In recognition of her success in promoting French language and culture, Gabrielle Durana has been named Chevalier (knight) of the Order des Palmes Académiques. Durana is the founder and president of Education Francaise of the Bay Area (EFBA.)
EFBA is a San Francisco non-profit organization that offers French classes in after school programs, plus summer camp, for students from 5-18 years old. EFBA’s disrupting model is that classes are taught at local public schools. They are high quality, affordable and focus on teaching French language and culture in a play-based strategy that makes learning a language fun and easy.
“French classes start after a long day at regular school, so we must create a pleasurable experience,” said Durana. “Our classes create intrinsic motivation in kids and craft a personal and enjoyable experience in learning French. Our challenge is to teach language part-time that has the same outcome as full time. In fact, on average, it takes 20 years for a person to have a mature command of a language with all its cultural references. We must do it in stopwatch form.”
EFBA also works because it has strong relationships with 20 public schools throughout the Bay Area, from San Francisco, up to Marin County and across the bay to Oakland; to towns along the peninsula and down to South Bay cities such as Santa Clara. These schools provide neighborhood locations that are easy for parents to get to, and can provide afternoon support for children while their parents work.
“Not only does Gabrielle create successful educational programs to promote the French language in strong local organizations, but she goes deeper than that,” said Stéphane Ré, Cultural Attaché at the Consulate General of France in San Francisco. “She helps students discover the French culture and makes them feel comfortable. She’s an ambassador of relationships between France and the U.S.”
The Ordre des Palmes Académiques is an order of Chivalry of France for academics, cultural and educational leaders. It was created by Napoleon I to recognize members of the University of Paris in 1808. Napoleon III extended the honour in 1866 to include major contributions to French national education and culture by anyone, including non-French citizens and expatriates who excel at expanding French culture throughout the world. Every year, French embassies from around the world propose five or six candidates for the honour. The selection process takes more than a year, and the Minister of Education in Paris makes the final decision.
“It’s a beautiful symbol and a nice surprise, although when the consulate (French) called I didn’t know what it was about,” said Durana. “I told them to look me up on the Internet.”
The consulate did research her resume, and probably much more. Durana’s resume includes an Economics, Business, Law degree from L’Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan (equivalent to Harvard or Stanford in the U.S.,) and she was a tenured Law and Economics professor at age 23 at the Ministère Education Nationale. Once she was a finalist, Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor from the French Embassy in New York, visited her. It turns out that Durana and de Montlaur attended the same school in France and had the same Arabic teacher.
On March 4, 2016, Durana was awarded the Chevalier at a formal ceremony in San Francisco. The decoration is two crossed silver palm fronds worn on a violet ribbon.
“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” said one of the EFBA students who attended the ceremony. Durana says she will keep the decoration in a drawer with her personal treasures.
“The paradox of this recognition is that I didn’t accomplish it by myself,” said Durana. “It was a huge, collective success by the staff and board members. In particular, Elaine McMurray, now a Board member and Secretary, has been helping EFBA and advising me from the beginning. Julien Gaulon Brain has also been a great advisor and has been Treasurer since 2013.
“I’m inspired to continue,” said Durana. “I love what we do and want to continue with it beyond the Bay Area, perhaps even go nationwide.”
EFBA’s mascot, Virgule, is known to say, “We speak French. What’s your superpower?” The superpower behind Virgule is Durana and her team.
Martha Sessums is the France Today Ambassador for San Francisco