Film School for Olive

Back in the Before time, when Olive was spending her senior year of high school as an au pair in Montpelier, France, it was time to think about college. We know from experience, the process is overwhelming, so Ben Blair and I scheduled weekly calls with Olive, specifically to discuss college options and track application progress. Olive knew she wanted to attend a film program, and she started the process by making a spread sheet where she would list info about potential schools, so she could compare and contrast. The first three entries on the spreadsheet were her top choice schools in Paris, London, and New York, and the school she chose in Paris was EICAR (which is where she is now enrolled!).

At the time, figuring out how to attend college in France felt overwhelming, and as she looked into EICAR their website described very limited enrollment, so she felt her chances there were slim and maybe not worth the effort. She decided not to apply.

Eventually she settled on New York. She applied to Manhattan Community College, because they have a transfer program relationship with NYU. Her plan was to attend Manhattan CC for 2 years, then transfer to NYU’s Tisch film school. She applied and was accepted. But as the year continued and the pandemic reality set in, New York no longer felt like a good option. The idea of moving to an expensive city, and then sitting in a tiny apartment and taking all her classes online seemed like a poor investment of funds. She considered enrolling in Manhattan CC and taking her online classes from France, but wasn’t very excited about that option.

Olive was in Montpelier until July, when her au pair position ended, and then she moved home with us in Argentan. Since then, trying to make fall plans became increasingly stressful. I feel for her entire graduating class because it’s really hard to know what to do, or what the best plan is. Enrollment is down at colleges everywhere; many students are taking a gap year. Others are enrolled, but not living in dorms, and doing their freshman year on line. It seems like no one is getting an ideal first year of college.

In August, as her Oakland friends started moving to their college towns, and Olive was still undecided, she felt increasingly discouraged. At that point, we decided to get serious about looking into French schools. We knew it was late to apply, but we hoped that with the pandemic, maybe they would have some flexibility and allow late enrollment.

We started dedicating time to researching, emailing, and calling. Since it was August, most people weren’t in their office (in France, August is a vacation month), so initially we didn’t get many responses. Eventually we learned that public schools were not taking on any foreign students at this point (applications for foreign students were due in January), but it sounded like private schools might still be an option.

As we researched, we found an organization called Campus France. From what I understand, they are a government service. You apply to Campus France with a full college application — CV, short essays, letters of recommendation, transcripts, portfolio, etc. — and once accepted, they basically pitch you to schools you are interested in. If you are accepted to a school, you pay Campus France a fee (300 euros). If you’re not accepted, you don’t pay them anything.

So Olive completed the Campus France application. It was an intense process (very similar to other big college applications our kids have done). I’m not sure if she would agree, but I think it boosted her confidence. Receiving glowing letters of recommendation, listing all her accomplishments, putting together a portfolio — it was a reminder that she is an excellent university candidate, with a lot of incredible experience.

We didn’t hear back from Campus France for about a month. In early October, we called them to check in, and suddenly action was happening. Within a few days from that call, Olive had heard from 3 film schools — two in Paris and one in Lyon — all three had liked her application and wanted to interview her and give her a tour of campus. She preferred the idea of living in Paris over living in Lyon, so she went to Paris and toured both schools there. She had to take a test at both schools, and write essays from film-related prompts, and she had to be interviewed (yes, the tests and interviews were in French).

Then the happy news: She was accepted to both schools! Which school did she choose? The very first one she listed on her spreadsheet: EICAR. It was some full circle happiness.


They have an International program in English, and they have a French program as well. Olive is enrolled the French program, but she’s hoping the students in the International program will be good connections and friends, knowing they’ll all have English, and being away from home, in common.

EICAR is considered expensive for a French school, because French public universities are free. But it is affordable compared to American schools. The cost of Olive’s full “bachelors degree” program is equivalent to the cost of 3 semesters at Berkeley. I put bachelors in quotes because they don’t call it a bachelors degree here, they call it License. 

