A glimpse into the foreign past

Nicole Yancey, the first foreign exchange student to ever attend Christopher Newport, reflects on her time at CNU, her life after school

~Emma Dixon, News Editor~

A mother. A consul. The first ever foreign exchange student at Christopher Newport.

Nicole Yancey, a native of France, was the first foreign student to attend CNU. She attended Christopher Newport back when it was a college, before it even became a university. Over croissants and coffee, Yancey recollected her past experience at CNU and what she did afterwards.

Yancey came over to America when Europe was switching from the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)  to the European Union (EU). Although she was a roture, her trip to the United States was sponsored by an American military family her mother had befriended through her being active with the local Franco-American Women’s Club. 

“I wanted to work internationally, so I thought why not go for a semester and learn about American government, American economy and all that,” Yancey said. “It was at a time where I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know at the same time.”

Yancey had originally applied to Georgetown University when her host family was stationed in Washington, D.C. When the family was transferred to Fort Monroe (now Fort Eustis), Yancey wrote to William & Mary.

William & Mary suggested Yancey should look at CNU, which was a branch of William & Mary at the time. She believes this was an outstanding recommendation because transportation was easier, the classes were smaller and tuition was more affordable.

Yancey thought if she had a wide variety of knowledge and experience, some opportunities would present themselves. Yancey wanted to work in public relations, specifically marketing and research. She believed a semester in America would benefit her because they did not learn about the American government or economy in France.

For a year or so before she came over, Yancey worked for the American Army in France to earn some pocket money and get better at listening to the American language. She worked for the administration in a hospital in hopes to build her English skills. She worked for numerous different people in the hospital.

“I would go from one [person] to the other. I would be the errand girl. I was kind of pampered, I have to say, because they all knew I was going to America. They would all help me with the paperwork,” Yancey said. “As wonderful as it was, it’s still not the same when you arrive [in America]. You’re in a new country. When you come here it is rough.”

Yancey came to the United States on Jan. 3, 1964. She traveled across the ocean on the Ryndam, a Holland America Line ship. She got on in France, although the boat also picked up students in Germany, Holland, Belgium, England and Ireland. In total, it took about 10 days to cross the ocean.

“It was full of students and we had a ball. I was 22 and I had a ball. I don’t think I had more than three hours of sleep every night but I had an absolute ball,” Yancey said.

Yancey had taken years of English classes in France and was familiar with the language. According to Yancey, the first and hardest thing she had to learn when she moved over to the United States was the American way of life.

“I did not know anything about Halloween, I did not know anything about Thanksgiving and we did not celebrate Christmas the same way,” Yancey said.

The biggest recommendation Yancey has for foreign exchange students who are attending school in America is to not stick with people from their home country, even though it is comfortable.

“The first thing is just dive in. The second thing is don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to say in some way, ‘I need your help. I need your support.’ Just really dive into the American way of life. I had to do it and it was hard,” Yancey said.

Yancey believes the key to success for foreign exchange students is a two-way street between the foreigners and the hosts.

“The foreign student has to ask for help and support. The American student has to give help and support. They have to meet somewhere. Everybody has to make an effort,” Yancey said.

Yancey commented that some people have asked if she is sorry that she went to Christopher Newport, because at the time it was a two year college and only an extension of William & Mary.

“Honestly, it’s the best thing that I ever did. The education was excellent…. To this day, I don’t regret it,” Yancey said. 

During her semester at CNU in spring 1964, Yancey took comparative government, economics and history. Yancey said the education was excellent because the professors were from William & Mary but the CNU tuition was less.

While at CNU, Yancey met her husband on a blind date that was arranged during a dance being held at what was then called the Chamberlin Hotel.

Since finishing her schooling and moving to America with her husband, Yancey has done countless jobs and volunteer work. When her kids were in first grade, Yancey was not feeling welcomed and accepted in America.

“People made me feel that I was very much a foreigner… I didn’t feel [I] fit.” 

The first grade teacher who had one of her sons, Richard, suggested Yancey should volunteer at the school by speaking French to American students.

“This way I learned American education and make the transition [to America]. At the same time I became, for the first time, part of an institution where I had a place. That was very gratifying to me,” Yancey said.

In 1972, Yorktown was building what they called at the time the Victory Center. They wanted to have loans from France for the museum being built and those in charge believed Yancey could help be a translator and resource person trying to find artifacts that fit the criteria of  the museum.

“From then it exploded. As 1975 rolled around, it was the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Yorktown was preparing a big celebration, so I started working with park service. I was deep in Yorktown, deep in history, representing the French and working with people from the Governor’s office,” Yancey said.

Yancey eventually became part of the team the Governor put together to celebrate the bicentennial of Yorktown. She was in charge of the French participation in the event.

Eventually, Yancey was selected to be consul in Virginia to represent the French embassy. When two of the Senators she had met during the bicentennial of Yorktown called her and asked if she would agree to be consul, Yancey was shocked.

“I laughed. I said, ‘Not me.’ I really really said, ‘You must be kidding.’ I was flattered but I said, ‘You must be kidding,’” Yancey said.

After a while of them persevering and asking if she was going to be consul because she had been selected, Yancey finally agreed.

“It was for five years. Well, the five years became 25 years where I crisscrossed Virginia to meet the French and help the French to do…  anything and everything that you can think of,” Yancey said.

As she was working for the French embassy and raising a family of her own, Yancey took in and hosted three au pair girls who each spent a full year at CNU, just like the military family had done for her.

Yancey was also involved in the creation of the National History Trail from Newport, RI, to Yorktown, VA, that covered the land and water route that the Continental Army and the French Army took to come to the Siege of Yorktown.

Now Yancey has created a committee in Virginia for the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail, where she is working with park service in Yorktown.

Yancey has also offered to set up a partnership between the French department at CNU with a sister city in France. The sister city in France is on the mouth of the Loire River and is almost identical to Newport News, which is on the mouth of the James River. Yancey has talked to multiple professors at CNU saying she is available to help build the partnership, but she has never been contacted back. 

“I feel that it is something that I have to keep on pushing… You don’t have to be fluent in another language, but you have to be internationally conscious and literate. You have to learn how to act [in another country],” Yancey said. “[You have to be] culturally aware that [one culture] is not better, it’s not worse; it’s different.”

Yancey is also the mother of David Yancey, who represents Newport News in the House of Delegates. 

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