By Kelly Pollock, feature writer for the Buzz Cafe
After eighteen months at 11 Harrison Street in the Oak Park Arts District, Stacy Fifer is expanding L’Institut français d’Oak Park with an additional classroom just two doors down at number 17. Her French language school for adult and mature teen learners offers beginning and intermediate conversation and grammar classes as well as classes in French culture and literature. There are three ten-week sessions each academic year (fall, winter, and spring) and shorter review sessions in the summer. Classes meet once a week for one hour with day and evening options available.
Stacy first studied French in high school but didn’t decide to make it her life’s work until she was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and realized that teaching French at the college level was a viable career path. “My love of French and my passion for social justice and human rights came together and that’s how I became a Sub-Saharan African Francophone literature specialist.”
After earning her Ph.D., Stacy taught for fifteen years at different universities. Her most recent position was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but the uncertainly that came with being a non-tenure-track professor was too stressful. “I loved teaching and it was really the only thing that I wanted to do so I had to figure out how to make my own language school work.”
Stacy offered her first class three years ago and enrolled just two students. Since then she has relocated twice and now enrolls over 100 students each session. Stacy is quick to offer praise for those people who helped her launch her business, especially her landlords Karen and Peter Morava of Careful Peach Boutique. “They took classes with me and have done a lot to support me. I really look up to them as business owners.”
Stacy loves the energy of the Arts District and the opportunities it gives her students for shopping, eating, and socializing. “I like that my students have all these places to go when they leave class. And I think that my being here is good for the Arts District because L’Institut is bringing 100 people to the area each week. It’s great for all of us.”
When Stacy started L’Institut, she based the classes on the format of a university language department, but she has had to adapt the curriculum to accommodate busy adults. “I figured out pretty early on that people can only come for an hour a week. What people really want to be able to do is to communicate. So that’s what we focus on in class.”
Completing the seven classes that L’Institut offers in Beginning French Conversation is the equivalent of taking 1-1½ years of college-level French. “I’ve been able to add classes every session to grow my offerings with my students. This fall will be the first time that I will finish a beginning level textbook by teaching French VII to people who started with me in French I.”
Some of Stacy’s favorite classroom experiences have been the ones with multigenerational students. “Two years ago, my seventh-grade daughter and two of her friends started taking classes with me. That class also had a woman who was 75 years old and several professional adults. It was so much fun.” According to Stacy, studies have shown that learning a language can ward off dementia as people age. “So it’s never too late to start and it’s good for your brain,” she says.
In addition to classes, L’Institut offers a weekly Conversation Café on Thursday evenings at Léa in Downtown Oak Park. “I love the community that has developed at Conversation Café. Students attend but there are also people who come who are already French speakers. People have dinner or dessert or just a glass of wine. It’s a nice atmosphere.” There is a $5 drop-in fee or a punch card good for ten visits is available for $30.
The fall session at L’Institut runs from September 16 to November 23. An open house on September 10 from 5pm-8pm is a chance for the public to meet the instructors and see the classroom space. “There will be wine and cheese and a chance to win 20% off tuition,” says Stacy.
For more information about L’Institut français d’Oak Park, contact Stacy Fifer at email@example.com.