There are three types of university degrees in France (info here):

Licence (L1, L2, L3) is an undergraduate degree awarded after a period of study lasting 6 semesters (3 years).

Master‘s (M1, M2) is a graduate degree awarded after a period of study lasting 2 years (a total of 5 years’ study).

-A doctorate is awarded after a period of study lasting 16 semesters (3 years, or a total of 8 years’ study).

Olive’s program is an Undergraduate Licence program, so it’s three years. From what I understand, these undergraduate programs don’t cover general ed classes; they are specialty focused from the beginning — like you pick your “major” before applying to a specific program. French students typically get their GE education during high school. In Olive’s case, her program is focused on Film Directing specifically.

On timing: a program starting mid-October seems late to me, but apparently it’s not unusual here. Though we know some programs started in September, so maybe it depends on the school.

EICAR’s campus does not have it’s own housing, but it has a partnership with a nearby apartment building (about a 15 min walk from campus). The building has students from at least 3 different area schools. It’s college housing, but not quite a dorm — no cafeteria, and more studio spaces than shared spaces. 

Housing is pricey, but not even close to Bay Area prices. Olive’s studio apartment is about 600 euros per month. The apartment has a kitchenette and enough space for a big air mattress for guests if we want to stay with her (or if she is hosting other friends). Electricity and wifi are extra (about 50 euros combined each month), and we had to set up an account for both. It’s a newer building with very basic dorm-like furnishings. We will help her make it as homey and comfy as we can.

She can get out of the rental contract with 30 days warning, so if she decides to find an apartment in a hipper neighborhood with new friends, she can do that too.

The EICAR campus is at the end of the 12 line of the Metro. The 12 also has Musee D’Orsay, Montparnasse Station (which is the station that has trains that come to Normandy), Tuileries Gardens, and other good stuff. For people who grew up in the French countryside and are now working in Paris, it’s common to go home to the countryside for the weekend, and hopefully we’ll see Olive whenever she needs a break.

Her classes started Tuesday. A combination of in person, online instruction, and time in the film studio. (Yes, masks are required.) All of her classes are in French. Topics are things like Screenwriting, Theory of Editing, and Theory of Lighting. (Yes, she’ll be writing screenplays in French.)

Olive hasn’t been in school for over a year (because she was an Au Pair during her senior year), so she’s a bit nervous about getting back to good study habits. And she’s never had to write papers in French before (let alone college-level work), so that’s definitely intimidating. But mostly, it’s really exciting. I mean: She just signed a contract for a studio apartment! She was accepted to her first choice film school! She is going to college in Paris! Studying Film Direction! How cool is that? 

One funny thing is that after two days of classes, she’s realized one of the challenges is that she doesn’t always know the names of films in French. Some films have the same name, like Forrest Gump. Some films have similar names, like Finding Nemo is the World of Nemo (Le Monde de Nemo). But some films have unrelated/unrecognizable names, like Shawshank Redemption is The Escapees (Les Évadés). So sometimes she doesn’t understand what film is being referenced, even if it’s a film she knows well. Hah!

We’re super proud of her. This is a scary thing to do. Goodness, I never had to set up an electricity account when I was her age — and doing it all in her second language. It’s rad. 

She doesn’t have classes on Thursday, so she came home this morning. She’ll finish packing up, and we’ll run any errands to pick up anything else she needs for her apartment. Then we’ll drive back to Paris early tomorrow (Friday) morning.

We hope this college experience is wonderful for Olive. If it’s not, she can pivot to something else. But a 3 year program sounds just right. And if she is still craving New York, she can move there for summer internships, or go to NYU for a masters degree, or both.

Okay. That’s a long post with a ton of info. Hopefully it answered many of your questions, but if you have more, feel free to leave them in the comments. And I’d love to hear if you’d ever consider having your kids attend college in another country — International programs are typically in English, so even if they haven’t learned another language, it may be a good option. I would say it’s definitely worth checking out Campus France if you’re curious.

