Moira O'Neill '09 spent the spring semester abroad, studying at the Institute for American Universities in Avignon, France, a medieval walled city in Provence. When the semester ended, she didn't come home with her classmates, but rather moved to Paris to begin a dream internship. She was a research assistant and translator for an historian at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), a publicly-funded research consortium that develops collaborations between specialists of different disciplines. The internship was conducted under the direction of Madame Catherine Secretan, Ph.D., CNRS researcher and winner of the Institute of France’s 2008 Descartes-Huygen award for Dutch History.
"I’m a total history nerd and Francophile, so in a lot of ways Madame Secretan and her colleagues are like my rock stars!" says O'Neill, adding, "I’m only half-kidding."
While on the semester-long program, she spent a few months searching the Internet for internship opportunities. Not having much luck, she mentioned her interest in staying in France to her honors advisor, Assistant Professor of History Matt Kadane. He quickly put her in touch with Secretan, who he'd met through a conference.
As a history major and a French minor, she says this internship "combined her two abstract academic interests in a concrete setting." Her academics in turn contributed to her preparedness for the internship. She had worked as a professor’s research assistant at HWS for a year and a half, transcribing a 17th-century diary, "So I had a bit of experience with manuscript sources. I’ve also been working on an honors project in 18th-century French cultural history, so I was pretty comfortable with the research process." Additionally, spending the semester living with a French family and taking all of her classes in French really prepared her for the month and a half she spent with Secretan, because the internship was entirely in French.
"Besides the obligatory baguette-eating and wine-tasting, I spent my days researching two significant events in the history of religious tolerance, and translating excerpts from Madame Secretan’s edited book," she explains. Then, two or three times a week, Secretan and she would meet in her apartment in the Marais or in an office at the Sorbonne for lunch and an afternoon of translating and discussion. O'Neill also did a significant amount of archival and general research on her own at various libraries in Paris. "I think I can fairly boast about my collection of library cards now!" she laughs.
Her time in France transformed her honors thesis and she learned a lot about research, travel and the language, "But about being a confident professional, too." She wants to become a professor in French history someday and says that working with one of the field's most renowned scholars has not only taught her a lot, but has confirmed her path.
Her greatest professional moment was when Secretan gave her a tour of the Sorbonne (the historic University of Paris). "When I was younger, I imagined having a job at an intellectual Mecca like the Sorbonne, so the first day there I kept thinking, 'I’ve finally made it!'"