Norwich students learn meaning of
la peche at Napoleon’s military academy © June 5, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich student Derek Rondeau takes notes during instruction at l’Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, where he spent the first semester of his senior year.

photo courtesy of Frances ChevalierNorwich student Derek Rondeau takes notes during instruction at l’Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, where he spent the first semester of his senior year.

When Norwich University senior Derek Rondeau began studying at the prestigious l’Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr in Brittany, France, in fall 2008, the French language was still very difficult for him.

No translation was needed for his weekly judo class, however. There, a black-belt-level instructor noticed that Rondeau outweighed classmates by about 25 pounds—making him a perfect punching bag for demonstrations.

“The officer teaching the class would say, ‘If I can do this to Rondeau, you can do it do anyone,’” said Rondeau, a political science major and Army ROTC student from Alton Bay, N.H.

Such moments helped ease Rondeau into the experience of studying in France. And getting thrown to the ground was actually a break from the rigorous routine at Saint-Cyr, the foremost French military academic institution, founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803. When Rondeau and fellow senior and ROTC Cadet Victoria Wilson traveled there in August, they became part of a 10-year tradition at Norwich, the oldest private military college in the U.S., founded in 1819.

From 1997 to 1999, Norwich underwent a two-year “vetting process” by Maurice Portiche, consul general of France, and various cultural, linguistic and military advisors, according to French Professor Frances Chevalier.

“The French government wanted to establish a program of exchange with Norwich to support the program of French at Norwich, as well as to offer their cadets the opportunity to complete a study-abroad component at our institution in the areas of engineering, social sciences and business,” said Chevalier. “The quality of our program of French and our students [were] evaluated by them to be outstanding.”

Since 1999, dozens of students have hopped the pond to wrestle with a new language while taking a heavy load of classes and military training. Saint-Cyr cadets who visit Norwich tend to be older, and have completed the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.

The first hurdle is getting into the program.

“The application process was extremely difficult,” said Wilson, a math major who completed two international immersion programs to become proficient in French, and sought approval from the Army department—all before going to Saint-Cyr. “Norwich really wants to send well-rounded cadets who will not only positively represent the University, but also the U.S. Army and our country as a whole.”

At Saint-Cyr, the challenges continued. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays meant two-hour physical training [PT] blocks. Some were devoted totally to running. Others focused on swimming, horseback riding and half-mile obstacle courses of ladder climbs, ditches and walls. “Every day I was physically exhausted walking back from PT,” she said. “Cadet Rondeau and myself were definitely surprised by their high physical standards.”

Another culture shock, said Rondeau, was the academic structure. Instead of regular quizzes and papers to ensure that students are on track, Saint-Cyr professors would assign one or two large projects for the entire semester, and lecture for up to four hours at a time.

“The first month, I was overwhelmed with the language and just trying my best to understand what was happening and going on,” said Rondeau, who found himself relying on French cadets for support. “They were incredible and essential—many reviewed papers and guided me on projects.”

Wilson, meanwhile, discovered a different attitude toward women in the French army. “I was once told that I was not allowed to go on a staff ride because I was the only female.”

But such experiences helped Wilson bond more closely with fellow female cadets, she said. “They invited me home with them on weekends, taught me how to use a French rucksack and helped me do my homework—I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had.”

Rondeau and Wilson marvel at the opportunity to experience bahutage—military traditions passed along to every French officer since Napoleon—and to travel to Normandy and its beaches and the American cemetery. Rewards for the tough physical training were often found in wheels of brie cheese, jugs of French cider and plates of steaming crepes.

Despite this, Rondeau lost 10 pounds during the semester. More importantly, he was able to learn more about his French heritage, and to follow the advice of his father, Lt. Col. Dean Rondeau [NU, Class of 1985]. “He said if I didn’t go, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” said Rondeau.

For her part, Wilson came to value the meaning of French idioms such as la pêche. “It’s like ‘keep going’ or ‘good luck’ or ‘stay motivated,’” said Wilson. “When I was looking absolutely exhausted at PT or completely unmotivated about writing a paper, they would always say, ‘La pêche, Victoria,’ and it really was motivating.”