50 thoughts on “Film School for Olive”

  1. I agree -this is super exciting!

    Our youngest literally left for her college experience the Monday after her graduation so that she could get the feel of the campus, set up things so she could feel settled
    and concentrate once classes began. She entered BYU, as a sophomore because she had attended qualifying classes while still in HS. She had planned since 6th grade to eke out as much education for as little money as possible, and she was on her way.

    She earned her BS and BA in 3 years, also working a minimum of 3 jobs, one semester 4, -because she’s “that kid”. Once graduated she was offered several full ride scholarships to grad school, she chose Duke University in N.C. which had the best program for her PhD at the time …

    All of this to say when she got there and began her studies she realized very quickly that BYU, although a fabulous school, did not prepare her for “real world” studies -meaning she was introduced to many films, books, and other media that BYU prohibited but of which Duke classes demanded previous knowledge. Mainly LGBTQ, Feminism, and some other cultural references. She resolved her issues by joining with her cohorts and swapping references which she understood -pretty much all religious references, Hebrew texts, religious histories, etc. (Why it was significant that this character was named “David” to the other references about ‘the price of salt’ was more than a side comment in a particular book or film. She was obviously a smart cookie, but recognized she would always need help from other people -“because we can’t know everything mom!”

    I am positive Olive will do wonderful things and have great experience, and make friends who will encourage and lift her as they learn; -and isn’t it marvelous that her goals worked out for her! Makes one believe there is credence to the idea of personal life plans being *Directed* from above.

  2. Kay L Bonikowsky

    Wow, you must be so proud! I thought I was competent getting myself to the Amazon alone, but setting up an apartment in Paris! So cool. Congrats Olive!

  3. Amazing!! So brave and will be an experience for life. Congratulations and wish her all the best on this incredible adventure! x

  4. Go, Olive, go! It brought a smile to my face to celebrate a brave young woman and a family who clearly loves her so deeply.

  5. What a wonderful experience for her!

    My husband grew up in Peru and came to the US at 16 as an exchange student for one semester. After returning to Peru at the end of his exchange, he decided to come back to the US for his bachelor’s degree. He met me, we got married, and the US is stuck with him now :)

    I love stories of how people move around the world! We were supposed to be living in Strasbourg now, but the pandemic threw a wrench in that :(

    1. I really loved this post. How fabulous to have a family who’s so supportive of new way of learning and maybe “unconventional” schools that in reality, are totally normal in other parts of the world. I felt stuck as I prepared for college and studied abroad to get out of my bubble. Rooting for Olive! May she have her best year yet.

  6. That’s so fantastic, congratulations to Olive! You must be so proud of her, and she can be very proud of herself – that’s a brilliant achievement.

  7. I’m so happy for Olive! I loved reading how it all worked out and It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing experience for her, both at school and living in Paris.

    I was tempted to apply to grad school in France but ended up going to England (from Canada) instead — I’m fluent in French but writing academic work seemed daunting and figuring out the schools was just too much. Campus France would have helped! I would definitely encourage my kids to be a bit more brave than I was (even though studying in England was also an amazing experience.)

    It sounds like having the bulk of your family already in France should make it easier for both her and you than if she were a foreign student in a different country.

  8. This is so awesome! I’m so glad everything has fallen into place for Olive. It’s so random and serendipitous that the pandemic made NYC less appealing to her, so now she’s actually staying much closer to her family, while she’s still an international student living in a fabulous world-class city.

    I did a high school year abroad after already making my college plans in the U.S., and although I fantasized about staying in France for college, I had no idea how and zero family support for the idea. As far as I could tell, my French high school offered no college counseling services to anyone, and even when we took our bac exams at the very end of the school year, students didn’t know where they’d go to college in the fall. It was so different from my fancy private American high school where the last two years were college-obsessed. In the U.S., you research endlessly and then show up at a college where you can study anything, whereas in France, you hone in on the exact field you want to study and basically navigate the whole process by yourself. But in France, a misstep isn’t so disastrous because you’re not investing $30,000 to $65,000 per year to study, and going to a specific college isn’t your WHOLE identity and life the way it often is in the U.S.

    I’ll be really interested to see what Olive and your younger kids do for their higher education and early careers. They very well may settle in France for life and only keep fond memories of their American childhoods.

  9. This is so cool, and I just love the way you support and encourage your kids’ adventurous hearts and big dreams! I come from a v typical suburban American family where stability was prized over all else. It was (and remains) hard for me to do big things because my family’s worry is always so present. What a gift you give your kids by putting enthusiasm over worry (because of course you worry) at the forefront.

    I have a 3-year old and a baby on the way and I hope I’m doing the same :)

    1. Hilary! Love your clear insight into stability. After marrying an adventurous soul, I’ve spent my entire life explaining to my deeply traditional southern parents why we live like we do! It has been wearisome and puts a little damper on things. My husband lost both his brothers (both very healthy and young) in one year to pancreatic cancer and it changed our life…even more…overnight! We seized the day. We took two family gap years (1 year apart) with our three kids and it was hard, very hard, pulling them away from their comfortable little lives of friends, youth group, cross country and theater…all the things. It was hard for me, too. In retrospect, those times were pivotal and define our children in so many ways, and have shaped them into very interesting people. They would say that their detour ‘off the path’ was in fact, more life shaping and educational than their ‘education.’ They have gone on to make exciting choices and are wise, compassionate, and have a depth beyond their years. They experienced life in third world countries that humbled them and also offered so much gratitude. And then real life in Europe that gave them a deep appreciation for the arts, humanities, history and culture. We lived with families and did our best to become ‘local’. In the US, we often think that we have all the answers for the good life or a great education, when in fact other places actually do a better job in many cases! I want to add just for clarity. When we set out to travel, it wasn’t on a big budget. It was a shoestring. We left behind work and security, as we perceived it. It only opened more doors and made our world bigger and better. (It’s now my job to support people to travel and study abroad!)That’s what people forget. That very, very often the unknown is so much better than the known! Hooray for your baby on the way and the life before you!

  10. As a gap year counselor, this is just thrilling to me! Love the details and I’m so proud of her! What a great story and happy ending and lesson in aiming high! You are right about gap years…they are at an all time high with amazing programs popping up everyday, and the trend towards schooling abroad is right up there as well! I am eager to follow her story and thank you for sharing it!

  11. Absolutely inspiring! I love that your children have all taken very different paths to college. Thank you so much for sharing.

  12. My kids are only 4 and 1, so no experience here – though they have been to Paris! :) I am just SO PROUD of Olive. I am truly so impressed that all of your kids have felt empowered and confident to think outside the box with their education and explore their true interests.

    1. I couldn’t agree more – its so inspiring! I am half-French, half-American, but grew up on the East coast in a very competitive high school environment and got totally sucked into the obsession with attending one of my “reach” private, expensive universities – even though it meant significant private student loans.

      I went on to live outside the box – have been abroad since I graduated, first in Senegal for 6 years and now in London for the past 4 – but I really wish I had been open to exploring options like this at a younger age (and I might have a bit more financial freedom as well!). I hope I can empower my future kids to consider options like this, too. I’ve also loved your posts on sending your kids to public school in Oakland – equally inspiring way to look at things.

      Congrats and good luck to Olive!

  13. Olive is incredible!! What an awesome, unique experience for her. And, I’m all about pandemic silver linings! I can’t imagine her not being insanely successful in whatever she ends up doing in life.

  14. I am so motivated when reading about your older children’s life plans. It seems you parents have instilled the “power to …” idea in them so well. Reading your blog over the years keeps me conscious as I raise my children — and myself — in subtly and not-so-subtly different ways than I was raised. “Power over” holds no appeal … okay, little and fleeting appeal. But I work in a culture and live in a country with leaders set on instilling fear, breaking apart alliances, and disparaging those they lead. (Brene Brown’s latest Unlocking Us podcast episode with Joe Biden has me thinking about the different kinds of power.)

  15. I was in tears reading this post for two reason. I have a college aged daughter who was supposed to start Berklee College of Music this fall but because it was all online she decided to defer until Jan. She was heartbroken not to go and so was I for her. She is making the best of it and doing amazing music @kderic_0.
    And because I studied abroad in college and that experience changed my life. The whole world opened up to me.
    I’m so happy for Olive! I hope she enjoys it so much.❤️

  16. So fun to hear about her accomplishments! And, in a year like this one, it’s exhilarating to hear good news and celebrate for others.

  17. Oh, how wonderful for Olive! I love it! I hope she is uber happy and finds success and joy in what she’ll be learning.

    My son (a junior) is considering university in Germany or Austria. We still have some time for that decision, thankfully. But I’ll look forward to hearing about Olive’s university journey.

  18. Go Olive! As a woman in the entertainment industry, it makes my heart swell to see a young woman chasing her dreams with the full support and encouragement of her family.

    I’ve noticed some of your short family films on your IGtv page. Would you or Olive ever consider sharing more of the kids’ films? As much as I love watching all the renovation stories, these mini-movies are equally as fun to watch!

  19. Congratulations! Sigh, to be young and on the brink of a new adventure. Best of wishes to you Olive! (And man, your girl knows how to pick a good city. NY, Paris…my favorites too.)

  20. I had been wondering what she would do. That is totally awesome. My oldest just graduated hs and it has been a minefield. French university is way different than US. The Bac is considered the equivalent of an associate’s degree. It is historically brutal, but I’ve heard it has been dumbed down in recent times. A good movie to watch is Premiere Annee. You can enter medical school right out of high school with your “BAC” ie. diploma, but then you enter a world of exams. The US system weeds out people in the college process and the extremely competitive world of med school applications. I went to 2nde in France. (Sophmore in HS)

  21. I understand French tuition is quite a bit cheaper than even in-state public tuition in the US, but is there any kind of financial aid or loans available or are you on the hook for your three big kids’ tuition and living expenses? Also, how long does the train journey from Olive’s apartment to your house take?

  22. This post was so uplifting, I am so devastated by the news ( the history teacher murdered) I can t work and I feel really sad (i am a professor as well, Philosophy). Reading about your daughter starting her studies is exciting ! There are so many free activities for students! She il have a great time. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Great for Olive!!!
    If she is scared about student lige and how to organize her time, she might follow @studygramdemel a great IG account from a french student in école de commerce (I think she lives in Rennes) with great tips to organization, motivation, quick recipes with student money etc. best of luck!!!

  24. Congratulations!! I’d love to hear about her experience. I am also curious about university/post-secondary education in France. If it’s free, do most people then pursue some sort of education? Three years makes more sense in a way; four years can drag out. I assume this also makes high school education much more serious if generals aren’t going to happen later. Sounds like a model with many benefits.

    1. In France, high school students are tracked into a variety of academic or vocational paths. So even if college tuition is cheap or free, people can’t matriculate into any type academic program if they didn’t complete the right track in high school and pass the baccalaureate exams. I think in France compared to the U.S., vocational education is more standardized and formal and respected. If you work in a daycare or as an electrician or whatever, you earn a credential which is universally understood as qualifying for that field.

  25. Congratulations to Olive for charting a brave course. I admire the way you and Ben support and encourage brave choices, and always reference future options should things evolve – or not evolve – in a certain way. So often we inadvertently constrain our childrens’ ambitions by making them believe their post-high school life is a straight line to a singular destination. And that it all hinges on a small number of ‘right’ choices. They are so young…twists and turns should not only be expected but often times encouraged. Go Olive go!

