French immersion program opens doors for McGill international students

Five-week McGill-UQAC Explore Program in Quebec's Saguenay region offers French language instruction, excursions and extra-curricular activities
Participants in the McGill-UQAC Explore Program have ample opportunity to explore Quebec’s Saguenay regionTourisme Saguenay Lac Saint-Jean

Mai Kutsuna, a U4 dual major in Chemistry and Theatre, had already studied basic French before studying at McGill and was ready to practice when she arrived in Montreal.

“I did a lot of writing exercises and grammar, but not speaking. That was one thing I wanted to improve when I came to Montreal. I thought, ‘OK, this is a francophone province, and the official language here is French.’ So, I thought I would push myself, but I found during my first year that it was very difficult to do.”

Kutsuna learned about the McGill-UQAC (Université du Québec à Chicoutimi) Explore Program in the International Student Services newsletter and decided to apply in her third year at McGill. The program is a McGill-funded partnership between the Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning), International Student Services, and Scholarships and Student Aid. Nearly 300 undergraduate students have taken part in the program since it was established in 2018.

“I had no confidence,” Kutsuna explained, “and it takes a big step to start speaking in French. I’m very much in an English area, so even when I decide I’m going to speak French, people know that we’re students in this neighbourhood and they switch to English. I knew I needed to be put in a situation where I had to speak in French.”

Answering students’ needs

“Most job postings require French. Those doors are open to me, and I have the confidence to apply,” says Mai Kutsuna. “I have so many more options now” Mai Kutsuna

According to Pauline L’Écuyer, Director of International Student Services, “there is a real need to provide opportunities for international students to learn French, and immersion provides significant benefits. Eighty-eight percent of participants report that they continued learning French after the program was over, and they found additional ways to work French into their day-to-day lives when they returned home. Student feedback on the program is overwhelmingly positive.”

Students in the Explore Program participate in a five-week experience in the Saguenay region, about 480 km northeast of Montréal, where they are completely immersed in French and take 18 hours of language classes each week. Most students also stay with a host family, where they continue to practice their French skills, and can choose to participate in additional excursions and extra-curricular activities on weekends.

For Kutsuna, the excursions were a highlight of the program. “We went to the Saguenay Fjord for a hiking excursion – it was just beautiful! The nature is beautiful, it was such a great summer activity. And obviously we talk – in French – for the two hours there and back.”

“What I loved is the fact that you’re with other students who are as passionate as you are about learning French,” Mai added. “So not only am I immersed in the environment in the town of Chicoutimi, but even within the Explore community itself. You know it’s OK to make mistakes, you know that the other person is also learning, and that other people have different levels. It was really fun, and I felt very motivated when I was with other students.”

Dedicated funding for participants

All students accepted into the Explore program receive a $3,000 award to cover a substantial portion of the participation fees, and eligible students with demonstrated financial need may apply for Enriched Educational Opportunities (EEO) bursaries to defray additional costs.

“Participating in activities like the McGill-UQAC Explore Program is part of what makes the McGill experience so rich, and we have dedicated funding to help remove the financial barriers that make it more difficult for some students to take advantage of these opportunities,” noted Cara Piperni, Director of Scholarships and Student Aid. “The EEO Bursary program funds more than just the cost of participating. Eligible students can request funding for travel costs, other out-of-pocket costs, and the employment income they will lose by participating in the program.”

Opening doors

“My French has improved a lot – especially my speaking skills and my confidence,” said Kutsuna. “I have the confidence to speak spontaneously, and my French friends have commented on how much my speaking has improved.”

Like many international students, Kutsuna hopes to stay in Quebec after graduating. “If I want to stay here, French is a key part of getting a job and integrating in general. I know a lot of students who don’t speak French, and their opportunities are really limited here. Most job postings require French. Those doors are open to me, and I have the confidence to apply – I have so many more options now.”

Applications for the 2023 Explore sessions are open and any undergraduate international student may apply until Friday, March 27, at 5 p.m. More information is available in a recorded webinar or on the ISS website


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, comments appear with first and last names (no pseudonyms) and may be published in whole or in part, at the discretion of the Reporter. Please be constructive and respectful; all comments are moderated according to the Reporter’s guidelines. We reserve the right to close comments on individual stories. Please note that the University does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments.

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 days ago

Very happy to see this. When i was an international student, many options for immersed learning were limited to canadian citizens and permanent residents.