Parlez-vous francais?

For one of YRNO’s two new Youth Engagement Coordinators, the answer is a definite “oui,” although not without a lot of hard work to get there.  Eliza (pronounced Eleeza) Fields is borderline obsessed with French language and culture dating all the way back to her 5th grade French class with Mrs. Milk.  “She did something,” according to Eliza.  “I remember the pencil was called ‘un crayon’ and I was like, a crayon?  I was so excited.”  Excited enough to keep studying the language through high school and college, despite not being very good at it.  She eventually studied abroad in France, where she realized she does not pick up languages easily and needs daily practice, so she still stays in contact with her friends there, hoping to be fluent.

Believe it or not, the French connection is at least part of the reason the Buffalo, New York native moved to New Orleans this month.  Describing herself as both quiet and a nerd, it wasn’t for the party life that draws so many here.  While in France, she learned about the French-speaking Acadians settling in the region after being expelled from Canada, and she’s intrigued by both the language and that Louisiana is the only state that follows the Napoleonic code.

“To me, Louisiana was the only French state in the U.S.,” she said when asked why she came here.  “The jazz, the music, the food—I mean, if you love seafood, why not?  The people—I wanted to see how does a modern day American city evolve from Acadian settlers?  The African slavery history, the European influence, the Canadian influence, the end of the Mississippi culture—there’s always these histories of river civilizations.  New Orleans is one of those few river civilizations.  For me, it was just like, yes, why not?”

As a child, Eliza enjoyed reading and writing.  Her mother bought her books and motivated her to take school seriously, and she read beyond her grade level.  Ray Bradbury was a favorite; she wanted to be a science fiction writer.  When she was 8 years old, her best friend Asma was 13.  Eliza found the home-schooled Asma fascinating—as she loved reading and writing too—and would jump the backyard fence to visit her every day after school to share stories, write and play hopscotch.  “She was very positive,” according to Eliza.  And her mother loved the whole family because they were so positive and school-focused, so she encouraged Eliza to hang out with Asma despite the age difference.  The two friends still keep in touch today.

In a bit of foreshadowing to a position with a rebuilding organization, Eliza studied carpentry at McKinley Vocational High School in Buffalo, where she also learned plumbing, electrical work and drafting, but it was not something she ever aspired to do.  “I was not very good at carpentry,” she remembered.  “I knew I did not want to pursue it after high school.”

Rather than take up the trade, Eliza told her mother she wanted to go to college to study International Business, as she wanted to be a world traveler.  “It took me so long to sell her on that,” she said.  Mom wanted her daughter to follow her into nursing instead.  She understood the business part, but not the international part.  The comprehension couldn’t have gotten better when Eliza switched from International Business to International Relations, which ultimately was one-third of her triple major at Canisius College, along with English and European Studies.  She had also considered attending the University of Buffalo where her friend Asma went, but she got a great scholarship from Canisius.  Additionally, she was a bit intimidated by the large class sizes at Buffalo and the study abroad program at Canisius appealed to her.  Oddly enough, she initially didn’t even know Canisius was on the opposite side of a park from her high school, so she didn’t have to go far.  But she lived in the dorms anyway.

While in college, Eliza took part in a very competitive program called EuroSim, in which students deepen their knowledge of the European Union and hone their public speaking, negotiating, leadership and diplomatic skills.  She attended events in both Pennsylvania and Poland.  She was also in the anime club and gaming society.  “I definitely grew up,” she said, adding that the small size of Canisius forced her to come out of her comfort zone and was very conducive to cultivating personal relationships with teachers and classmates.

Furthermore, Eliza worked—a lot.  As a freshman, she did work-study and tutoring, and took an outside maintenance job.  “My mother is very much a driving force for me, and you can never have too many jobs when you’re young is what I heard,” she said.  “It’s good to have a strong work ethic.  You can sleep when you’re old.  It’s OK to have so many jobs.  My advisor was extremely upset.  He didn’t understand why I was working so hard.”

Nevertheless, she kept doing work-study throughout her college years and always had side jobs.  “I never slacked off,” she recalled.  “For me, it was like a motivation.  Always busy.  An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.  If I was always busy, then I was always doing something good, therefore I was using my time wisely.  I didn’t go out much.  I wasn’t much of a partier.  My downtime was reading or writing.  My life was very structured, so I didn’t have much free time.”

Eliza made another close friend in college named Aissatou.  From Senegal, she studied in France for two years, speaks four languages, earned multiple master’s degrees and now works as an accountant in Buffalo.  Unsurprisingly, Aissatou is an inspiration to Eliza, although she may follow a different path.  She took an AmeriCorps position with YRNO partly because she doesn’t have a specific graduate school course of action.  “That’s key for me,” said Eliza.  “If I don’t have a plan, I can’t make a decision.  I think it’s OK sometimes to jump off the diving board and have that leap of faith, but I like to have a plan in place.”  That said, she would like to eventually use her AmeriCorps education award for grad school, but she’s debating whether to attend in the United States or Europe.  Friends have told her American degrees are better, but she’s got that French bug, so she might prefer an American university with a partnership in a European country where she could study.

She’s also in AmeriCorps because as she approached graduation at Canisius this spring, she was not yet sure what kind of job she wanted.  “I worked a lot of jobs,” she said.  “I tried to find so many avenues of work so I could figure out what I wanted to do when I graduated, but that last month I just did not know.”  Her campus ministry recommended service.  Originally, she wanted to do it through a religious organization, but when that fell through, she was referred to AmeriCorps.  She says she’ll decide whether to do a second year and get another education award after her first term is finished.

