Barbara D. is a French tutor and film buff getting ready to finish her degree in communications at UCLA this spring. Growing up in Brussels, Belgium, the multilingual globetrotter learned how to speak English from watching I Love Lucy, and gave us this interview by phone while on a spring break holiday in Ireland. As a tutor, she believes in the power of positive reinforcement and encouraging students to try - no matter how daunting a problem seems.
How long did you live in Belgium?
I was born in Brussels and grew up there until I was 18.
What was growing up in Brussels like?
Growing up in Brussels was great - it’s a really small city so it’s very easy to get around. I was really independent as a kid and I had really good friends. My best friend lived on the same street as my mom and I had a good friend who lived on the same street as my dad. I went to the same school from 5-18 years old so we all had the same friends and just stayed really, really close friends. I go back every summer - my mom still lives there - and my friends and I always take a trip together. In fact, I’m going to Brussels tomorrow as a surprise to go say hi, so that should be fun.
I was a really happy kid. The weather sucks in Belgium - but the level of education is really good, public transportation is really good, the living is a high standard. Eventually I might go back, but first I might try to live somewhere close but different - Amsterdam, maybe, which is a 2-hour train from Brussels. Amsterdam is a beautiful city. In Belgium, we speak French and Dutch. My first language was French but I speak some Dutch and I don’t get the chance to speak it often so I’d be really down to go. The city is adorable, all the bikes, and the countryside is perfect, so cute. Plus, Amsterdam has a lot of HQs for media so it might be a good place to go.
When did you leave Belgium?
When I graduated high school I wanted to learn how to speak English - I could speak okay, but didn’t read or write it. My dad is French and my mom is from the US so we spoke a little English at home, but I learned most of my English from old movies and shows like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show. I decided to study abroad for about six months in Nova Scotia, Canada. I went to school there, traveled, then returned home and was thinking: “I don’t want to go home right now - there’s so much to do and see!” I definitely had a travel bug. I wanted to study film and wanted to be somewhere where it was sunny because I had been in Canada for half a year and the winter was so brutal. So I decided to move to LA and started studying film at SMC. While I was there I switched to communications, thinking I preferred journalism and media. I transferred to UCLA to finish and I’m graduating in June. I will probably be staying around the area for a while - I have a few internships on the way and I’m waiting for that transition - but that’s the big question, what are you doing after graduation. It’s been a great journey.
Why did you switch majors?
I was in classes where people were insanely knowledgeable about film, people could tell you who won best actress in ‘93 or whatever and it was really intimidating. People were complete geeks, while I was bad at even remembering names. In film studies there are a lot of questions about what director did this and who did what and when, blah blah, so I got really intimidated with everyone who knew so much. And people just wanted it more than I did. I found a bigger interest in communications so I made the switch.
Part of the reason I chose this major is it allows me to work in media anywhere in the world. My dream is to travel and work at the same time and not be stuck in work; with journalism you can really travel for work or make travel your work. I’m still really into film - I’m part of the film and photo society of UCLA and we do productions and shoots and stuff. Staying involved in film activities is fun and exciting and lower pressure and keeps me engaged with other students.
What do you enjoy about your communications and journalism studies now?
One of the topics that interests me the most is anything that has to do with the environment: pollution, climate change... it’s interesting and inspiring to see younger people being so involved even when they can’t vote. For example, the Swedish girl Greta Thunberg is doing great things for the environment and it’s so interesting because she doesn’t even vote or own her own money so it’s not like she can make her own massive economic choices - yet she can still have an impact. Smaller countries making big choices to be more sustainable and big politics fighting to change policies is really inspiring to me.
How did you get involved with PCH Tutors?
I had some tutors growing up, mostly with math because I’m terrible at math. When I moved to LA I found an ad for PCH, probably around 2015. I had given French lessons when I was in Canada, because I would do language trades with Canadians while learning English. PCH seemed like a really cool company and I loved that I could make my own hours. Plus, I got along with Jake really well: he’s cool and I love the company and the fact that he started this fresh out of college. I thought that was so awesome. It showed entrepreneurship.
I love working with teens and kids. I had some experience as a leader and counselor at summer camps and I always had a blast. They’re so smart, and especially with languages they can pick up on it quickly. I love my students.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I have had an easy time getting along with my students and getting a bond going. It’s really special when students start looking forward to our lessons. I had a student last year who would look forward to asking me movies to watch in French after our session. That’s cool!
What’s your tutoring style?
At least for languages, I focus a lot on repetition. You don’t learn grammar by seeing it once and then you get it: it’s doing it over and over and creating muscle memory in your brain. Little things help: like if there’s a long list of vocabulary to learn and it’s overwhelming, I give tips on how to remember the words and try to link them to English words to help it stick. Finding little things in the word that remind you of the translation and trying to build links to try to remember them - those are things I find useful.
What’s a tutoring mantra you’ve learned and developed through your experience?
“Just go ahead and try it.” If there’s a sentence a student has to translate, and the student doesn’t know how to go about it, I say just try and go ahead. At first you think you don’t know but if you try it, you find out you do know it or you figure it out.
Sometimes students are afraid to try something and be wrong, but it’s all about creating a space to say, “It’s okay to be wrong. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Even if you screw up, it’s okay.” Lots of school pressure makes students afraid to fail, and sometimes it works its opposite purpose and destroys students’ confidence. But truly - and this is something I’m learning through tutoring and try to teach my students - there is no pressure if you don’t succeed. We can do it again, and you’ll learn for the next time.
What’s something you’ve learned from a mentor or tutor?
My parents focused a lot on being patient in general. It’s easier said than done but if something doesn’t work out, don’t “to hell with it”: be patient and try it again. That applies to my style of teaching as well. If a kid doesn’t understand a certain way, it’s about finding a way to explain same ideas to students. We are all wired differently in our brains and it’s all about being creative and finding different ways to explain the same concept to different people. I have learned I like encouragement so I use that too, to reinforce that they’re doing a great job.
What do you do in your free time?
In my free time I’m pretty busy with extracurriculars at UCLA - film and photo in different productions - or I like to do yoga or hike with my dog. I have a dog named Manuka - like the honey - so we go hiking because we both love to be outside. I like going to the beach or just on a nice walk and listen to music. I spend a lot of time with UCLA at different clubs - I am a part of the transfer student body helping incoming transfer students adapt to their new life at UCLA because sometimes it can be a bit nontraditional when you only have two years to take advantage of everything UCLA has to offer. It can be overwhelming, so I enjoy helping UCLA transfer students get resources.
As a former film major, do you have a favorite movie?
Well my most watched film - though I don’t know if it’s my absolute favorite - is Singing in the Rain: I’ve probably seen it over 200 times. I saw Green Book yesterday and that was really good. I’m a big Forrest Gump fan, too. It’s so difficult to pick one favorite film! Amelie is a favorite French film.