STAFF Q&A/Flora Cornfield



Assistant Dean for Advising and Study Abroad

Length of service:
26 years

Other stuff:
Her dedication to Penn also includes service as president of the College Alumni Society.

Photo by Mark Stehle

Whoever said that you can’t get too much advice must have been a student at Penn. On the College web site alone under “Advising,” there is an extensive list that includes freshmen advisors, pre-major advisors, major advisors, pilot curriculum advisors, and peer advisors as well as the nine College advisors. They all assist students in the navigating the minefield that is the College’s course requirements and ensure that students’ academic concerns and problems are addressed.

They also help students interested in special academic programs. That is where Flora Cornfield CW’66,Gr’74 comes in. She is the College advisor who oversees study abroad. Although her areas of expertise are the Francophone countries of France and Senegal as well as Israel and Latin America, she is really the “go to” person among the College advisors for all students interested in study abroad and helped to develop the programs and policies.

Cornfield has witnessed a real change in how experiences abroad are treated at Penn. When she was an undergraduate it was officially discouraged. Now the University sponsors programs around the world and encourages all students to take advantage of the opportunity to live and study abroad.

Q. Why does Penn value study abroad more than most of our peers?
Historically, we have always been an international school. Even when I was an undergraduate here [1962-66], there were a tremendous number of international students. We have always had contact with the wider world. But I also think it is a sign of the times. Students have more access to travel and more access to finding out what the rest of the world is like.

Penn became fully committed to study abroad in about 1993. We said, let’s offer the greatest number of opportunities that are academically sound for our students. Penn was really in the forefront.

Q. How does study abroad work for College students?
Most of the advisors in the College office are involved with study abroad and what we have done is divvy up the world and we each take a chunk. We are responsible for accreditation of non-Penn programs, negotiating with faculty for course approvals and advising students on how studying abroad will fit in with their overall academic goals as well as when they should do it.

Student questions are “Do you think I can get major credit? Do you think I can fulfill some of my graduation requirements? Would you recommend I go to Argentina or Chile? Or do you think Spain is better for me?”

Q. You have a Ph.D. in Romance languages from Penn and were a lecturer here. Did you study abroad?
No. I’ll tell you an anecdote about that. I was a French major and pre-med. I did want to go for my junior year abroad. I had heard about going to France, so I talked to [R. Jean] Brownlee, who at that time was the dean of the College for Women. She said, “Whatever for? We can give you everything you need right here—it would be foolish to even consider it.” So that was the end of my study abroad experience.

I did eventually get to attend the University of Geneva in their International Institutions program, which was very fascinating. It was mostly lectures and workshops and seminars given by the heads of all kinds of international agencies like CERN [European Center for Nuclear Research], the Red Cross and a lot of United Nations institutions. Those sessions were simultaneously translated into five languages by students in the School for Interpreters.

The difference for me was that I was bilingual. I was raised in French at home.

Q. Where did you grow up?
In New York. My father was from Egypt, but of Italian and French-speaking background and my mother was German and had gone to Egypt with her first husband to escape the Nazis. Her first husband died and she subsequently married my father.

The only language they had in common was French. They came to the United States in 1940 and lived in New York, but never switched to English. They fought in English—thinking nobody understood. When they didn’t want me to understand, they spoke Italian, but I learned Italian at a very early age.

I come from a family that is fairly multi-lingual where I speak the fewest languages. The rest of the family had left Egypt in 1956. They are scattered across Europe. One cousin and my aunt went back to Cairo and Alexandria. I was there in 1995 when things were quiet and hopeful and peaceful.

Q. You have your own study abroad program in France. When did you start that?
My program is at the University of Compiègne in the summer. It is part of summer study abroad through the College of General Studies. It is a program where students take two courses and they have a home stay. It is for advanced students in French. The Engineering School has a program in Compiègne during the regular academic year. It is my program in the sense that I’ve been doing it off and on for about 20 years. I do go over there—I don’t go for the full-time, but I do go and visit that particular program. We have are own director over there as well as local faculty who teach in the program.

Q. Do you recommend that students do a home stay?
Some places offer a variety of housing options and others are just home stay. It seems to work very successfully. The students really like it because their language skills take off.

Originally published on October 30, 2003