Alumni Spotlight: Hilary Walker Miler


Hilary Walker Miller, age 61, lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky.

After graduating from Brown University (BA) and Harvard University (MA), she moved from the Northeast to Lexington. Although not intending to take on a second career, she started volunteering as an ESL teacher in 2008 and eventually found paid employment as an ESL instructor at the University of Kentucky and as an online rater for the international TOEFL test.

Why did you decide to go abroad with your provider?

I actually choose OISE by surfing around on the Internet. I was looking for a program that offered short (two- to three-week) intensive French classes. I had little flexibility in timing my trip, with just four weeks between spring and summer terms at the University of Kentucky. I had very specific dates when I could arrive and leave Paris but I also knew I needed to make the most of that time to improve my fluency.

Cost was also a consideration. I’ve had to pay for all my educational costs for the Master’s degree through my earnings and savings. However, I had this requirement to demonstrate my foreign language proficiency hanging over my head since I entered the graduate program in 2011, and I felt that if attending this program would satisfy my advisor, it would be well worth the time and expense as compared to attending university classes at the UK or some other alternative.

After much back-and-forth communication with OISE, they were able to offer me a two-week morning class for the dates I needed at a fairly reasonable cost.

What did your provider do for you and what did you need to do on your own?

OISE offered to help me find housing, but I ended up locating an apartment through Airbnb. I had made multiple trips to Paris prior to this one, so I knew the city well. Had I been on my own, I would probably have chosen a much cheaper option through OISE, but I was traveling with my 20-year old son and needed a place that would give us both privacy and room to move around, as well as a kitchen and laundry facilities.

However, once I was in Paris, the OISE staff proved invaluable. Unfortunately, our trip seemed to be cursed with a succession of minor calamities. First, our credit card number was stolen within a day of arriving, and we ended up spending the next three weeks living off the 1200 Euros I was able to withdraw from an ATM before our credit card company canceled my number. Second, my son managed to spill a coffee maker full of water on top of my laptop, rendering the screen inoperable.Finally, we discovered that we were in an illegal sublet and when our upstairs neighbor had plumbing problems and half the plaster in our kitchen fell down, we had to deal with landlords who might have kicked us out had they had known we were renting through Airbnb.

The staff at OISE couldn’t have been kinder or more sympathetic in our various difficulties. For the most part, my son and I were able to solve our various problems successfully on our own, but it made a world of difference to know that we had “friends” at the school who could help out if needed.

Describe your program socially and academically.

Although I was enrolled in a quattorial which was supposed to have three other students, I ended up being paired with just one other student each of the two weeks I attended class. I was enrolled in the morning course, which started about 8:30 AM and ended at about 1:00 PM, at which point I was just about brain-dead. My fellow students, a fairly young German-speaking Swiss banker the first week and a very young Italian graduate student the second week, stayed on for the afternoon classes, but I went back to the apartment and had a very late lunch with my son.

There were usually late afternoon or evening activities offered (guided trips to the Louvre or to different neighborhoods). My fellow students said these were excellent, and I know it would have been valuable for me to further practice my French, but my son was not interested in attending them and I felt I needed to spend time with him. The OISE staff understood that he had some psychological difficulties and never pressed me to attend.

As a language teacher myself, I was especially interested in how OISE conducted its classes. Working two-on-one with different professors was ideal, in my opinion. We got individual attention but having a partner lessened the strain of constant interaction in a foreign language. I was also impressed with how well-rounded the program was … in many ways, similar to the intensive English program that I work for.

As my fellow students and I were considered “advanced,” we studied challenging points of grammar such as the subjunctive and conditional tenses, read newspaper articles and discussed the topics in relation to our own experiences (for example, French political parties as compared to those in the U.S. and Italy), watched various video clips (electronic cigarettes, Yves St. Laurent, etc.) and discussed them, and spent a portion of each day preparing a PowerPoint presentation that we shared with the staff at the end of the week (with my Swiss partner, we talked about the pilgrimage to St. Jacques de Compostello, and with my Italian partner, the history and a day-tour of the Montmartre neighborhood).

Do you think your program changed you as a person?

At my age, I’m not expecting great changes, but it definitely helped me in my professional development as a teacher. For the first time, I could really empathize with how my students feel as they gape open-mouthed at their teacher, trying to absorb every word in a less-than-familiar language and struggling to express their teaming thoughts into coherent words.

I have taught three terms since my arrival back in the United States, and I don’t think a class has gone by when I haven’t used “… when I was in French school” to illustrate some points I was making to the students. I think it helps my students to know that I have experienced situations similar to theirs and I know it has made me more sympathetic but also a bit tougher (because I know how much effort I had to put into my schoolwork!).

The best thing about attending my program is that at the end of it, OISE issued me a detailed evaluation of my fluency that satisfied my graduate school advisor as to my degree of language proficiency. I was able to start my last semester of graduate school with the satisfaction of knowing that I no longer had the foreign-language hurdle to overcome.

Not only that, but I felt I had crossed a psychological hurdle as well … from feeling that my French was less than adequate, I now believe that I’m on the road to perfectionnement. My professors gave me more confidence in my abilities, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to continue my progress by attending OISE again in the future.