Or she could do Peace Corps, which she sees as a strong possibility.  “I did want to do AmeriCorps first because I figured I can’t serve internationally and never have served in my own country,” she said.  She’s also looking at the Fulbright Program because it provides more opportunities in the French-speaking countries of West Africa—such as Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso—where Aissatou and other friends are from.  “I just want to go to West Africa so badly,” she said, not scared of Ebola.

Her ultimate dream job?  While she once thought she wanted to be a United Nations ambassador and speak French in the office, now she thinks it could be with an energy company.  “Energy companies fascinate me because you need energy as human beings, but they’re a business, so they have their own agenda, depending on which country they’re from—if they’re British or if they’re part of the EU or if they’re American, they have a different way of conducting business,” she explained.  “So I can see myself at an energy company, but I don’t know in what capacity.  Would it be legal?  Would it be environmental?  Would it be political?  Would it be logistics?”

We don’t have the answers, but we doubt Eliza will be walking through a McDonald’s drive-through anytime soon.  Wait, what?  That’s right—when she was a youngster she attempted it with her younger cousins and sister, who had all just attended a wedding and wanted some Chicken McNuggets in the wee hours of the morning.  Her mother told them to just walk over to Mickey D’s from their hotel.  “I knew the McDonald’s was 24 hours, but I did not know it was just the drive-through,” Eliza chortled.  With people in their cars locking their doors, the wacky bunch walked up to the window and tried to order.  “The McDonald’s staff just laughed at us,” she continued.  “They were like, ‘No, we can’t serve you.  You don’t have a vehicle.  Without a vehicle, we can’t serve you.’”

Right then, a guy in a red sports car pulled up.  “He was like a knight in shining armor,” she concluded, still admiring him and his automobile.  “His girlfriend was like, ‘help them.’  We told him what we wanted and he ordered the food for us and gave it back to us.”

On second thought, maybe Eliza will walk through a drive-through again.

YRNO’s other new YEC comes from Kensington, Maryland by way of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.  Sandy Stibitz, 22, is the daughter of two scientists—her mother works at the National Institutes of Health and her father at the Food and Drug Administration—but somehow she became the creative type, interested in the humanities, social justice and art.  And if you’ve ever met “Sandy Beaches,” it’s one in the same.  That was the moniker she took on a whim for her Facebook account, and now many have no idea “Beaches” is not her real last name.

Growing up, Sandy drew all the time, took lessons from a free expression artist and “doodled constantly” through her years at Walter Johnson High School, where the history teachers are amazing, the football team is terrible and the mascots range from a Wildcat (official) to Mighty Moo the cow, Scooby Doo, a giant banana or whatever other costumes the school might have on hand.  She never donned the outfits, but some of her friends did.

At Kenyon, Sandy took up art again, specializing in sculpture and print making.  Her major was American Studies, an interdisciplinary major which included history, culture studies and political science.  According to her, the small liberal arts school in Amish country was “the middle of nowhere, Ohio,” but she liked that because she was interested in local food and farming, and Kenyon had a good relationship with area farmers and sourced dining hall fare from them.  “When I visited, it seemed unpretentious,” she added, recalling why she chose to go there in the first place.

On campus, she was involved with an environmental group which she led for a couple of years, and later with Project for Open Voices, which solicited anonymous student narratives about their experiences with diversity and difference, typically focused on issues of racism or class.  Although Kenyon’s student body is largely white, upper middle class, Sandy believes there was improvement in addressing such issues during her time there.  She also co-hosted a music show with her friend Lauren on the school’s radio station, WKCO, which didn’t have many listeners.  “I think my personal best for a show was 8, so it definitely exists mainly for the DJs,” she said.

Sandy first experienced New Orleans four years ago, as part of a trip to Mandeville to train at an environmental activism camp.  She visited the city for a day and fell in love with it.  A friend of a friend was a Louisiana Delta Service Corps member, and knowing she didn’t want to go directly to graduate school after college because she didn’t know what she would study, she was drawn to a service year, not to mention living in New Orleans.  She applied to City Year, but was not accepted.  However, she did get into LDSC, and was subsequently hired by YRNO.  “Honestly, I’m happier about this,” she professed.

“I think the coolest thing for me about Youth Rebuilding New Orleans is that it seems to tackle a lot of problems at once, which is what I’m looking for in any non-profit or anything I want to be involved in.  They’re doing things with education, simultaneously reducing blight and getting youth engaged in a number of different ways.  That I think is really awesome.”

Sandy will be the Youth Engagement Coordinator assigned to Sci Academy.  She’s interested in education and working with youth, so “it’s really exciting to be working in a school,” she said.  “I’m excited to see a lot of what goes on day to day at a school.  I’m not sure if teaching is the right thing for me.  I’ve thrown that around in my head before, but I didn’t want to go right into teaching after college.”

Although interested in grad school eventually, the academic disciplines that intrigue her are geared toward becoming a professor, which is not what she wants.   While she enjoys geography and history, don’t be surprised if Sandy someday ends up as a playground designer, which she lists as a dream job.  She loves architecture, sculpture and building things with her hands.  She even follows playground design online and notes that many interesting things have been done in that field.

Whatever the case, here’s hoping her career will turn out better than a canoe trip she took on the Potomac River.  Poorly planned, her crew had to make an unplanned emergency stop and one thing leading to another, they were forced to bring all their stuff a mile up a hill for an overnight couch surfing stay.  Rather than lugging the boat, they hid that in the bushes, but when they returned several hours later it was nowhere to be found and there were “these bums” in the vicinity smirking and taunting them.

Unfortunately, the crew had no knight in a red sports car, but they did have friends come pick them up.