the richest experience that they could. They pushed us to dream bigger and to do more than we ever thought possible.”

During Kourouma’s time at AU she had the opportunity to study in Strasbourg, France, for a year instead of just the one semester required for modern foreign language majors.

“I was so excited to go because I had been studying French for so long,” said Kourouma. “I remember having a lot of adjustment issues, but also being really impressed with the language and cultural preparation that I had had. With the other students that were there, I was able to make comparisons, and I remember being very grateful for the education that I had gotten at Anderson University.”

After Michelle's study abroad in Strasbourg, it was evident to Newbold that she was not only very capable as a linguist, but also enjoyed learning about other cultures.

“Not only did she come home speaking good French, but she had become interested in the Alsatian dialect, history, and culture,” said Newbold.

Newbold said that alongside the courses Michelle had taken in the French major, Michelle’s friendship with two other determined students was helpful to her preparation.

“They decided to speak French whenever they were together after returning from their study in France,” said Newbold. “They also requested that we start a book club centered on francophone African literature. No credit was needed or wanted. Facilitating an exploration of African literature, which none of us knew much about, and developing together a deep appreciation for the literature and the culture was one of my most memorable academic experiences at AU.”

When Kourouma left AU, she joined the Peace Corps and moved to Africa where she eventually met and married her husband, Paul. [Photo on right: Michelle Kourourma's children, Finda Hawa and newborn Andreanna.]

“I was interested in the Peace Corps when I first arrived at AU. I remember calling the Peace Corps office my sophomore year, and they said to get my degree first and then to call them back,” said Kourouma. “So when I called them after I graduated, I told them that if I could not go to a French-speaking country and use my teacher training then I didn’t want to go. They said that was no problem and ended up sending me to Guinea.”

In Guinea, Kourouma taught English and French and later became an educational consultant. She lived there for two years and then took a job in Kissidougou, another city in Guinea. Kourouma said that she would not close any doors, so when her friend suggested that she think about moving to Kissidougou, she decided that it wouldn’t hurt to check it out.

“I was in the capital talking to a volunteer that was in Kissidougou, and she said that she knew I was really focused on middle Guinea, but that I should consider Kissidougou,” Kourouma said. “She said that it was a great city and there was a lot of non-governmental organizations and positive action going on there. So I went down there to visit her. Within two weeks they were calling me telling me that they had a place for me.”

While in Kissidougou, she met Paul at a church that they both attended. When the Peace Corps was evacuated from Kissidougou due to violent protests, Kourouma decided that she wanted to stay in Africa and not return to the U.S. She stayed in Mali where she became a teacher training specialist and was closer to Paul. They married on Aug. 4, 2007.

Kourouma was awarded the Distinguished Young Alumni Award in 2008, but could not attend the ceremony because she was pregnant with her first child, Finda Hawa.

“Even now, I don’t feel like I have done anything special,” said Kourouma. “Sometimes I look at my life and think that I have so far to go and so much more to learn. But receiving the award was very humbling.”

Kourouma recently finished her master’s degree in intercultural communication at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and is now enjoying life with her family, including baby daughter Andreanna.

While Kourouma has had amazing adventures throughout her life, her fondest memories involve her family. “I still am just telling myself to stay focused on the present, stay focused on God, and try to focus less on what isn’t,” said Kourouma.

— Kristyn Rhynard is a senior from Ithaca, Mich., majoring in communication arts. Rhynard is an associate with Fifth Street Communications™, writing on behalf of the Anderson University Office of University Communications.

Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2010, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the seventh consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing and theology.