On a recent Tuesday night, roughly a half-dozen students moved nimbly through the silent corridors of Clemens Hall, as they searched for clues written in French.
The Battle of Saratoga, read one of the hints.
The rooster, read another one.
This wasn’t a French-inspired spinoff of The Da Vinci Code. Rather, it was a typical, biweekly meeting for UB’s French Club, one of 12 new clubs recognized by the Student Association this semester.
The club has earned a reputation for being welcoming and inclusive, bringing in students who are interested in celebrating all things French and Francophone. Founded in January 2020 by senior French and political science major Sophie May and senior French and music performance major Julia Port, the club came out of May’s experience with the French Club at Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, which she previously attended.
“Everyone at the French club in Le Moyne was so nice and welcoming, they just all loved French. I wanted to have that same feeling when I came here, especially since UB is such a STEM-oriented school,” May said. “I really wanted to find my niche and find [other] people who are passionate about French.”
After spreading word of the organization through various French classes, May and the rest of the e-board, aided by UB’s Department of Romance Languages & Literatures, began to move forward with planning events and initiatives.
“[RLL] were super supportive and they were super helpful with reserving a room and helping us fund certain activities,” May said. “And there was actually a lot of interest among French students, so we had a good turnout.”
For members like club secretary and junior communication and French major Adam Dounane, who discovered the club after hearing May speak in class, the club has been a valuable way to connect with other people who share his interests.
“This is the only chance outside of class for people to connect with each other,” Dounane said. “I’m a junior and I haven’t met another French major, or even a minor, in my year.”
Despite uniting under this common interest, the club’s members vary widely in skill level. But members say the differences in their abilities bring them closer together.
“The dynamic is very supportive and non-competitive, as you might expect with a bunch of French majors, but it’s a lot of patience,” Dounane said. “The all-around community, I think, is the biggest thing that keeps us all together.”
Due to the pandemic, the club held its meetings on Zoom during the 2020-21 school year, although they were able to meet in-person once for a showing of the French version of “Halloweentown.” With limited options for online group activities available, the club played its fair share of French Kahoot and Jeopardy, games members say helped keep their skills sharp.
“We also provide an English translation, if you need help with that, but we do have a lot of things that are in French and we also do a lot of French cultural awareness,” May said. “Not only are you improving your actual language capabilities, but you’re learning about Francophone culture, not only in France, but in other Francophone nations around the world.”
Since reuniting on campus this semester, the club has hosted a variety of monthly adventures, frequently taking its members beyond the confines of campus and into the barrage of unexpected French culture found in Western New York.
For the club’s inaugural outing, members traveled to Mon Ami Cafe and Restaurant, a French resturaunt in Buffalo, where members immersed themselves in France’s rich array of cuisine. For Dounane, it was a chance to finally try one of France’s most iconic dishes: Ratatouille.
“I can say my life is complete now,” Dounane jokes, explaining that the club looks for any chance “to experience French [culture] or, more broadly, Francophone culture.”
The club’s self-described most exciting outing took place in Albion, NY at Maise Albion: an old French mansion from the 1800s, renovated to pay homage to all aspects of French culture.
Michelle Eubank, a senior biomedical sciences major and the club’s treasurer, says they were excited not only by the various French items on sale, but by how much the club members enjoyed the whole experience.
“I was surprised. Everyone was really excited about everything. They were not only looking to buy things, but they talked to the owners about their experiences and about the house,” Eubank said. “We got to do a whole tour of the mansion.”
The e-board is making it a point of taking input from all its members, regardless of their ability to speak the language.
“We definitely are open to suggestions for our group,” Dounane said. “We have people from [French] 101 or [who] even [have] no French experience, all the way to native speakers, and so suggestion definitely plays a big role in that.”
But that doesn’t stop Dounane from shouting out May for all her hard work in getting the club off the ground these past two years.
“Sophie, she fights like hell,” Dounane said. “It’s the kind of thing where we’re always looking for more events and her suggestions go a long way.”
Next Saturday, club members plan to visit Poutine & Cream on Hertel Avenue.
The club has previously worked with other student groups and has raised awareness for matters that go beyond Francophone culture. Members have sent clothing and cards to Afghan evacuees residing in Buffalo, and have even been visited by a student hailing from the country. On Halloween, they worked with Friends of Ukraine to exchange cultural stories about the holiday. While Dounane notes that Ukraine is not known for celebrating Halloween, he mentioned they found the time to discuss many Ukrainian superstitions.
Dounane hopes they can continue collaborating with other clubs in the future, particularly other cultural clubs representing countries that were once colonized by France.
“I think that trying to take a positive thing from a very dark colonial past is really important, and not to try and paint the French as this very scary people, because not many people view them like that,” Dounane said. “But I think taking advantage of the connections that history leaves behind, gives [us] a chance to meet more people.”
Dounane hopes he can still take his fellow members out for a French baguette one day, but he’s more than open to engaging with other cultures, and expresses interest in sharing, for example, a bowl of pho with the Vietnamese SA.
In just its first few months as an SA-recognized club, the French Club has already made lots of progress — and plans on doing lots more. E-board members express interest in selling merchandise and say they can’t wait to receive an actual budget from SA — their funding hasn’t kicked in yet.
Even with only a few members coming in the most recent meeting, the clubs email list spans approximately 30 people, with
Members on the e-board hope to bring students together for an outdoor day of baguette fencing, which, according to Eubank, is “exactly what it sounds like.”
“We just have to figure out which grocery store sells the most robust baguette,” laughed Dounane.
Alex Falter is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org