The True Frenchman

Humanities7 MIN READ

The longtime director of Colby in Dijon, Jon Weiss fails only retirement

As director of the Colby in Dijon Program, Jon Weiss (center, kneeling) helped create an in-depth, language-intensive experience in the French heartland.
By Tarini Manchanda ’09
July 12, 2023

It’s a cold winter day in December 2022, and Jon Weiss arrives at a pub near Place De Darcy in Dijon, France, just as the World Cup title match between Argentina and France is about to begin.

Weiss, the longtime director of the Colby in Dijon program, takes his seat below the only American artifact in the room, a picture of the Statue of Liberty—and even that has French roots. Next to him is Francine Olivier, host mother extraordinaire for Colby students. They chat in French about the mood, football, and students as they eagerly await the game.

And when it begins, Weiss cheers as loudly as anyone in the room each time the French score a goal. One would never guess that he is North American by birth, and perhaps more French than the French by way of life.

Weiss, the NEH Class of 1940 Distinguished Professor of Humanities, is retiring this summer after a career of more than 50 years at Colby—a career spent not only in teaching language but in building a community. With Colby in Dijon, Weiss and his partner, Dace Weiss, assistant professor of French, emerita, built a world across nations, starting out as foreigners but slowly turning into locals with time.

Weiss, who will be succeeded as director by Audrey Brunetaux, associate professor of French studies, exemplifies a full academic life, rich in experiences and interactions with students and colleagues across generations and continents.

“Oh, my gosh, do I have any dreams left,” Weiss asked during an interview to discuss his retirement and his plans. “I guess it was to lead and to be a presence for good for my grandchildren. I would say that I would still like to teach. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I can’t teach because I’ve been teaching for so long. So I’m going to have to come up with some new scheme.”

A deep immersion in France

As director of the Colby in Dijon program, part of Colby’s Global Entry Semester program, Weiss helped create an in-depth, language-intensive experience in the French heartland, where Colbians benefit from a deep immersion into the culture and the experiences of staying with host families.

Many of his students first encounter Weiss, fondly known simply as “the French professor,” at the airport in Paris, where he tells them, in French, they will spend the next four months speaking only French and not a word of English.

Jon Weiss leads students on a tour of Dijon.

But it wasn’t always that way. In the early days of the program, students lived in an international student residence hall in Dijon, outside the center of town. “It was not a good idea,” Weiss said. “Linguistically, it was a terrible idea because everybody in that place spoke English.”

Weiss, whose own journey in France began as a young student living with a host family and experiencing everyday life, arranged families for Colby students to stay with by creating contacts, following leads, and being responsive, respectful, and persistent.

“We would go to the bank where we had our bank accounts and say, ‘Is there anybody who would like to put up American students during the fall?’ I remember making phone calls from the United States. The people who were suggested to me by other people. I never had to put an ad in. I never publicized that we are looking for families,” he said.

Colby in Dijon, which operates in the fall semester, combines academic work with cultural activities. Under Weiss’s helm, once students were settled, he would begin sharing his passion for the architecture, for the people of Dijon and of France, and for a way of life that connects the present day with history, be it of the Dukes of Bourgogne from the 17th century or art at the Centre Pompidou.

‘The most wonderful gentleman’

As director, Weiss required his students to immerse themselves in local culture while encouraging them to travel across Europe and make the most of their semester overseas, including for the possibility of life-changing chance encounters. Building relationships, making bold decisions, and encountering a different culture are all part of the experience, said Eshani Chakrabarti ’21, a global studies major who enrolled in the program during her first semester at Colby.

“Jon is the most wonderful gentleman who did me the favor of a lifetime being my teacher in Dijon,” she said. “He paired me with the most incredible host mother who allowed me to re-envision how I wanted to go about the world.”

Amelia Nebenzahl ’09 spent much of her time studying abroad while enrolled at Colby and used the Colby in Dijon program as a springboard for her interest in the French language, contemporary French society, and French history. A global studies major at Colby, she has dedicated her career to international education.

The husband-and-wife team of Jon and Dace Weiss embodied the spirit of fully immersing oneself in the life and culture of France.

She credits Jon and Dace Weiss together for the program’s success and for helping her see her future. They built a thriving Colby community across the Atlantic by sharing their passion for France with students, encouraging them to explore their curiosities, and supporting them in every way, she said.

“Jon and Dace modeled so beautifully how to be a respectful, engaged, immersive American in France,” Nebenzahl said. “They were always willing to share stories and guide us through navigating a foreign country in a way that made it feel welcoming and intriguing.”

Cameron Copeland ’16 completed Colby in Dijon during his first year. Enrolling in the program represented not just his first experience abroad, but the first time he flew on an airplane.

It almost never happened.

“Everything was in order—until I found out I needed a financial guarantee to qualify for a French student visa,” Copeland recalled. “I had no choice but to let the study-abroad office know I would not be able to meet the requirement. It was then that Jon, without having ever met me or understanding how poor my French language skills were, stepped forward to personally guarantee the visa to keep me in the program. I will be forever grateful for and inspired by that act of support that would turn into the most formative four months I could have ever imagined.”

Weiss credits those who came before him for establishing the program, but Dace Weiss said it was her husband who elevated the program into what it is today. “Before Jon, it was mainly a language-acquisition program. Jon turned it into something much more,” she said.

Jon Weiss often hosted dinners for Colby students at his home in France, building a thriving Colby community across the Atlantic. 

Opportunity and wonder

Weiss’s own educational experience was full of opportunities and wonder, and he has made it his mission to create an environment where his students can experience the same. Weiss majored in French literature at Columbia University, graduating in 1964. He completed his Ph.D. in French literature at Yale in 1973.

In between, he had a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research in France—one of two Fulbrights he has received during his distinguished career—and worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Department of State. During that time, one of his assignments was interpreting for Martin Luther King Jr. and Francophone-African dignitaries visiting the United States.

He has written several books in French and English, exploring the life of novelist Irène Némirovsky and French-Canadian theater among other topics, and he has produced several French-language plays at Colby.

To have built a career in academia through the study of the French language is one thing. To do it while supporting generations of students is another.As he talks about plans, it becomes evident that while Jon Weiss will retire, he won’t, and can’t, stop teaching. As Weiss shows his own grandchildren around Dijon, the students and professors past and present who have always been close will remain close at hand and heart, forever emboldened by communities of liberté, egalité, and fraternité built across cultures.