The pandemic could not stop one special student community from continuing this year.
The French House, the University of Wisconsin’s only immersive residence for French-speaking students, reopened with new leadership and COVID-19 guidelines this fall in order to operate as safely as possible without jeopardizing an experience over 100 years in the making, according to their website.
Around 25 students live, dine and converse together in French in a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house tucked between State Street and Lake Mendota during a typical semester, according to Director Anne Theobald. This spring, only 17 students will call The French House home, Theobald said.
Theobald took over as the director of The French House in August. With the help of the interim director, Theobald said she reopened The French House using university guidelines by requiring residents to wear masks in shared spaces, allotting one room per resident and strongly encouraging residents to get COVID-19 tests twice per month.
According to their website, The French House isn’t governed by University Housing — rather, the house is considered to be off-campus housing because it is managed by the Department of French and Italian and has its own board of directors.
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“It was definitely challenging, and I was not only anxious about getting things right but also keeping people healthy and safe,” Theobald said.
Theobald said The French House is indefinitely closed to the public because of the pandemic, which means that she and others can’t completely share the novelty of their home to interested parties. She and other residents said the usual guest lectures on francophone topics, the community lunches and dinners, and other routine festivities that raised the profile of The French House in the UW community are canceled.
While the “revolving door” feeling of The French House is on pause, residents said the high standard for cuisine is unchanged. Theobald said residents can still place orders with the chef on staff, Karen Ladell, and enjoy brunches and dinners while social distancing in the dining room. Theobald said before the pandemic, brunches and dinners were buffet style, but Chef Ladell now brings the orders to the residents directly.
For The French House residents, the opportunity to practice language skills they hope to put into use is a central draw to living there. Kate Morton said she taught English in a town in Normandy, France for seven months after she finished her undergraduate degree and was looking for an experience at UW which would allow her to continue her practice. She said her vocabulary has expanded and living in The French House helps her language skills remain consistent for when she eventually returns to France.
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If all goes according to plan, Cole Roecker, another longtime French student, said he also plans on visiting France again and is anticipating studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France in 2022.
“I’ve definitely picked up quite a few phrases,” Roecker said. “Quite a few words and things, that unless you’re speaking every day, a lot, they just don’t stick.”
But French enthusiasts moving in last semester didn’t know what the experience they hoped for would actually be like, given the chaos of rising COVID-19 cases at UW in September. Suddenly, shared housing situations like Greek life and residence halls became COVID-19 epicenters in Dane County.
“I was nervous because we live on Langdon and that’s where a huge outbreak was happening,” Morton said.
Roecker said he returned home to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin after the first week of school when cases were high, and he remained socially distanced from his family until he felt it was safe enough to return to The French House. He said he became nervous after reading about the long-term effects of COVID-19.
Still, residents said The French House experience was built up through small, day-to-day interactions over mealtimes and in common areas, and today many say the tight-knit, family-like atmosphere is palpable. Both Roecker and Morton said the events like pumpkin carving, movie nights and a talent show were crucial elements of house bonding.
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Theobald said only one member of The French House, the staff resident assistant, became ill with COVID-19 during the fall semester. This person recovered in isolation in his own apartment in The French House.
“So it reassured me that the measures that we had been taking, with social distancing and masks and no guests in the house, had really worked to prevent the spread,” Theobald said.
As UW requires all students living in proximity to campus to be tested twice per week, the shared responsibility of French House residents to stop the spread is greater. But the community they have fostered is well worth the sacrifice, Roecker and Morton said. Theobald said residents are making an effort to protect each other.
Theobald teaches two courses in the French department and said she recognizes the importance of a space like The French House now more than ever.
“Many of the students in classes have talked about feeling isolated, because their classes are online mostly, and they’re missing the daily interactions that they have with their classmates, such as chatting before or after class, or even passing people on the way to class,” Theobald said. “And so the residents at the French House feel fortunate that they still get to have that in-person contact with other students.”
Going forward this year, Theobald said she will continue to foster a safe environment and work to promote The French House through social media. She said she expects applications for next year to begin trickling in next month. Theobald said she is also going forward with construction to update the mid-century house. Theobald said the men’s bathroom is completely under construction, and residents are sharing the women’s showers.
Though they are unable to celebrate with the greater community, holidays are not canceled because of COVID-19. In addition to the completed renovations, the annual Mardi Gras celebration will be held Feb. 16. Theobald said the chef, known in the house for her pastry talents, may make a king cake.
“I always want to invite people over to check out the house and see what we’re like, because it’s such a nice environment to be in, so hopefully soon that will be the case again,” Roecker said.