March 27, 2023
VCU studies helped prepare alum Samantha McCartney for a career in France
McCartney enjoys the challenges and opportunities that have come with life in Paris, where she works for a creative production company.
Share this story
Samantha McCartney didn’t think she wanted to study a foreign language when she started Virginia Commonwealth University. However, she had been studying French since middle school and enjoyed the challenge it presented. She took multiple French courses at VCU with Patricia Cummins, Ph.D., who encouraged her to pursue a major in French. That persistence paid off, and today McCartney is living and working in Paris.
Cummins, who serves as project director for the U. S. Department of Education French West Africa Project in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, played a major part in the path her life and career have taken, McCartney said.
“I have her to thank for so many opportunities that led me to where I am today,” said McCartney who graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in foreign language with a concentration in French. “She always looked out for me and took a genuine interest in my success. I always admired her tenacity and strong beliefs when it comes to education and staying involved in the VCU community and also the Richmond community.”
McCartney served as a research assistant to Cummins, from 2014 to 2015, helping create a website for the VCU French West Africa project.
“I enjoyed it because I learned a very useful and specific skill, which is grant writing. It was also really great being a part of conversations and meetings that had a visible positive impact on the lives of others,” she said.
McCartney had class projects where she interacted with West African visitors from Mali and Côte d’Ivoire, Cummins said.
“She traveled to West Africa first as one of six students who were funded by the U.S. Department of Education VCU French West Africa grant in 2014, and in mid-summer 2014 on funding I arranged from our partner school in Yamoussoukro, the Institut National Polytechnique – Houphouët-Boigny. For her summer job, she and one other VCU student taught English to INPHB students as a paid summer experience. Her confidence and self-assurance were truly outstanding,” Cummins said.
During the summer, McCartney worked with her fellow teacher Tyler Tresslar to create English lessons around different topics.
“I loved how having no strict syllabus or curriculum allowed teaching to be almost like a creative outlet while also being the bridge between cultures,” McCartney said. “We spent a lot of time with the students, who shared different aspects of Ivorian culture and different local languages with us and taught us just as much as we were teaching them for sure.”
She loved the warmth of the Ivorian people, she said.
“I was very far away from home but never felt out of place. I also really liked not being a minority. There were so many things that changed my view on life and the world from spending time there,” she said. “It was a remarkable lifetime experience.”
She feels there is a negative stigma in the U.S. about African countries but there are many positives as well that deserve to be promoted, she said.
“That's why I always have and always will applaud Dr. Cummins for expanding knowledge of the ‘francophone’ world beyond France at VCU. Otherwise, I would have never even considered going beyond France for my understanding of the French language,” she said.
Making the move to France
McCartney, who was born in Nassau, Bahamas, planned to live in France for a while after graduating. She always felt a pull toward France but didn’t realize her family had ties to the country until she “followed this path toward the francophone world,” she said.
“My paternal grandfather did a part of his doctorate in Strasbourg, so my father spent time there as a child,” she said.
After graduating from VCU, McCartney accepted a Teaching Assistant Program in France grant and moved to France.
“I knew before going to grad school I wanted to give living in France another shot, following my study abroad in Grenoble. I was placed in the Paris region (Ile-de-France), which I actually was trying to avoid, but I'm still living here after all these years, so I suppose things happen for a reason,” she said. “When I was an English-speaking assistant, I worked around 12 hours per week in two different middle schools in the Parisian suburbs outside of the city – Créteil and Choisy-le-Roi. It was a great experience overall, but you definitely learn that living in another country is not for the weak-willed.”
She likes the fact that there is more work-life balance in France.
“I have the impression that France has more of a sense of community and well-being for all than the United States. And that fits more with the type of life I want to lead. That being said, there are so, so many things that I miss about the U.S. that are unique and specific and wonderful that France will just never compare for me. However, in the grand scheme of things, my quality of life is better here – outside of missing my family and close friends of course who are irreplaceable,” she said.
McCartney earned her master's degree at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord in Villetaneuse, outside of Paris. She defended her dissertation in November 2021.
“I chose to study at a university whose student population reflected the diversity that I had seen in the city during my previous time in Paris,” she said. “Funny enough, I was also an English teacher at the same university while I was doing my master’s so it was the ultimate test of intellectual endurance.”
Settling into a successful career
McCartney currently works for Loveboat, a creative production company that works mostly in advertising but projects vary and range from short films to music videos. The company has an office in Paris and a branch in Los Angeles. McCartney works as a production coordinator, handling a variety of tasks, everything from logistics for director pitches to content creation.
“It made sense to hire an American that speaks French,” she said. “We have a roster of incredible directors that we propose for different projects we receive and then hopefully get to pitch.”
The qualities that made McCartney successful as a student are the same ones that are helping her develop a successful career, Cummins said.
“She has exceptional oral and written communication skills, she works well both individually and as part of a team, and she naturally focuses her efforts on what is necessary to make a project or a grant or an institution successful in their goals,” Cummins said. “Samantha is liked by everyone and promotes a positive image of VCU, her employer and the projects and goals for which she advocates. She takes herself beyond her comfort zone and accomplishes great things.”
McCartney admits she didn’t know what to expect when she moved to France, but she planned to meet all challenges head on and enjoy every opportunity.
“It wasn't what I dreamed – it was much harder – but when you accomplish things you feel all the more proud,” she said. “Living in a place and visiting the same place are very different things, and I recognize the blessing it is to have (so far) been able to make it work and still have some fun along the way. I’ve been able to travel so much more than I would have staying in the U.S., have been able to immerse myself in so many different cultures.”
She’s also been able to help professors and colleagues at VCU that reach out to her, connecting her with students who might need advice or guidance about French-related matters.
“I don't mind doing it because I would have liked to have someone help me out when I was trying to figure it all out and am incredibly grateful to those who helped me as best they could,” she said.
McCartney has learned to be resilient since moving to France seven years ago.
“I spoke French when I came and still had a lot of difficulty. You have to really, really want it. You have to learn to stand your ground, be organized and be patient and adaptable,” she said. “I would be misleading, however, to say that I didn’t/don’t have fun, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’ve also learned to be present and give myself credit for all I have accomplished so far. Sometimes we spend so much time looking toward the future or the next goal that we forget to take stock of all that we have already been through and accomplished, and to sit with that in the present.”
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU News at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox.