Meet Neha Coureil

November 7, 2022

Neha edited photo for story JPG

My "love affair" with French began in India when I was in 8th grade and we were given the option to choose between an Indian language and French. Like many of my classmates I chose the foreign language as it was rumored that we could score higher grades in French than in the other Indian language. It was a time when the Indian economy was closed to any kind of foreign investment and we were also culturally quite isolated from foreign cultures. Television was still in black and white with programming only a few hours a day, we had to wear school uniforms and to top it off, I went to an all-girls school!! So the idea of learning a foreign language offered a glimpse into a world that was fun, exciting and exotic for a 13-year-old…

It turned out I was quite good at the language and continued to learn French in school and college for the next 5 years. While pursuing a degree in business and accounting I took all the available classes at the Alliance Française in Mumbai and started becoming a fluent French speaker. We got to practice our French by showing the city around to groups of French artists when they came to Mumbai for cultural events and even to sailors from the French navy when they stopped by in the city’s port (a few of them became life-long connections that I continue to be friends with even today).

I went on to do my Masters in French with the idea of pursuing a career in teaching French which I was able to do for a few years at the same Alliance Française where I had been a student. I tremendously enjoyed teaching and simultaneously had the opportunity to work as a translator / interpreter for assignments both locally and abroad. Now we were in the early 90s when the Indian economy started opening up and there were plenty of opportunities in the corporate world for people with foreign language skills. I was recruited as the first local employee of a French multinational in the pharmaceutical industry and saw it grow from a size of 1 to 250 people within a span of 3 years. It was a very rewarding experience and I decided to do an MBA abroad to focus on a career in international business. No prizes for guessing where I chose to go…

Studying in Paris was like a dream come true and I was subsequently hired by another French multinational to work in France. Being part of a large corporation also meant having the opportunity to move to a different part of the world so after spending some time near Strasburg I was offered a role in an upcoming division in Hong Kong. Apart from being stimulating on the professional front it was a move that would also change my personal life as that is where I would meet my future husband who is…French!

Soon after our marriage we had the opportunity to move to the US and although we loved our life in Hong Kong it was an irresistible chance to embark on a new adventure together. We initially lived in Rhode Island but also spent a lot of time in Paris (no complaints there!) and finally moved to the Boston area in 2014. I joined a philanthropic organization that funds local non-profits working with families, youth and children. It was very fulfilling as I have always wanted to work with non-profit organizations but I think that somewhere inside me the teacher was always waiting to go back to the classroom...

In 2019, I thought more seriously about going back to teaching and CCAE was a natural choice for me as I have taken classes here myself and it is also a local non-profit organization. I started slowly at CCAE with one class per term, the first class I taught was on Bollywood movies (in English) and then I taught a couple of thematic classes in French. I was teaching a class on French media in March 2020 when the pandemic broke out and I remember being quite disheartened when I found myself alone in class one day without any of my students. When CCAE decided to move their offerings online that spring I was more than happy to jump on the wagon…I took on 3 new classes at about a week’s notice and since then I have been teaching French language skill classes at different levels along with the thematic classes.

The student profile at CCAE is quite different from what I was used to during my days in Mumbai where we mainly had college students with a more homogenous knowledge of the language. This makes it a little more challenging to teach but I think that folks come to CCAE not just to learn but also to build connections and feel part of a community. They in turn inspire me by setting bold goals for themselves and showing that we can and must continue to learn at any age…that is also perhaps why I connect deeply with them because I like to think of myself as a lifelong student of the French language and culture.

During the pandemic I tried to make the virtual classroom a space where students at all levels could talk about what they were going through so that it was therapeutic in some way for them and for me. The last couple of years have been extremely tough on several fronts and teaching has kept me sane and grounded in addition to giving me a sense of belonging at a time when I was miles away from my family.

It is always rewarding to hear from students how much they enjoyed and benefited from my classes. This past spring, three of them were finally able to travel to France and when they met up in Paris they took a photograph together and sent it to me with the caption: "See what a community you built!" That fills up my heart and is one of the nicest compliments I have ever received…I like to think of it as a small achievement and am grateful to CCAE for making it possible to build meaningful connections even in these incredibly hard times.