  26. Gabby, I really love this post! Though I am a working 20something who lives in Indonesia. This sounds really interesting, makes me reminiscence the time I am applying for universities too.

    And it also gives me a wonderful perspective on how school and student housing is in France.

    As always, thank you for your wonderful post.

  27. Congrats to Olive and best wishes to her as she navigates this new journey. Hats off to you and Ben for raising such a great young woman.

    Q – do you know if there is an equivalent Campus France for the UK? We are in North Carolina and my daughter, a senior in high school, decided in late August she was interested in pursuing college in the UK. Although thrilled at her interest, we feel that she is getting a late start given the UK test requirements and other nuances of the admissions process.

    1. Hi Tabitha,
      I have some experience with undergrad in the UK. I was a college freshman in the US when I decided to be brave and pursue my bachelor’s degree in London instead. As students, there are so many opportunities and safety nets that might not be present if we tried to live abroad when we are older, so I just had to go for it, and I also had a late start! I applied through the UK’s universal application system (called UCAS) in January while on winter break. With UCAS you pay a fee and they send your application to the universities and programs of your choice, similar to the French version. Differences are that you do pay to have your application sent, and you also have to select the specific field of study at the universities of your choice, not just admission to the university in general. In short, by the end of January I was admitted into a few (can’t remember how many out of the 5/6 unis I selected) and knew before going back for my 2nd semester of my freshman year that I was going to the UK that fall! So, I don’t think it’s too late at all to apply. In fact, you might still be early!
      My experience began way back in 2004, so I’m sure things have changed. The UK has 3-year bachelors’ degrees as well, and you don’t have generals, so you have to know what you want. The costs for foreign students is much higher than UK students, but again probably averages out to what you’d pay in the US. Please reach out if you have more questions!

    2. Hi Tabitha! Yes the UCAS system is the universal application process in the UK, although I’m not sure if it’s the same for international students. The UCAS deadline for all universities except med school, vet school and Oxbridge is January (it’s mid-October for those so it’s probably just passed) so you still have time. My husband came over from California to Sheffield to study for a post-grad 17 years ago and never left! And most of his friends are international and came here to study.

      1. Cece –
        Thanks for sharing. She is signed up for a virtual tour of The University of Edinburgh tomorrow morning. I appreciate the information and your insight.

  28. It’s just so fun to follow your older kids’ adventures! How neat that both she and Ralph are into film. Wishing her the best this school year!!

  29. Tabitha, I was going to second what Ashley said above – UCAS is our central system for UK applications and the deadline is mid-January for fall 2021 admissions. (Unless she’s looking at Cambridge or Oxford, they want applications mid-Oct as they do interviews in December.) The UCAS system does work for international students, it allows you to enter a variety of qualifications – not just UK based ones. Big differences from the US we noticed are that they really don’t seem to care about extracurriculars here, within the UK school system you have one letter of application written based on notes from all of your teachers, and you need to know the specific program/major you’re applying to at each university. (You can apply to multiple majors at the same university, if you’re set on a specific location.) While tuition is capped for UK students (£9250/year) the international rates vary and seem to be about double that, we’ve seen up to £23k/year. We just went through this process over the last year with my son, we’re Americans in the UK and happy to help answer questions – I had a ton myself as we learned how it works.

  30. How exciting! My jaw dropped twice while reading this post. The first when you mentioned the cost of tuition, and the second when you mentioned her monthly rent. I live in the Bay Area so $600 for an apartment (tiny or not) seems like such a steal! Best of luck to Olive!

  31. Seriously impressive! Congratulations to Olive! And to the parents who raised her! What a great way to spend the next three years.

  32. This is so exciting!! I so appreciate hearing the whole process. Feels like a success in the midst of many hard things. Even if Olive pivots as you say to another option, she will gain this valuable experience! Many congrats to you, Olive ❤️

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